James Mustich

Sep 13, 2019

9 min read

Unfinished Work of Knowing and Seeing

Reflections on Leonardo da Vinci and Saint Jerome.

Leonardo da VInci, Portrait of an Old Man [detail]

My life with Leonardo da Vinci has been a series of brief encounters, each indelibly rendered in memory. The first was in February of 1963, in the vicinity of my eighth birthday, when I was led by my mother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to wait on the long line that began on Fifth Avenue a few blocks away from our destination, snaked along the sidewalk and up the grand staircase into the institution to arrive eventually in the museum’s great Medieval Hall, where the Mona Lisa demurely posed before the gawking throngs. Behind a velvet cordon, she was propped on an easel to face — melancholy and a bit forlorn — the gaze of the shuffling multitude, which filed by her like solemn mourners past the body of a dignitary lying in state. The occasion remains one of the earliest exhibits — I can date it to February 1963 — in my private mythology.

A decade and a half later, I turned a corner in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and was struck by an image so haunting that I found myself in tears; it was, I would learn after my wits returned, Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi. Studying the picture — I couldn’t pull myself away — I discovered a world of vivid characters and vehement artistic energies swirling about the serene figures of Madonna and Child that occupied the painting’s center. The hour spent in that room with that painting is to this day one of the most memorable in my life.

A few years further on, in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo, I stood not five feet from the artist’s magnificent red-chalk drawing of a bearded man, long believed to be a self-portrait in old age. My eyes were enchanted by their proximity to Leonardo’s artistry, for the picture comprised lines every one of which was independent of the whole and integral to it; each had a life of its own, quivering with movement and yet hovering in place, exercising a magical volition to join in the articulation of that noble face. It was then I suspected what reading would teach me to articulate: the first gift of Leonardo’s genius was a preternatural ability to see through the skin of reality to recognize the workings of light, color, mass, volume, space, and even time — the formal dynamism of things.

In early 2003, I had another firsthand encounter with the artist’s wizardry, this time at the Metropolitan again, where I’d gone, with throngs of fellow viewers, to witness an extraordinary exhibition of his drawings. I stood before his chalk imagining of A Copse of Trees Seen in Sunlight and recognized again Leonardo’s animating genius: the trees seemed to be coming into being as I studied the time-steeped piece of paper, confirming a realization I’d been forming as I walked through the museum’s assemblage of treasures: in the work of no other artist is the hand so obviously an instrument of seeing as in the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed, his many unfinished works seem designed to memorialize his endless inquiry.

Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness [detail]

This is especially true of the painting I viewed several weeks ago when — in the last week of August, I rode the train into Manhattan to meet a friend I’d not seen in years. We decided to reconvene our friendship at the Met, so we could see New York City’s most austere summer visitor, Saint Jerome, as portrayed in the wilderness by Leonardo. Besides its inherent interest to a painter (her) and a writer (me), this particular work allowed us to pick up and re-ravel the threads of a conversation we’d begun long ago on the subjects of books, reading, images, and looking, a conversation both of us had determinedly continued in our own work after our original collaboration had concluded, more than a decade ago, in a small monograph of her work for which I was honored to write a complementary essay.

Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, on loan from the Vatican Museums in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, is one of the small number of paintings (is it six? a dozen?) that are incontestably authored by Leonardo; like several of those, it is unfinished, despite the fact that, as the museum’s wall captions inform viewers, the artist carried it with him on his peregrinations and kept working and reworking it over an extended course of years. (The provenance of the painting is fascinating enough to supply the plot for a novel by Hilary Mantel annotated by Simon Schama: it was listed in the will of the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann, who died in 1807, then wandered into the backstreets of Rome, where it was cut into pieces to serve as parts of a table and a stool. Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon’s uncle, purchased one section in a junk shop in 1820 and went in successful pursuit of the other; in the restored work, the dismembering and splicing are visible and, like weathered scars in the face of a soldier, enhance its naturally impressive character.)

This particular example of da Vincian incompletion, then, is unfinished with a kind of fierceness, portions of it barely sketched, some fully developed, others unfixed at every point in between. Patches of the wooden panel, as scholarship reveals in enlarged details, bear the prints of Leonardo’s fingertips, used to spread pigment to an ever-shifting state of expressive incompletion.

