Leonardo da Vinci
Before getting more into the life of Leonardo, two specific slanders about him from the book The Da Vinci Code should be dealt with. One was that he painted Mary Magdalene into The Last Supper, because the person supposed to be John looks effeminate or androgynous. It was common practice in the Renaissance to depict John the Disciple as beardless, young and gentle (but certainly a man, not Mary). There is no basis for the claim Leonardo painted a secret message in the piece. Brown’s claim amounts to a slander of one of the world’s greatest artworks, and takes attention away from its powerful depiction of the Savior, whom Leonardo regarded with the highest reverence.
Another slander is that Leonardo was a “flamboyant homosexual.” Again, this has no basis in history. It is libelous to consider a man homosexual based on marital status; would all bachelors allow such an implication? Leonardo was an artist of the first order. He painted all kinds of characters in various situations in Renaissance styles. He was also a scientist and keen observer of nature; that is why he studied anatomy so as to present his characters as realistically as possible. He did not get along with his contemporary Michelangelo, the more likely homosexual. There is evidence that this myth about Leonardo’s sexuality was promulgated by Sigmund Freud. Here is what Jack Meadows says in The Great Scientists:
….both Morelli and Freud took up seemingly marginal clues from which they could construct a plausible case… Earlier, in 1910, from a single sentence in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, he [Freud] had suggested that the artist had been over-mothered in childhood and turned into a homosexual. Unfortunately, in 1923 it was shown that Freud’s analysis turned on a German translator’s false rendering of the Italian word for a child’s kite as a vulture. Nor were art historians convinced by Freud’s analysis on Michelangelo.
Meadows continues by saying that these studies were “very influential” even when based on a mistranslation. It’s unfair to use innuendo on historical heroes who are no longer present to speak for themselves.
So who was Leonardo da Vinci? Without dispute, he was one of the greatest stars of early science, the consummate Renaissance Man, at once a painter and sculptor par excellence, and also a keen observer, inventor and innovator. He has been called a man ahead of his time. He produced drawings for flying machines, parachutes, giant crossbows, battle tanks and other devices, indicating his forward-looking mind and faith in the power of man to harness the forces of nature. He produced detailed sketches of internal anatomy based on his own dissections when those about him still trusted the opinions of the Roman physician Galen. He studied the proportions of the human body, and gave us enduring art treasures like the Mona Lisa (not, as Brown claims, an androgynous figure, but a painting of a real woman, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo), the Virgin of the Rocks, The Annunciation, St. John the Baptist, and The Last Supper. Many of his works have Biblical themes.
The depth and genuineness of his Christian faith is less easy to ascertain. He was Catholic in a Catholic stronghold. How much was his artwork a matter of satisfying patrons, or a matter of the soul? How much did his motivation stem from Christian foundations, compared to the renewal of Classical ideals characteristic of the Renaissance? It’s hard to say, but one clue from biographer Giorgio Vasari describing his work on The Last Supper is instructive:
He also painted in Milan for the friars of S. Domenic, at S. Maria delle Grazie, a Last Supper, a thing most beautiful and marvelous. He gave to the heads of the apostles great majesty and beauty, but left that of Christ imperfect, not thinking it possible to give that celestial divinity which is required for the representation of Christ. The work, finished after this sort, has always been held by the Milanese in the greatest veneration, and by strangers also, because Leonardo imagined, and has succeeded in expressing, the desire that has entered the minds of the apostles to know who is betraying their Master. So in the face of each one may be seen love, fear, indignation, or grief at not being able to understand the meaning of Christ; and this excites no less astonishment than the obstinate hatred and treachery to be seen in Judas…
Continuing, Vasari has Leonardo explaining his thoughts to the prior of the church:
He added that he still had two heads to do; that of Christ, which he would not seek for in the world, and which he could not hope that his imagination would be able to conceive of such beauty and celestial grace as was fit for the incarnate divinity. Besides this, that of Judas was wanting, which he was considering, not thinking himself capable of imagining a form to express the face of him who after receiving so many benefits had a soul so evil that he was resolved to betray his Lord and the creator of the world.
This hint shows that Leonardo believed in creation as taught in the Scriptures. Whether Leonardo was a devout student of theology during his life may be unclear, but Vasari claims it became more important to him later in life:
At last, having become old, he lay ill for many months, and seeing himself near death, he set himself to study the holy Christian religion, and though he could not stand, desired to leave his bed with the help of his friends and servants to receive the Holy Sacrament. Then the king, who used often and lovingly to visit him, came in, and he, raising himself respectfully to sit up in bed, spoke of his sickness, and how he had offended God and man by not working at his art as he ought. Then there came a paroxysm, a forerunner of death, and the king raised him and lifted his head to help him and lessen the pain, whereupon his spirit, knowing it could have no greater honor, passed away in the king’s arms in the seventy-fifth year of his age.
Since we have not the firm evidence to indicate Leonardo da Vinci was a Biblical Christian, and the Christian motivation for his achievements is ambiguous, we will not press the point. It is clear, however, that a Christian world view was no impediment to the work of this inventive genius, and that he did express clear indications of reverence for Jesus Christ, considering him to be no less than the Creator of the world.