Leonardo da Vinci and the divine nature of Humanity

Paris, the Louvre, October 2019

Leonardo Da Vinci has achieved through the centuries a status of summus pictor, which the magnificent Paris exhibition set up for the 500th anniversary of his death further exemplifies, and authenticates. But his glory is enhanced by the image of his universality, both the universality of his fame and the universality of the genius of a man who seems to have been all at once an engineer, an anatomist, a botanist, a military architect, a hydrologist, and so many other things… The obsession of crowds with the Gioconda tells us perhaps more about the striving for Genius embodied in a man than about any artistic judgement.

The son of Ser Piero, a well-known Tuscan notary providing his services to the most prominent families of Florence, and a young peasant named Caterina, Leonardo was born outside of the bonds of marriage, and a social embarrassment to his father; his birth was hidden from society, and the boy never given a proper education. He was essentially self-taught. He even became a fine singer, if we are to believe Vasari. This will induce him, partly out of necessity, to learn directly from nature, from observation. And in this lies of course one of the key components of the scientific method. Leonardo was never an erudite, a man of the studium. His obsession was truth. Perhaps this absence of any intellectual baggage from the outset made it easier for him to invent.

The reputation of Leonardo as a man of science is due to the thousands of pages he wrote, the thousands of sketches he drew, his passionate drive to understand the laws which underpin phenomena, which explain reality as we can observe it. He was probably more interested in unveiling the inner workings of the universe rather than in any concrete physical achievements. And as a matter of fact, his engineering achievements were relatively few, mostly confined to the realm of hydrological works for the city of Milan and extravagant machinery to be used in the grand feasts and parades he was commissioned to organize. His inventions in the field of military technology were ignored, and rightly so, by his patrons, as they were ideas mostly impossible to translate into any relevant weapon within the context of renaissance warfare tactics and available technologies. The famed helicopter design defies the most elementary rules of physics, at a time when the mathematical tools required to prove so had not yet been developed. The grandiose conception for the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza commissioned in 1489 by Ludovico, Francesco Sforza’s fourth son, was to end in a miserable defeat, as the seventy-ton bronze statue met with such insuperable problems of balance, and foundry, that its full-scale realization was never even attempted.

Battle of Anghiari

Similarly, one remembers the sad story of the battle of Anghiari at Palazzo Vecchio. He received the commission for this important mural painting in May 1504 from the gonfaloniere of Florence, Pier Soderini ; Leonardo has to devise a technique other than the affresco, which he did not master and which was inconsistent with his way of painting. The idea, taken from Pliny the Older in his Naturalis Historia, consists in painting on stucco; when soft, the pitch will absorb the pigment mixed with linseed oil. It will then be dried thanks to large braseros, thus fixing the colours for ever. The attempt worked on a small sample. Except that the technology of the time did not allow to direct heat of equal intensity on the full surface of the wall, and part of the painting started to leak, or dissolve. What was perhaps the most impressive, awesome painting of the time – which Benvenuto Cellini called the “school of the world” – fast waned. Yet another technical failure. We are only left with a few drawings of this extraordinary visual composition.

La Belle Ferroniere

Da Vinci has left us with ideas which could not yet be implemented, and with the memory of extraordinary festivities which cannot be re-lived. Time was to remain an insurmountable obstacle between his thoughts and the day when they could be put into practice, and between his event-related scenography and the distance which separates us from such ephemeral delights. The only durable traces of his genius are his drawings and paintings. Apart from a small number of works with non-religious themes, mostly portraits – the Mona Lisa, the portrait of Ginevra Benci, the unfinished Portrait of a Musician, the Lady with an Ermine, the Belle Ferronière, and of course the now disappeared Battle of Anghiari – most of his painted work has to do directly or not with the mystery of Incarnation, in other words the presence of divinity within humanity, or the co-presence of humanity and divinity. How does this square with this insatiable interest for phenomena, and his seeking for the rational explanation of every single reality ? This is the question which Leonardo Da Vinci puts to us, rather than trying to guess if Monna Lisa was Pacifica Brandano, Isabella Gualandi, Isabella d’Aragona, Isabelle d’Este, or even himself as a woman as someone suggested.  

