The Leonardo renaissance sweeping the globe over the past few years will hit fever pitch this month as the world remembers his death 500 years ago in Amboise, France. According to legend, he breathed his last, aged 67, in the arms of the French King Francis I. A few centuries of relative obscurity ensued, but the modern era rediscovered the genius of Leonardo and catapulted him to renewed glory.
International exhibitions, Walter Isaacson’s new biography, and even a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, comprise but a part of the worldwide celebration of da Vinci. But this adulation is directed towards a mythical Leonardo forged in the 21st century.
It would probably surprise Leonardo to see the portrait painted of him in this age. Extolled as a scientist, atheist, gay rights activist and even a green propehet, he is remembered vaguely as a painter, and forgotten as a man who produced some of the most important religious art of all time. His brush, courted by popes, kings and religious orders for its extraordinary insight into the sacred, has been whittled down by modern critics to a matte pencil to highlight the profane.
Leonardo lends himself to this perception, however. Born an illegitimate son to Piero da Vinci in 1452, he was brought into the family fold, but never legitimised, and carried that (mild) stigma throughout his life. He showed an early aversion to the usual cursus honorum of painters – from apprentice to assistant to owning a personal workshop. He spent a few years in the successful studio of Verrocchio, but famously delivered his first private commission several years late.
Leonardo’s misgivings about the business of art, shared by Michelangelo, led him to seek employment in a wealthy court, where he would have guaranteed work as well as time for his own pursuits. In 1482, he landed a place with the Sforza dukes of Milan. In his letter seeking employment, he first promoted himself as a military engineer and merely mentioned, almost in passing, his work as an artist.
The 20 years he spent in Milan allowed Leonardo the time to start compiling his famous notebooks, filled with sketches, thoughts and observations, as well as endless anatomical, botanical and mechanical designs. These notebooks, lovingly collected by his fellow artists, then treasured by kings, are now glorified by the age of technology, with Bill Gates purchasing the Codex Leicester in 1994. Leonardo’s artist friends treasured his thoughts on painting, while today his scientific mind is brought to the fore.
His love of the empirical manifested itself through his writings, allowing for a narrative where the only truth he recognised was that of science. Both Walter Isaacson’s 624-page tome and Dan Brown’s farcical novel The Da Vinci Code depict Leonardo as an atheist, claiming that his inspiration was rooted in the material as opposed to being a reflection of the Catholic imagination of his times.
Contemporaries remarked upon Leonardo’s physical beauty and musical talent, along with his love of animals and mastery of horses. Biographer Giorgio Vasari records that he purchased caged birds in order to set them free. At the age of 24, he was brought before the Florentine magistrates for sexual misdemeanors with a group of local male artists, and in Milan, he took in a young male servant, Giacomo Salai, whose “fair locks were abundant and curly, in which Leonardo delighted”, all of which has lent much grist to the mill of the “gay Leonardo”.
Leonardo’s greatest artworks are zealously guarded behind museum walls, lest any hint of their religious origins escape. His altarpieces alternate with mythological scenes; his devotional panels are only used for visitors taking selfies. The convent where he painted the great mural of the Last Supper is unrecognisable as the once-busy hive of Dominicans, who prayed, studied and ate before that magnificent backdrop.
It is daunting for Catholics to embrace this man, flaunted as he is by our artistically sterile era as an icon of godless beauty. This two-dimensional picture, however, does little credit to the artist best known today for his nuanced portrait of Mona Lisa. Leonardo’s greatest works were the fruit of his engagement with religious subjects, entrusted to him by some of the Renaissance’s most exacting patrons of sacred art.
His first Milanese commission was the Virgin of the Rocks, painted in 1483 for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. Intended as an altarpiece dedicated to the same feast, the work celebrated the Office of the Immaculate Conception, composed by one of the members, the friar Bernardino de’Busti, and not long before approved by Pope Sixtus IV. The commission was complicated by the lack of a formal dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the stipulation that Fra Bernardino would personally inspect the finished work.
Early iconographic attempts had attempted to illustrate the doctrine by depicting either a coronation of the Virgin or stories of the saints Anne and Joachim. Leonardo tackled this subject at its Franciscan core: the notion that God’s plan for salvation existed before time.
Painting the first of what would become his signature mysterious landscapes, Leonardo framed the scene with an enigmatic, almost Platonic cavern. He then placed an orderly triangular composition of people in the foreground, culminating in the towering figure of the Virgin.
A swathe of gold silk around her waist alludes to the immaculate vessel that bore Christ. Jesus, perched at the bottom, breaks the even line of the triangle, appearing to inch towards the altar space.
The Catholic viewer can see in this work that mystery stimulated Leonardo’s creativity.
After the Franciscans, the Dominicans hired the painter in 1495 to produce The Last Supper for their refectory in Santa Maria delle Grazie. Again eschewing previous versions, with their stiff portraits of staid Apostles, Leonardo infused human drama into the momentous scene. Captured the instant after Jesus announces “One of you will betray me”, the disciples are grouped in a way that evokes shockwaves after his explosive statement. Christ appears isolated at the heart of the composition, highlighting the loneliness of his imminent Passion, and, although the Apostles react in myriad ways, the eye is swept along the protesting men and always brought back to Jesus. The order of the space contrasts with the spontaneity of the men – art’s greatest rendering of the most meaningful meal in history.
An avid reader, Leonardo owned several Bibles in Italian along with writings by St Augustine, St Albert the Great and a volume of Psalms amid his collection of 150 books. Oddly enough, though much is made of his works on engineering and mythology, the religious literature populating his shelves is rarely mentioned.
The French conquest of Milan brought Leonardo eventually to Rome, where he painted his last surviving panel of St John the Baptist, once again challenging typical iconography. Instead of a gaunt zealot, Leonardo depicted John as a young, soft, almost sensual boy, cloaked in shadow while smiling and pointing upwards. Renaissance artists had explored the image of John as a delicate child embarking on his years in the desert. But Leonardo boldly emphasised the vulnerable flesh and vibrant youth of this privileged son of a priestly caste, joyfully renouncing worldly pleasures to prepare for the Saviour. The darkness engulfs him, recalling his words that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). The last prophet, who had encountered Christ while still in the womb, wisely smiles as one who knows the Truth. Leonardo’s John would influence generations of artists from Raphael to Caravaggio.
Leonardo’s art speaks of a man engaged with questions of faith, even if struggling to comprehend it. Although his St John has been held up as evidence of his homosexuality, people in the Renaissance were not defined by their sexual identity as they often are today. Leonardo struggled with sin and temptation like everyone else, but used his art to glorify creation at its best, not its basest.
At the invitation of King Francis I, Leonardo moved to France in 1516, where he spent the last three years of his life, according to Vasari, “earnestly resolved to learn about the doctrine of the Catholic faith”. Carlo Amoretti’s 1804 biography, the first to use archival research, described the aged Leonardo as having “abdicated things of this world with a grand determination to focus solely on the great themes of death and the afterlife”. He died a Christian death on May 2, 1519, after both Confession and Communion, leaving multiple bequests for Requiem Masses.
The name Leonardo da Vinci now carries so much star power that the Salvator Mundi, merely purported to be his, sold for $450 million in 2017. Thanks to Leonardo, the most highly valued image in this secularised world is the face of Christ the Saviour.
Catholics should not be shy about reclaiming their brilliant brother and celebrating 2019 as the year of the man who tirelessly studied creation until he found the Creator.
Elizabeth Lev is an art historian living in Rome. Her latest book, “How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art” is available on Amazon and from Sophia Institute Press