The Holy Infants Embracing, or allegory unveiled

Charles II : Art&Power, palace of Holyroodhouse , Edinburgh

A fairly pleasant exhibition at the palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, with the perhaps ambitious title of Charles II : Art & Power, displays a few interesting paintings from the king’s collection. This Saint John the Baptist and the Infant Jesus is remarkable for two main reasons: it can be construed as a painting about allegory, as much as it is allegoric in the medieval sense of the word, and it presented as a copy of a lost Leonardo da Vinci, purchased as an original, which illustrates the interesting topic of aura in art.

The Holy Infants Embracing, attributed to Marco d’Oggiono

What is the painting about ? As background, let us remember that Luke describes at the beginning of his Gospel an aged, childless couple, the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and tells him that his wife will bear a son who will become a prophet; as Zechariah went home, his wife conceived. About six months later, Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary, a kinswoman of Elizabeth, and told her that she was about to bear a son who would be called “Son of the Most High”, and that was of course Jesus. So that the two are closely related, and about the same age. But John the Baptist is also the figura of Jesus: he preaches the coming of the Messiah, and baptizes

Let us read the Gospel of Marc, historically the first one to be written, which starts with the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus:

1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River… 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” …At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 

In a sense, this episode acts as a link between the Old and the New Testament. Although contemporary of Jesus, John belongs to the world of the Old Testament, and his baptism in the Jordan river of the one who will in effect baptise humanity – as baptism signifies in itself death and re-birth to a new, spiritual life – represents the visual acknowledgment by Jesus of the inheritance of the Old Testament and the words of the Prophets, as well as a sign that he also belongs to humanity. The baptism of John and the Christian baptism are different in meaning and effect, as clearly stated in the Acts (19,3-5). The baptism of John is also an opportunity to manifest the Spirit, and establish the link between the Son, Jesus, and his Father, as we read in Matthew (3,11-17):

11 “I baptize you withwater for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”…

13 “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

The purpose of these quotations is not to indulge lengthily in Christian theology, but to show how Leonardo powerfully expressed those concepts in an image. The two infants are near-identical, it is difficult to distinguish who is John and who is Jesus. They kiss, thus showing that they are very close, though not one and the same, and tied by a powerful link of love, and they kiss each other’s mouth, thus symbolically sharing the breath of life, their atman which is Sanskrit for breath, soul, essence. So that the Old and New Testaments are reconciled in this kiss, and made necessary to one another, made unity.

Origen of Alexandria (c. 184 – c. 253), then followed by the Fathers of the Church, declared that the two Testaments had to be read together, in parallel, and for him the Old Testament was the figura of the New, as the former contains the letter, the rethorical expression in semiotic terms, while the latter contains the spirit, the contents. From those early days, a hermeneutic is developed whereby the characters and events appearing in the Old Testament become signs, anticipations, foreshadows, allegoria factis of those in the New Testament. It is not the words in the Old Testament that indirectly foretell, in a form of metonymy, acts of the New, it is the very acts described in the Old which happened in order to foretell the Revelation of the New.

The Holy Infants Embracing is a lost painting by Leonardo, of which a number of copies or variants exist, made by followers or pupils. The motif can be found in a sheet of studies by Leonardo, of which there is a replica at Windsor. One copy of the painting, now lost, is by Bernardino dei Conti; another one, now in the Royal collections, is the oil panel now shown in the palace of Holyroodhouse, and is by Marco d’Oggiono (approximately 1475 – 1524). Other painters such as Joos van Cleve (1485 – 1540/41), also called the “Master of the Death of Mary” and active in Antwerp, made several replicas. King Francis Ist was among his patrons, as he also famously was of Leonardo himself; the catalogue of the 2011 exhibition at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen went as far as calling him the “Leonardo of the North”. At any rate, the theme must have been new at the time, and the proximity of these artists and their patrons easily explain its circulation.

Marco d’Oggiono

Interestingly, this copy was acquired at a huge price of 1,500 florins by Charles II from the art dealer William Frizell in 1660, on the understanding that it was the original painting by Leonardo. Little is known about Marco d’Oggiono, and even the dates of his birth and death are unclear; this relatively obscure painter met Leonardo around 1490, and perhaps they lived for a while in the same place; d’Oggiono borrowed a lot from Leonardo’s style and manner, including his sfumato. Another painting by d’Oggiono on the same subject was apparently sold in 2007 at Sotherby’s New York with an estimate of 40 to 60,000 dollars. Clearly not the price for a Leonardo. By looking at the two, it is hard to believe that they were painted by the same hands, which leaves one between surprise and doubt in regards to the attribution.

Assuming that the copy is so close to the original that experts of the time could be fooled, the difference in price would be the value of the aura of the man who, perhaps, as the greatest painter in history, or anyway in a very small company of painters reaching such heights in their art. An intriguing idea that something as immaterial as a moment in history, as a “touch” of times past, as genius made object, could be actually priced on a market. The icon is not God himself, as if directly seen, but is not a mere image either: it is the presence of God (or of Mary, or of a saint) made real for the believer. A Leonardo is not Leonardo himself, but it is not the mere image of the Holy Infants Embracing; it is the presence of genius (nobody cares about Leonardo as a mere man except from biographical perspective), and genius is the image of what is elevated, or what has the potential to elevate man above his mortal condition. It is an allegory of the immortal part of humans. A Leonardo (or a Michelangelo if you wish) is an icon of genius.  

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