We have no pretence here to write the ultimate analysis of Leonardo’s work, even less his biography; it has been done many times, with great erudition. What is perhaps worth insisting on is Leonardo being a painter of immanence. There is no disconnection between the Vitruvian man and the Virgin with St Anne, or the Virgin of the Rocks, where the subject is only disclosed by culture, and not by any specific religious sign. Let us explore this further. And since all the paintings of Leonardo, except for a few portraits, are based on the religious tradition and convey a religious meaning, there is no pretending that this theme is secondary or irrelevant to any analysis of Leonardo’s work.     

The Vitruvian Man

The Vitruvian Man is a key milestone for the understanding of this philosophical attitude. Fra Luca Pacioli, who will dedicate his De Divina Proportione – perhaps one of the most important books of the Renaissance – to Ludovico il Moro, had come to Milan in 1496 where he met with Leonardo; his re-elaboration of the Pythagorean worldview cannot have failed to stimulate and impress Da Vinci, as it is conducive to merging science, nature, and philosophy. And in fact, Leonardo had purchased a copy of Pacioli’sSumma di arithmetica, geometrica, proportione et proportionalita, published in Venice in 1494.

In Pacioli’s variant of Platonic mysticism, by observing Nature one may deduct the laws of reality which are also the laws of harmony, a reflection of higher – eternal – Realities. The Vitruvian Man inscribes a human being simultaneously in a circle and a square, i.e. symbolically in the heavens and in nature, which together represent the totality of the universe; one may add, in eternity and in temporality, in wisdom and in rationality. The human being is this place where both can naturally meet, where these two shapes which are but reflections of the Here and There find their synthesis. Hence man pertains both to both heaven and earth, he is both Nature elevated and eternal Truth – “God” – incarnate, but a God that reveals himself in Nature through mathematical proportions. Leonardo, true to his spirit of scientific observation, could not help himself checking the conclusions of the ancient author: while his predecessors followed Vitruvius’s proportions where the head is one seventh of the body, he deduces from his own observations of actual individuals that it is closer to a tenth…

in De harmonia mundi totius

It has often been said and repeated that the Vitruvian Man, dateable 1489 – 1490, is proof that the Renaissance put Man at the centre of the universe, that this anthropocentric attitude is what characterizes the dawn of Modern times. This reading is wrong, or rather simplistic, a mere visual deduction. Man is where the two orders of reality meet, and not wherefrom these orders emanate, or are governed. The Vitruvian Man visually reconnects the European history with its Platonic heritage, with God as the ultima ratio penetrating and inhabiting the world in the guise of principles which may be deducted from reality, as the very title of the work suggests. The Vitruvian Man is part of a vast movement of thought which finds an excellent illustration in the De harmonia mundi totius by Francesco Zorzi, published in 1525 but written between 1519 and 1523, where Man is inscribed in the sphere which is the symbol of totality and perfection, and the way in which the world is letting itself be perceived by Man. If he abides by mathematical, geometric and musical proportions, Man, who is himself created in the image and semblance of God, may reach such state of divine harmony, in other words may be divinised. These ideas impregnated intellectual circles in Italy since the mid-15th century. It is no wonder that they should have found their way to Leonardo. What is at stake is the nature of reality and the path to Man’s divinisation – the fundamental aim of Christianity as expressed in its most orthodox theology – and certainly not some centrality of Man in the universe, a rather anachronistic reading by wishful-thinking art historians and commentators since the 19th century. Otherwise, little may be understood about the Master’s paintings.

Virgin of the Rocks

Leonardo’s paintings address religious subjects but do not look religious in the sense that the archetypes around which most of Christian art had been created hitherto are abandoned, or subdued. This is a result of his inventiveness, of course, but cannot be ascribed exclusively or mainly to some urge to innovate, despite the surrounding culture. And indeed, Leonardo himself “corrected” the Virgin of the Rocks to make it more acceptable when he had to. A more profound reason to his choice of unusual topics and his unusual treatment of classic topics, such as the Adoration of the Magi, could be ascribed to his viewing the infusion of harmony in his figures and compositions as the true mark of the presence of divinity, an attempt to inscribe the image both in the metaphorical square and circle; and his working on the same paintings for years, even decades, until he would feel that harmony was achieved, that divinity, in a sense, had penetrated his forms and made them sacred.

