Leonardo: His Faith, His Art
His name graces the title of 'The Da Vinci Code,' but what did he believe? And what's with the paintings mentioned in the story?
Leonardo da Vinci may be the most well-known painter of all time, and yet we have little information on what he felt and believed. Acknowledged by leading art historians as the founding father of the High Renaissance, Leonardo infused the art of the human figure with new communicative skills, especially those of ideas and emotions, and was praised for breathing new life into religious art by exploring the personalities depicted in his paintings. His artistic vision incorporated, for the first time in history, careful attention to science and the intellect, and so he worked slowly and methodically. As a result, he completed only a few works, of which fewer still survive into the 21st century—and, yet, these rank among the most influential in Western art.
After exploring Leonardo's religious outlook, I will delve into two of his surviving masterpieces which figure prominently in "The Da Vinci Code"—"The Virgin of the Rocks" and "The Last Supper
Our earliest major source for information on the life of Leonardo da Vinci is Giorgio Vasari, whose "Lives of the Artists" (1550) has proven unreliable, though influential nonetheless. Vasari’s initial report on Leonardo included the damning charge that his “cast of mind was so heretical that he did not adhere to any religion,” leading to much speculation about Leonardo, especially with regard to alchemy and secret societies. However, in the definitive second edition of his text (1568), Vasari excised these sentences, due to his own reassessment of Leonardo’s art and life or his realization that these reports were based more on gossip than on fact.
Nonetheless, these accusations stuck, and Leonardo was characterized as “Faust’s Italian brother,” among other epithets. Adding to these suspicions is the fact that Leonardo frequently wrote backwards—his famed mirror writing—as an attempt to hide his inventions, discoveries, and “secrets.” This "accusation" omits the fact that the artist was left-handed, and writing backwards was a common trait among left-handed people. Perhaps the greater damage to Leonardo’s reputation and artistry was wrought by Sigmund Freud, whose 1910 analysis defined the artist as a “thoroughly abnormal mind”; and what would be more abnormal than belonging to secret societies, dappling in alchemy, or mirror-writing?