I saw another programme in the Ancient Aliens series recently, a series I enjoy for its examination of unexplained phenomena and ancient mysteries without going along with its central premise of "It's all aliens!". The programme was about Leonardo da Vinci and how he may have been inspired by encounters with extraterrestrials (don't ask) to include strands of esoteric thought in his work, some of which he encoded in his paintings. There was a best selling novel about this not so long ago though I haven't read it and don't plan to do so. One of the ideas was that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. As far as I can see this was suggested for no better reason than that, as a Jewish man of around 30, he must have been married to someone. But why? He was Jesus. He had a unique mission. There was no reason he should have done what was customary at the time. If he was married why would that have been left out of the story of his life? And how could he have asked his disciples to leave their wives and family if he had a wife himself? No, this idea seems to be a bit of wishful thinking to me.
The image of the admittedly female-looking St John in the painting of The Last Supper was brought up to support this contention along with the fact that this figure and that of Jesus next to it form an M shape but, frankly, so what? Leonardo may well have believed this story but that doesn't make it true. There were dozens of underground sects and heretical offshoots in the Middle Ages, mostly descending from some form of Gnosticism, whose members might have been convinced they were the possessors of hidden knowledge but that doesn't make it so. The temptation of being a possessor of esoteric wisdom hidden from the masses is a great spiritual trap, designed to induce exclusivity and spiritual pride. So, Leonardo may have belonged to a group that fished in the pool of the occult but there's a lot of murky stuff down there. Truths and deceptions are often all mixed up in those waters.
None of that is why I am writing this post though. The programme showed us the 15 or so (I can't recall the exact number but it's not high) surviving paintings by the master. And a master of art he clearly was which makes the question I am about to ask (which was not a point made by the programme) all the more relevant. It is this. Why are so many of the faces in Leonardo's paintings so weird, and not in a good way? I find them disquieting and I assume he meant them to be. He was too great an artist for this to be an accident or the result of incompetence. Look at this picture of Christ, for example, currently the most expensive painting in the world.
Is that a good face? I don't think so. I find there is something almost evil in it, especially the eyes. There is a certain beauty and mystery but there is also something uncanny, even cruel and I don't like it. I am certainly not inspired by it as I am by many pictures of Christ.
Then there's the Virgin of the Rocks from the National Gallery in London.The babies are too plump and ugly, especially Jesus, look at his left hand and legs, but that was the style of the time. But then the expression on the baby Jesus's face suggests just a bit too much self-assurance (you bow down to me) while the faces of the Virgin Mary and the angel seem somewhat complacent, even narcissistic. The style of their faces is spiritualised but the actual execution puts a kink in that to create a kind of unsettling discord. Something is not quite right.
Come on! This is sly, seductive, sexual. The finger is supposed to be pointing to heaven but it doesn't come off like that. This is not John the Baptist by any stretch of the imagination. Leonardo's homosexuality is well-known and it seems to have affected his approach to spirituality. Maybe it drove him to hidden things and rebellion against convention and orthodoxy but it also seems to me that he was trying to create a kind of spiritual corruption in his work. The famous smile of the Mona Lisa, which I shan't bother to include here since I assume you are familiar with it, has always seemed to me more like a self-satisfied smirk of superiority and I find this in most of Leonardo's paintings as though he was deliberately trying to poison beauty by creating beautiful things and then putting a worm in the apple. One can only speculate as to why but I have to say that, despite his inarguable genius, I don't see him as on the side of the angels.
Obviously not everyone will agree!