If the human being is himself such “place” in the cosmos, higher realities are part of him and there is no particular need to designate visually a character as belonging to a different, higher order of reality. This we see quite clearly in two paintings figuring St Anne, The Virgin of the Rocks and The Virgin with St Anne and the Child. In none did Leonardo signal by some traditional or other symbol the sanctity of the characters (although sometimes during the 16th century someone will paint auras around their heads).

Angel Uriel (or Gabriel)

The topic of the Virgin of the Rocks is the meeting of Jesus and St John the Baptist in the desert, with the angel Gabriel (or Uriel as was originally thought) seemingly introducing Christ to the Baptist.  In the earlier version (1483 – 1484), today at the Louvre, the Virgin encourages the kneeling Baptist to meet her Son, while the angel, whose eyes meet those of the viewer who stares at the canvas, points his finger towards the Baptist, as if overlooking Christ and designating the main figure of the painting. The heresy of friar Amedeo Mendes da Silva, who tended to put both figures at the same level as representing the last prophet of the ancient religion and the first of the new one, has sometimes been spotted here, and for sure the canvas seemed designed to raise a scandal. It was also a very rare instance, if not the first one, where a painting to be placed on an altar illustrated a subject-matter which was not drawn from the canonical Scriptures, but from a fairly obscure episode merging narratives from several sources, including the apocryphal Gospel According to James, a text dating from the mid-second century. In this document, the angel appears to protect the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth from the wrath of Herod, without any mention of Christ; the meeting is from other sources. In a second version, today at the National Gallery, the angel’s attitude is more discreet, less central.

As can be observed even without taking any precise measures, the group of figures is built around a pentagram. Since Pythagoras, the pentagram is a symbol of what constitutes humans (fire, water, air, earth, and psyche). But it is also geometrically linked to the “golden section” otherwise named “divine proportion” which has rather intriguing mathematical and musical properties, and is widely observed in a number of natural structures. Pacioli never wrote that the golden section is the standard of beauty, but he gave five reasons why this number is “divine”: it is unique; it can be defined from three segments like the Trinity; it is irrational and therefore cannot be fully determined; it endlessly generates the same proportions, thus reflecting the divine immutability and omnipresence; it allows to generate the dodecahedron which, according to Plato, represents the whole universe, as what really matters from his standpoint are not phenomena, but the immovable symmetries which underpin all phenomena and realities in the universe.

So why would Da Vinci choose to represent a scene which is nowhere to be found in canonical texts ? And why would he insist, by painting his Virgin and the Child with St Anne which took so many years of work ?

As mentioned, among his religious paintings and if we except the Last Supper and the St Jerome, Leonardo painted for the most part scenes related to the birth of Christ, or his infancy; he also focused on the figure of St John the Baptist.  This is all related to the mystery of Incarnation, i.e. the meeting, or the coexistence, whatever the correct term might be, of the two fundamental dimensions found in the Vitruvian man.

There is no scene in the Gospels, or any other canonical document for that matter, narrating a meeting of the Virgin and her Son meeting with her mother St Anne. This group bears the strange name of “Anna Selbdritt” or “Anna Metterza” (“Anne in third place”) in art history, suggesting that St Anne is a kind of  adjunction. In several instances, such as the Anna Metterza by Masaccio and Masolino now at the Uffizi in Florence, or the later St Anne Mother of the Virgin by Giovanni Piemontese (1471), now at the Gemälde Galerie in Berlin, St Anne stand right behind the Virgin who holds her Son in her lap, in accordance with a vertical construction somewhat at odds with the principles of perspective as it tends to belittle optically the Virgin as compared to her mother.

