Unlike other Florentine Renaissance artists such as Fra Angelico and Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci was not personally religious for most of his life. Yet his interest in human nature allowed him to interpret Christian subjects in a way that still moves those of us who believe that in Jesus, God became man.
An example of this human reading of the sacred is the first version of his Virgin of the Rocks, now in Paris. Mary sits in the centre; on her right, St John the Baptist kneels in prayer; on her left, the baby Jesus gives a blessing. Behind Jesus, a kneeling angel points across to John the Baptist. In a further, intersecting gesture, Mary has one hand on St John’s shoulder while the other descends towards the head of her Son.
What is happening? It seems that something is being said, some problem is being answered. The angel’s stiff, pointing hand, framed by the hands of Mary and Jesus, points us towards St John. But if he is the answer, what is the question?
John the Baptist’s main role is to identify Christ as the one who must suffer. At the culminating moment of the Baptism, when from heaven God the Father calls Jesus his Son, St John from the earth identifies him as the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God: the one who will die a sacrificial death. Turning again to Leonardo’s painting, we note that – if little St John personally “symbolises” the Passion – baby Jesus, in blessing the prophet of his own death with the Sign of the Cross, clearly accepts and even welcomes that destiny.
How does Mary react in the face of this “complicity”? As painted by Leonardo, the Virgin does two distinct but related things. With her beautifully foreshortened left hand, she begins a protective movement: the hand descending to caress her child’s head is a natural, maternal gesture, an instinctive reaction.
But with her other hand – the one we see on St John’s shoulder and which many interpret as a gesture of welcome – Mary tries to stop him. Her unnaturally bent wrist, her long arched fingers pressed into the child’s back and her stiff thumb, do not “welcome” St John but arrest his forward movement and pull him back. The little prophet of the Passion leans towards Christ, who in turn welcomes him with the very sign of his own future death on the Cross, but the Mother reacts immediately and instinctively, distancing the danger from her Son with her right hand, even as her left begins a gesture meant to protect her child. But her hand descending will never reach the head, because the vertical rhythm of its movement is interrupted by the horizontal gesture of the angel.
Painters of Leonardo’s era often used a “closed circle” composition. Here Leonardo does something similar: the eye moves from Mary, towards John the Baptist, to Jesus, and then back to Mary. But the circle is disrupted by the angel’s gesture – because Leonardo wants to suggest, in the central figure of Mary, a state of mind that is anything but harmonious. A true mother, Mary wants to keep the prophet of the Cross far from her Son but she cannot: her natural protective instinct must give way to a supernatural plan, in which – as the angel insists – the prophet and precursor of Christ’s Passion necessarily plays a part.
Mgr Timothy Verdon is a canon of Florence Cathedral and director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo