“The heavens often rain down the richest gifts on human beings, but sometimes they bestow with lavish abundance upon a single individual beauty, grace and ability, so that whatever he does, every action is so divine that he distances all other men, and clearly displays how his greatness is a gift of God and not an acquirement of human art. Men saw this in Leonardo.”
Giorgio Vasari, on Leonardo da Vinci, from Lives of the Artist
Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance Man
The concept of the Renaissance Man refers to an individual who is knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects. In the Middle Ages, one was expected to be expert in a single trade, but during the Renaissance the idea of a well educated individual come into being: in addition to being knowledgeable about a trade, the well educated gentleman should also have knowledge of philosophy, science, poetry, and art. This new ideal of a well-rounded and educated individual was an outgrowth of Renaissance Humanism, and is the basis of our Liberal Arts educational system today (that’s why you must take courses in history, math, and science, as well as art!). Leon Battista Alberti captured the spirit behind the idea of the “Renaissance Man” when he wrote that “a man can do all things if he will.”
Leonardo da Vinci is widely regarded as the quintessential Renaissance Man. In addition to being an accomplished artist, he was an inventor and engineer, and an expert in anatomy, astronomy, and botany. He was also a charming conversationalist, and he spent his last years at the court of Francis I, where he frequently entertained the King with his knowledge and wit. According to legend, the King was at his bedside when he died – quite an honor for a mere artist!
Science, Art, and Religion
Leonardo’s studies and interests combined three areas that we normally consider distinct — science, religion, and art — but Leonardo believed that these three fields were closely related. He believed that scientific knowledge made him a better artist, and his studies of anatomy and nature certainly enabled him to render the physical world with unprecedented naturalism. But Leonardo also believed that the scientific study of nature could bring him closer to God. By studying nature, he could begin to understand the mysteries of God’s creation. As Leonardo wrote:
“Truly painting is a science, the true-born child of nature. For painting is born of nature; to be more correct we should call it the grandchild of nature, since all visible things were brought forth by nature and these, her children, have given birth to painting. Therefore we may justly speak of it as the grandchild of nature and as related to god.”
Leonardo – Anatomist
Artistic Genius and Divine Creation
Leonardo was one of the first artists to be regarded by his contemporaries as a “genius.” The concept of “artistic genius” was based on the idea that creativity comes from the imagination, rather than skill, and that it is a special gift that enables the artist to bring forth realities that exist only in his mind. Indeed, Leonardo (and Michelangelo too) often likened the creativity of the artist to God, who likewise created something out of nothing:
“If the painter wishes to see beauties that would enrapture him, he is master of their production,…And if he wishes to produce places or deserts, or shady or cool spots in hot weather, he can depict them…If he seeks valleys, if he wants to disclose great expanses of countryside from the summits of mountains, and if he subsequently wishes to see the horizon of the sea, he is lord of all of them.”
Leonardo was also one of the first Italian artists to begin working with the oil medium, which had long been known to Flemish painters, but was new to Italian painters.
The difference between egg tempera and oil paint (BBC)
Leonardo’s innovations in can be seen in this painting, which depicts the Virgin Mary in a rocky landscape setting, with the Christ Child, Saint John the Baptist, and an angel (an almost identical version of the picture can be seen at the National Gallery in London). Here is a description from Smarthistory.org:
“Normally when we have seen Mary and Christ (in, for example, paintings by Lippi and Giotto), Mary has been enthroned as the queen of heaven. Here, in contrast, we see Mary seated on the ground. This type of representation of Mary is referred to as the Madonna of Humility. Mary has her right arm around the Infant Saint John the Baptist who is making a gesture of prayer to the Christ child. The Christ child in turn blesses St. John. Mary’s left hand hovers protectively over the head of her son while an angel looks out and points to St. John. The figures are all located in a fabulous and mystical landscape with rivers that seem to lead nowhere and bizarre rock formations. In the foreground we see carefully observed and precisely rendered plants and flowers.”
Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, Smarthistory
Painted in oil (which was new to Italian artists), the figures are enveloped in a dark, shadowy light called sfumato, which is Italian for “smoky.” The hazy lighting sets the “mood” of the picture, and creates a palpable sense of atmosphere, as if we can actually see and feel the air. It also adds to the naturalism of the scene: Leonardo understood that air and shadows can hinder our ability to see, so parts of the picture are lost in shadow, and the edges of figures and objects are soft and indistinct, rather than outlined with a thick contour (which can make a picture look like a cartoon). The picture comes closer to how we actually see objects in the world — filtered through atmosphere that blurs edges, and renders some things obscure. The crystal clear clarity of Van Eyck’s paintings looks artificial by comparison (similar to how many people complain that the new HD technology for TV is so magnified in its crisp realism that the picture looks fake).
