The painting depicts the Virgin and child encountering his cousin in the wilderness, in the presence of the Archangel Uriel. This story is not from the Christian Scriptures or the Apocrypha, the ancient works considered but ultimately rejected for inclusion in the Bible. Rather, the story is from a conflation of scriptural episode, apocryphal narrative, and tradition as “divulged” by the Dominican Fra Pietro Cavalca in the 14th century. He reports that Mary and her son met Elizabeth and her son under the protection of Uriel while they were hiding in the wilderness immediately after the Massacre of the Innocents (Luke 3:1-8). According to the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal gospel, Elizabeth and her son sought refuge in the Mountain of God under angelic protection.
Leonardo’s reformist tendencies result in his depiction of a youthful Mary dressed simply, not regally, as she shelters her son and his playmate. Jesus blesses his kneeling, prayerful cousin as Uriel points to, and, directly above John head, toward the running stream, signifying baptism. Considering the botanical symbolism, the presence of John and Uriel, and Leonardo's understanding of the Immaculate Conception as the beginning of the Passion, we may conclude that the painting's message is simply: The prophecy has begun to be fulfilled.
"The Last Supper"
The Last Supper
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Since the earliest depictions of the Last Supper in Christian art, the moment actually represented was either that of the Institution of the Eucharist or the Identification of the Traitor. When painting the latter, artists focused on the distinctive gestures Jesus used to implicate Judas, such as "one who is dipping bread into the dish with me" (Mark 14:20). However, there was a third moment described in the Gospel of John (13:21), when Jesus announces, verbally, without resorting to hints and gestures, that one of his faithful followers will betray him. As a Renaissance man, Leonardo was interested in the human and the psychological, so for a new rendering of this traditional Christian narrative, he emphasized that extraordinary moment and the disciples’ response to it. This allowed Leonardo to depict not only inner emotions but their outer display—thus, the movements, especially exaggerated postures and gestures.
The result is one of the great masterpieces of Western art, a mural that still intrigues and enchants. (Click here to see it.) Seated in the center amidst his disciples, Jesus is the focal point of Leonardo’s mural. The drama generates from him outward to the disciples. The rectangular table is covered with everyday objects such as glasses, plates, utensils, and foodstuffs that now garner ceremonial significance.
"The Da Vinci Code" makes much of the painting's failure to show the chalice from which Jesus drank and gave to his disciples to drink from. However, this may not be a mystery at all: Earlier Last Supper renditions did not necessarily include what we today picture as a chalice—instead, many show a series of glasses shared by those present.
Dan Brown, the novel's author, speculates that one of Leonardo’s disciples is female. How did he (and others before him) come to this dramatic conclusion? The argument runs something like this: Look at the posture and shape of the body, the presence of jewelry, the expansion of the folds or pleats at the bosom, and the gentility of the face and the long hair. However, gender—how we define masculine and feminine—is culturally conditioned, not biological or physical; so to be fair and factual, we need to look with care not simply at the other figures in this mural or other works of Leonardo, but also those of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries.
Doing so, we find that angels--who are presumed always to be men--have soft bodies, gentle (and beardless) faces, bejeweled garments, and long hair during these particular time periods. If we look across Leonardo’s apostles, we see others who are beardless, have long hair, pleated “blouses,” jeweled brooches, and soft bodies or faces. John, as the Beloved Disciple, is always depicted as a youthful, beardless, long-haired, almost pubescent figure with a soft body. This rendering conforms with what our contemporary eyes identify as feminine. How did Leonardo’s viewers interpret John? Or did they—like the Christian artists, theologians, and viewers before Leonardo’s time—see him as the youngest of the apostles, the most trusting (and trusted) of the disciples, and as the visual embodiment of pure love?
The visual evidence argues that Leonardo’s emphasis was on the compositional and iconographic elements necessary to create the greatest dramatic effect for the astounding statement by Jesus of Nazareth that “one of you will betray me.”