Leonardo, probably conscious of this difficulty, innovates – after different attempts which are evidenced by drawings now in the Louvre and Venice – by shifting the head of Mary to the right, and the child even further, which allows the three to communicate visually among each other, He builds the group in a triangle of which St Anne is the summit, with the right edge made of the aligned gazes of St Anne looking at her daughter, of Mary motherly looking at her Son who returns the look, and the lamb – caressed by the Son – looking at the three characters from the lower right corner of the triangle. The base of the triangle is essentially formed by Mary’s thighs as she sits herself on her mother’s knees, while the left edge is Mary’s back extending in a way St Anne’s neck. This composition is amazingly active, dynamic, and despite the fact that everyone seems to be sitting in a precarious, unstable position, does not convey any sense of artificiality. This is most certainly because the faces are so serene, each with an imperceptible smile, a sweetness that cancels any notion of effort.

The Virgin and the Child with St Anne

The grandmother and the mother are both directing their gaze downwards, towards the Son who is the incarnation of divinity, and the lamb which represents the meaning of this incarnation, i.e. redemption.

We can immediately interpret this scene as sacred because of two main symbolic markers: the lamb first of all, that is the very symbol of sacrifice and which presence would otherwise not make any sense. It is the destination, the culmination of the history of humanity represented by the succession of the three human figures, from the elder on top to the younger at the bottom. In the child, humanity achieves its true and final nature. The second obvious marker is the traditional colours of the Virgin’s clothes: red is the blood of life which gives birth to the Saviour and a foretelling of his sacrifice, while blue connotates the celestial origin of her motherhood, the mingling of these two colours thus indicating that in her the earthly and celestial dimensions have met and resulted in the incarnation of divinity.

The scene is set in a rocky, empty landscape of which the upper part is painted in very light shades of blue, and the lower one in browns and greens, with a high tree on the right hand side, as if to signify a “here” and “there”, the co-presence of two worlds, one of which seems to lie very far indeed, with high mountains looking like drifting clouds on the left of the picture. These are clearly not natural landscapes, but they may well be intended to remind us of the two natures of Christ, and in general of the duality of Nature itself, terrestrial, physical, and yet inhabited by and reflecting another dimension. The tree, prospering tall and green in a semi-desert, is a reminder of the sterility of St Anne, and the magnificent fruit that she would eventually bear from Joachim after the angel told her she would expect a child.

Strangely, St Anne seems to be of roughly the same age of her daughter, while we know from the Apocryphal Gospels that she failed for twenty years to give birth and should therefore be represented as a much older woman, as indeed she was in paintings such as the Anna Selbdritt by Albrecht Dürer dated 1519. This could not have escaped Leonardo. As observed by Costantino d’Orazio in Leonardo Svelato, the mother and the daughter are only distinguished by the intensity of the light on their faces, the Virgin’s being much lighter, as if illuminated from within.

It is generally considered that this masterpiece was painted at the very beginning of the 16th century in Florence. Fra Piero da Novellara describes with great precision in April 1501, in a letter to Isabel d’Este, the “carton” made by Leonardo. This work has a element of political significance, as the Florentines rebelled against Gautier de Brienne on 26 July 1343, on the day of St Anne, considered as the protector of the Republic; the exile of the Medici in 1494 had restored the Republic, thus justifying this act of gratitude. The painting was started at the latest in 1503, as demonstrated by a letter of Agostino Vespucci, a collaborator of Machiavelli in Florence, discovered in 2005. In its initial version, as described by Fra Piero da Novellara, it would seem that Mary was about to get up so as to bring her child back into the fold of her arms, so as to protect him from becoming the sacrificial lamb, while Anne gently dissuaded her therefrom, embodying the Church. This gesture was much lessened in the last, painted version, so as to emphasize the continuity of the history of incarnation and the repetition of the archetype which goes from the story of Anne and Samuel, or Sara and Abraham, in the Old Testament to that of Anne and Joachim and, ultimately, the direct intervention of God in the conception of Jesus.

