Friday 1 October 2021

Leonardo, a Fallen Genius?

 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.

Am I being over-imaginative? Then look at this picture of John the Baptist.

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!


Evan Pangburn said...

For what a random mans opinion is worth, I do agree. To be honest I never might have otherwise been inclined to argue with a "renaissance master" but his art is suspect. I knew about the fruity picture of St. John but that picture of Jesus immediately set off some red flags to me.

William Wildblood said...

I'm glad to hear that you agree with me about this. Like you I have to ask myself who am I to question the authority of someone regarded as probably the greatest genius of Western civilisation. But then there really does seem to be something off key about those faces.

Ann K. said...

You are right, and this is another example of the Western church’s perversion after it left the Eastern Church. Orthodoxy maintained the gravitas and somberness in art, while Rome went further astray into highly romanticized and sensationalistic works..

William Wildblood said...

That's true, Ann. The dignity and nobility of an Orthodox icon does give it a timeless quality. But, even discounting the individualistic nature of Renaissance art, not necessarily a bad thing in itself, Leonardo seems to have introduced a corruption, albeit a subtle one, in his faces that must be deliberate.

No Longer Reading said...


If Leonardo's paintings are based on either particular people he knew or features taken from people he was spending time with, then that might also be another aspect. If he was around disreputable people (and there certainly were some to be found among the scheming princes of the Renaissance), then their own features may have influenced his paintings.

What Renaissance painter would you say does a good job with religious subjects?

What do you think the depiction of philosophers in Raphael's "School of Athens"?

William Wildblood said...

I know he used people he knew as models for the paintings and the one for John was probably his student, servant and maybe lover SalaƬ but that's not really the point. If he's painting a holy subject he needs to make sure he adjusts his models to fit that subject. But even that's not my main point which is that these faces have an element of corruption in them and he must have known that.

I think the School of Athens is very different. To be frank, the faces are quite generic and a long beard is always good to suggest wisdom! But it is in typical Renaissance style. It doesn't have the subtle perversions that I see in Leonardo.

You also ask what Renaissance painters do a good job with religious subjects. I am tempted to say that compared with Medieval artists, not many. Renaissance art is very worldly. Beautiful, yes, but hardly spiritual. However, that's extreme. What about Fra Angelico? Or della Francesca's Resurrection which shows Christ as a bit of a bruiser but still full of power and authority. But again, the worldliness of Renaissance art is quite different to what I am saying about Leonardo.

jorgen said...

I don't think I've ever seen any of Leonardo's painting except Miss Smirkface and the Last Supper. Seeing these you posted here its clear he made these to blaspheme. But all supposedly great artists and great writers are overblown, chosen by the chosenites to attack normal people.

Luke said...

I saw a few of Da Vinci's works when I was younger, and never had any affection for him. Not that I had any insight into his work or that I perceived what you have written about, but he was someone that I didn't have any draw towards.
I find it interesting that you think Renaissance art is beautiful, but not spiritual. Would you explain more about that?

William Wildblood said...

That's exactly it, jorgen. You've put your finger on what I was trying to say. These pictures do blaspheme. He takes a holy subject and corrupts it. It's like Satan trying to appear as an angel of light.

Luke, what I mean by beautiful but not spiritual is that it has a sensual beauty, a sumptuousness of colour and form, a beauty of line and light and shade, but it lacks inner truth or that quality that renders a work transparent to higher things. As I say above, medieval art may be less exquisite and less technically skilful but it has the connection to higher things. The Renaissance was a time of humanism and it shows in the art.

Isbe said...

Someone - can't remember who - once said that the Mona Lisa looked like a woman who'd just eaten her husband for lunch, i.e. the cat who got the canary.

William Wildblood said...

I'm glad to see there's some kind of consensus on this with no dissenters so far.

Lady Mermaid said...

The picture of John the Baptist really creeps me out. While the Italian Renaissance led to an explosion of creativity, I believe that the philosophy of humanism corrupted the Renaissance leading to a more worldly spirituality. While medieval spirituality sometimes suffered from being overly legalistic and could forget that God's grace is what saves us, there was also a connection w/ the dead, a real belief in miracles, and a sense of the divine everywhere. You can see the dismissal of this past in humanist writers like Erasmus.

As I was reading Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars describing the changes in English spirituality during the 16th century, I felt that something was lost with both the Reformation and Counter Reformation. As someone w/ a low church Protestant background, I appreciate that medieval Christendom needed to be reminded about the importance of relying on God's grace rather than our own works in of themselves. However, the spirit of humanism corrupted both Protestant and Catholic ideals in its categorizing medieval spirituality as "vain superstition".

Anonymous said...

Did Leonardo himself finally agree with you? Vasari writes that when King Francis with whom he was staying visited him on what proved his death bed, Leonardo "out of reverence, having raised himself to sit upon the bed, giving him an account of his sickness and the circumstances of it, showed withal how much he had offended God and mankind in not having worked at his art as he should have done." (Gaston du C. De Vere's 1913 translation of Giorgio Vasari's Life of him, as transcribed at Project Gutenberg).

David Llewellyn Dodds

William Wildblood said...

DLD, that's very interesting. Thanks for pointing it out. It would be nice to think he repented.

Lady Mermaid, all that you say is true. But I think that Leonardo went beyond even what you mention and was not not just worldly but actively corrupt in his art. Was he seduced by his own genius?

Mr. Andrew said...

Thanks for pointing this out. The painting of Christ is disturbing. I never thought much of it, but didn't particularly care for his paintings - just knew they're supposed to be important, part of Western tradition (but something I didn't know how to appreciate).

I have a version of this in my office:

In my painting, in real life, the eyes stand out. They look almost alive. Sometimes at night I imagine Christ is really there. The eyes in the Leonardo painting I can't look at though, they leave me feeling a bit unwell.