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.
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"
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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.”