The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, National Gallery

The drawing which is closest to the final painting is probably the Resta-Esterházy, from Leonard’s workshop; it unfortunately disappeared during the second World War. The only remianing carton by Leonardo himself is the one now at the National Gallery which is titled The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist; controversies exist around its date, but which one is inclined to consider as Leonardo’s first idea, then replaced by a new – now lost – drawing which became the template for the painting in the Louvre. This sequence is the most logical, and leads us to wonder why the figure of St John was replaced by the sacrificial lamb. A first explanation may be formal: it is visually less crowded, more elegant perhaps; it also allows for a descending line where Anne may gaze at the whole scene rather than having to choose between her daughter or the child; such a structure would have been impossible with four faces. The theological implication are thus made clearer. The way the Virgin unnaturally sits on the right-hand thigh of her mother is also slightly awkward in the London drawing, which tends to direct the onlooker towards St John as the isolated figure, rather than the relationship between the figures which is, in a sense, the topic of this painting. The St Anne is for and foremost the portrait of a relationship.

The St Anne was worked on by Leonardo during twenty years, and taken to France; when he died in 1519, he was still working on the St Anne’s robe, as discovered during the latest restoration; the Virgin’s head was never completely finished. 

But let us come back for a moment on John the Baptist. We see that he was present in the first idea of the St Anne; he is a key figure in the Virgin of the rocks; and he was painted above the waist by Leonardo toward the end of his life in a striking, ambiguous, androgynous “portrait”. For a painter who left less than paintings generally accepted as being mostly from his hand, that is a fairly significant number. Without forgetting that half of that number has the Virgin Mary at its centre.

John the Baptist was the cousin of Jesus: his mother Elizabeth was the niece of St Anne, according to legend. His theological significance is great, as he was considered by Christian tradition as the last Judaic prophet and the one who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, as if the Old had now bowed to the New, prophecy to its realization. The baptism of Jesus by St John is indeed a very intriguing episode of the Gospels. Baptism by immersion is the symbol of death to the old, impure and terrestrial life, and rebirth to a new, spiritual life. You would wonder why Jesus needed – as divinity himself – to undergo this passage.

Let us read the passage in St Matthew, 3, 13-17: 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

This implies that Jesus accepts from that moment his mission of Salvation, as otherwise he would not have been free to do so, and his Passion would obviously not have carried the same meaning, nor would have his humanity been possible.

Adoration of the Magi

This small theological détour is useful to explain why St John is replaced by the lamb in Leonardo’s painting, as the underlying meaning is the same. If we now turn to what I would call the portrait of St John, as odd as it may sound – “mystical portrait” would be more correct – we can observe that the saint is young, as he should be at roughly the same age as Jesus before he started his preaching career, that he points his finger towards the sky just as is often the case in the iconography of the Baptist who thus announces the coming of Christ, that his face is not dissimilar to that of St Anne herself, even more to the famed “naked Gioconda” of St Petersburg, and certainly more akin to that of an angel than the bearded man which iconography has usually shown, with few exceptions such as the painting by Van Dyck. He is not the man for whom Salomé once danced, and Herodiade went mad. And stranger than all, his smile. Much more intriguing than that of the Gioconda. This is the portrait of a creature which is not human any more, and perhaps this is what he – it ? – suggests, by his ghostly appearance from the dark and by pointing this finger towards the heavens, the same finger we see to an angel in the Adoration of the Magi.

Vasari mentions with admiration a painting from the collections of Cosimo Ist where an angel on a dark background raises his arm while putting his other hand on his heart, probably similar to the copy now at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, and partly ruined by this disastrous and silly mania of transposing paintings from wood onto canvas. It would seem that the Baptist comes from an idea initially devised to represent Gabriel announcing the Incarnation.

