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?
So what do we actually know about Leonardo da Vinci's beliefs? We know he was born to an unmarried couple, Caterina and Ser Piero da Vinci, whose family took in the new child. Documentation exists for Leonardo’s acceptance into his father’s family and his baptism in the presence of 10 witnesses. The young Leonardo showed early and proficient skills in art and mathematics. He entered into apprenticeship in the studio of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, and the rest, as they say, is art history.
Kenneth Clark, an art historian, advises that while not “a religious-minded man," Leonardo "seems to associate himself with the precursors of the Reformation.” Leonardo objected to the commercial exploitation of relics, religious art, and pious items, saying, “I see Christ once more being sold and crucified and his saints martyred.” In his notebooks and letters, he protested the sale of indulgences, liturgical and ceremonial pomp, obligatory confessions, and the cult of the saints. He assailed the clergy—at all levels—for their lack of morality, values, and education. As a scientist, he questioned the contemporary reality of miracles performed by priests and monks.
In his paintings, Leonardo expressed what might be termed his “reformist” ideas. He removed haloes; dispensed with the inclusion of gold, azure, and other expensive colors; avoided elaborate costumes for Mary and the (arch)angels; and presented visual meditations on the meaning of Jesus as the Christ and of Mary as mother. He found proof for the existence and omnipotence of God in nature—light, color, botany, the human body—and in creativity.
"The Virgin of the Rocks"
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The work Leonardo produced, however, did not conform to the specifics laid out in the contract. As with other works, Leonardo meditated upon the subject of "The Virgin of the Rocks" and ultimately created an extraordinary fusion of personal references and theological meaning. He appears to have combined his own reflection on the meaning of the Immaculate Conception as the beginning of Christ’s Passion—represented by the botanical symbolism surrounding the Virgin and the presence of the young John the Baptist—with the motif of the meeting of the infant Jesus and John the Baptist.