Another innovation in Leonardo’s picture is his use of “pyramidal construction.” The figures are arranged in the shape of a pyramid, which enhances the three-dimensionality of the grouping. They are united by interlocking gestures that direct the eye from one figure to the next. Through these gestures the figures seem to engage with one another (rather than “posing” stiffly for the viewer, as they seem to do in Early Renaissance pictures). This psychological engagement is what brings the picture to life, as the figures seem to interact in a shared moment of reverence and adoration.
Uniting the Human and the Divine
All of these techniques enhance the naturalism of Leonardo’s painting, but something interesting has happened. Did you notice that none of the figures has a halo? Yet there is no mistaking that they are “divine.” As human and earthly as these figures seem to be, their exquisite beauty and grace, and the serenity of their expressions endows them with a supernatural aura that makes their divinity seem self evident, and renders the use of artificial symbols like the halo unnecessary.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1491-1508, 189.5 x 120 cm, oil on panel, National Gallery (London)
Like many artists, Leonardo sought work elsewhere when Savonarola was stirring up trouble in Florence. He traveled first to Milan, where he was commissioned by the Duke to paint a fresco for the refectory of the monastery of Santa Marie delle Grazie. Leonardo had come to prefer the subtleties of oil paint, so he experimented with the fresco technique by working on the painting after it dried. The experiment didn’t work, and the picture started deteriorating soon after it was finished!
The painting depicts the last supper, when Christ gathered his disciples to announce that one of them will betray him. Christ is seated at the center of a long table, with a window framing his head like a halo, and the orthogonals of the perspective system converging on his head. With his arms outstretched to form a pyramid, he is like the calm center of the storm, as his disciples react dramatically to his words.
Arranged into groups of three, Leonardo unites the figures through interlocking gestures that communicate a range of emotional responses. Some react in anger, while others express surprise and disbelief. Judas gives himself away by leaning away from his companions, clutching a bag of money.
The brilliance of Leonardo’s accomplishment can be seen if we compare his work to Andrea del Castagno’s version of the theme, painted just 50 years earlier. While Castagno employs the full range of Renaissance techniques, including linear perspective and modeling with light and shade, the pictures seems lifeless and artificial compared to Leonardo’s action-packed scene. Indeed, Castagno’s figures look like painted statues with their frozen gestures and expressions, and they reveal nothing to us about their inner psychology. Leonardo’s figures, on the other hand, move and interact fluidly around the table, and their facial expressions and gestures reveal to us what they are thinking! As Giorgio Vasari wrote:
“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.”
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, 1568; translated by George Bull
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, oil, tempera, fresco, 1495-98 (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker
Learn more: Art History in Just a Minute: The Last Supper
The Intentions of the Soul
Leonardo’s ability to communicate inner psychology through facial expression and gesture reflects what he regarded as the most important objective of painting: to express what he called “the intentions of the soul.” This, he wrote, was not an easy thing to do:
“A good painter has two chief objects to paint – man and the intention of his soul. The former is easy, the latter hard, for it must be expressed by gestures and the movements of limbs . . .”
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo realized that it was not enough to just capture the outward appearance of an individual; equally important was the expression of an inward state of being that could only be communicated through facial expression and gesture, as well as lighting and composition. Early Renaissance artists had mastered the techniques of representing the observable world, but their pictures often appear lifeless, and devoid of “personality.” It was Leonardo who discovered how to bring the human figure to life by endowing it with a psychological dimension.
One of Leonardo’s most famous works of art, this small painting represents the wife of a wealthy Florentine; for some reason the commission was never completed and the painting was with Leonardo when he died (which has led to speculation that it may have had personal significance for him).
Leonardo departed from the traditional profile format by portraying the sitter in a three-quarter pose, and including the hands, rather than cutting the picture off at the bust. This enabled the artist to focus on the sitter’s personality, rather than external signs of wealth and status. The figure is arranged in the shape of a pyramid, with her hands placed gracefully in her lap. Dressed simply, with no jewelry or distracting finery, her pose communicates dignity and poise.
As is characteristic of Leonardo’s style, the figure is bathed in a dark, smoky haze (sfumato). The edges of her face are soft and indistinct, while the gradations of light to dark are so subtle that the light appears to flicker, rather than being frozen in time. Equally fugitive is the expression on her face: while the shadows around her lips and eyes evoke the hint of a smile, it is difficult to determine whether she is smiling or smirking. This uncertainty lends a sense of mystery to her expression, since we are left to wonder what she is thinking. Equally mysterious are the craggy mountains in the background, which recall the primordial landscapes he often used as the backdrop for religious subjects.
Mona Lisa – Why so Famous? (VAT19.com)
Learn more (this one is fun!):
Art History in Just a Minute: The Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci, Smarthistory
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery, London
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