For Théophile Gautier, the St John « seems to have abused of his smile ; from a background of dark shades, the figure of the saint half emerges ; one of his fingers shows the sky ; but his mask, effeminate to the point where his sex is unclear, is so sardonic, so sly, so full of reticence and mystery, that it worries you and inspires vague suspicions about his orthodoxy”  («semble avoir abusé de ce sourire ; d’un fond d’ombres ténébreuses, la figure du saint se dégage à demi ; un de ses doigts montre le ciel; mais son masque, efféminé jusqu’à faire douter de son sexe, est si sardonique, si rusé, si plein de réticences et de mystères, qu’il vous inquiète et vous inspire de vagues soupçons sur son orthodoxie »). Such cannot have been the intent of Leonardo. Memento unde venias, rather. Remember where you come from, and who is calling you. My reading is that the Baptist takes the very shape of Gabriel here, while watching us so intently, in order to tell the viewer precisely what Gabriel told Mary: “You are favored by the Lord! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1,28). The fundamental message of Christianity is the divinisation of humans on the footsteps of Christ (John 14,6: “I am the way and the truth and the life”). This is what this Baptist, the “announcer” of the Gospels, is saying here, showing the way of a metaphysical destiny. Certainly the most spiritual painting of the master. We are not sure of the exact date of this painting, which was not fully finished as shown during the restoration carried out in 2015-2016, when part of the thick layers of varnish was removed.

The Naked Gioconda

The smile of the Baptist inevitably leads us to the smile of the Monna Lisa, which has intrigued so many generations. As mentioned, nobody knows exactly who is the Monna Lisa, and that is strange enough considering how many years it took to paint, how many people could have left memories or notes, the fact that cardinal Louis of Aragon met Leonardo in October 1517 at his residence of Cloux where he was shown three canvases by the Master himself. The cardinal writes indeed that he was shown “a dame from Florence made according to nature (“au naturel”) at the request of the Magnificent Giuliano de Medici”. Considering that “au naturel” could mean either nude (as nature made it) or painted according to its living model, we are not sure whether or not he saw the Monna Lisa or the Naked Gioconda…

The best explanation one can find is perhaps that of what I would call the “buddhic smile”, i.e. the smile of the one who has reached a state of serenity, enlightenment, otherworldliness; in a word, sanctity. A “beautiful smile” is one of the so-called eighty secondary characteristics of the Buddha, but it is common to most of its iconography. An although Leonardo comes from an entirely different tradition, it is striking to note that smile is absent from his lay portraits; a smile may thus have been used as a marker of interior beauty, a reaching of harmony with oneself and the universe. Perhaps one could read the Gioconda as the portrait of a state of humanity, of σοϕία, plenitude, rather than of a woman in particular. Perhaps this duality of the Monna Lisa, which is both a portrait – or has the semblance of a portrait – and a meditation on the divine nature of Humans (“divine” being understood with its Platonic undertones) is what ultimately draws the crowds – beyond fame which nourishes fame – without any clear conscience of why this attraction exists in the first place. Let us call the Monna Lisa a Pythagorean icon. The phenomenon is such that it was thought impossible to displace the painting from its usual location in the Louvre to the one of the temporary exhibition on Leonardo, for fear of either overcrowding or utter disappointment…

Naked Gioconda, Workshop of Leonardo Da Vinci, St Petersburg

A huge amount of erudition has been spent trying to identify the woman behind the Naked Gioconda, or Monna Vanna, which may have been conceived in 1513 – 1516 when the artist was in Rome. A remarkable exhibition (June – October 2019) was dedicated to this drawing in Chantilly. The regularity of the features of the Naked Gioconda could suggest an idealized portrait where nudity, often associated to other symbols such as a snake or some precious stones, suggests virtue. This is the case of the portrait of Simonetta Vespucci by Piero di Cosimo, for instance; considering however that none of the paintings believed to have been made in Leonardo’s workshop from this model – such as the copy now in St Petersburg – shows any such symbols, it is even more unlikely that the portrait be of an actual person which the symbols would designate as being idealized, thus explaining in a way her nudity.

Venus Capitolina

A merely erotic version of an actual lady is not a reasonable assumption at that time. Instead, the drawing evokes a model from the Antiquity; the Capitoline Venus has been repeatedly mentioned, in particular in relation to her headdress. This makes sense symbolically, as Venus is associated with the idea of Beauty, harmony, and love, in the sense of the principle which animates the world.  

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