The central figure, a gaunt Jerome, is portrayed with an anatomical acuteness as severe as the ecstatic distress that contorts his features. We seem to see right through to the sinews of his neck and shoulder; the weary spiritual reach of the praying figure is anchored to a mortal physicality. Just as the saint’s body is flayed of its integument by Leonardo’s peculiar and characteristic X-ray vision, so is the legendary sophistication of Jerome’s mind stripped of its learning and eloquence. Although the saint’s traditional companion, a lion, sits before him — a majestic and, given the painting’s wildness of setting and emotion, curiously serene presence — none of the accoutrements of Jerome’s vaunted scholarship, familiar from other portraits, accompany him in the stark cave of Leonardo’s making. It’s as if the artist is intent on piercing through veils of flesh and thought to catch the raw urge for knowing that animated both his studies and Jerome’s, an urge which is, after all, its own kind of prayer: to grasp for a moment, by art or artifice, some secret buried beneath the flesh and beyond words. No wonder his paintings were seldom finished.

On view in a one-painting exhibition in the Met, Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness glows from within the shadowed ambience that surrounds it, a relic ensconced in a chapel of beseeching. The savage scrutiny of its intelligence illustrates the artist’s alleged watch words: “Saper vedere” — “knowing how to see,” or, better yet, “knowing through seeing.” After half a millennium, the looking never stops.

Antonello da Messina, Saint Jerome in His Study [detail]

Before he exiled himself to the wilderness, Saint Jerome applied his own gifts for knowing and seeing to texts, writing voluminously and translating most of the Bible into Latin for his venerable Vulgate, whose eloquence informed and inspired the rhetoric of the Roman Church at the height of its power and persuasiveness.

The attentiveness of Jerome in his study has been enshrined in images — by Caravaggio, Dürer, Antonello da Messina — nearly as memorable, if not quite as strange and stunning, as Leonardo’s Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness. Pondering this aspect of the saint’s legacy in the afterglow of my most recent visit to the Met, I returned to a volume by James J. O’Donnell called Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, published in 1998, well before cyberspace had lost its mind. Discussing the great humanist bookmen Erasmus and Nicholas of Cusa, O’Donnell suggests that “neither of them could properly imagine a world so awash in books as ours is. For them any book was still a precious thing, and learning of any kind a struggle against the outright disappearance or inaccessibility of the words of the past and the present day.”

Awash in books, I well know: for my entire adult life, my work spaces have been seas fed by brooks, streams, rivers, torrents of volumes of every size, shape, design, and demeanor. And how much greater the flood of words and images once the waters of the internet were released. No one has the slightest hope of achieving mastery of the resources at the beck and call of point and click and voice, or even of comprehending their dimensions; we cannot possibly step back far enough to allow any knowledge to reveal its own shape. We make that knowledge by our looking, like a painter who takes hold of the riches of nature by making a view: a landscape, after all, is not a feature of the natural world, but a human frame that organizes it.

If the culture of “bookishness” led us to believe that learning could be indexed, authorized, fixed in texts, and therefore studied in an orderly fashion from A-to-Z (given world enough and time), the culture of the web replaced that implied process of comprehension with the energy and urgency — the promise — of apprehension, an ongoing “landscape-making” in the intellectual terrain. That such apprehensive reading of the world more closely mirrors the true powers of human perception — powers perhaps masked for centuries by the rigorous certainties of traditions of scholarship — is one of the more vexing and valuable possibilities the digital revolution suggests. We’re turned back on our wits in a way which reminds me of my favorite aphorism, from the pen, I believe, of Chamfort: “All that I’ve learned I’ve forgotten; the little that I still know, I’ve guessed.”

In O’Donnell’s book, there is a fascinating passage about Jerome, who walked through the world of words with a kind of attention very different from our own:

Jerome once ran across a Greek word in a text, and wrote to a friend that he remembered seeing that word only twice elsewhere, once in scripture, once in an apocryphal religious work. As it happens, he was correct: the three passages he knew are the only places (still) where we know that word to have been used in the written legacy of Greek literature. Hearing that story, I marvel at the powers of Jerome’s memory, knowing that as a modern scholar with some similar interests in scripture and translation, I would never dare to say such a thing.

A little further on, O’Donnell adds:

Again, it bears mention that in Jerome’s environment comparative philological study had to be done relying chiefly on the memory. Lexica, indices, and encyclopedias were not at hand. This lack increased both the anxiety and the attentiveness with which he would read — once read, those words would disappear and be inaccessible except for what he remembered.

To think across one’s memory of texts rather than in the texts themselves, to say nothing of encountering them on a screen a few clicks away from immediate explication (and to say even less just now about the hidden magic of unseen powers hidden in the inscrutability of algorithmic gods), is to engage in a form of reading more like invention than study, in which the written world might seem more enchanted than the real one, and any text a scripture of one sort or another, to be believed in, and treasured.

“Saper vedere,” thought Leonardo.

“Attention, taken to its highest degree,” wrote Simone Weil, “is the same thing as prayer.”