Leonardo da Vinci The Heretic

Because he is seen as one of the first true scientists, most people consider that Leonardo da Vinci must have been a materialist, a rationalist and an atheist. Certainly, he is One of da Vinci's many anatomical drawings- a heresy in their dayknown to have been more than scathing about the Church's corruption in his day, but certain researchers claim to have found extraordinary evidence of Leonardo as an active heretic - a man who had his own strong religious beliefs that shockingly fly in the face of accepted Christianity.

Extraordinary though it may seem today, Leonardo's life was in danger in 15th century Italy simply because he was a vegetarian. The all-important religious rationale held that because God had given humankind dominion over all the animal kingdom, it was nothing short of blasphemy to refrain from eating flesh. The Church called vegetarian food 'the Devil's banquet', and were quite prepared to have vegetarians burnt at the stake for heresy. Yet somehow Leonardo got away with it, just as he got away with other forms of heresy, both minor and - even to modern eyes - much more extreme and even downright shocking.

Naturally left-handed, the artist taught himself to be ambidextrous, also often committing his more private ideas to paper in mirror writing. But in that time and place to be left-handed was also seen as a sign of the Devil, and once again Leonardo somehow escaped punishment for refusing to forgo writing in the way that came naturally.

He did have a potentially very serious brush with the law, however, when, aged 24, he and some companions were arrested for homosexual activities. Despite the extreme seriousness of the charge (indeed, it was a criminal offence in the UK until the late 1960s), they were freed because influential people came to their aid - perhaps the secret of Leonardo's blithe disregard for society's requirements in other ways.

One of the Church's most entrenched proscriptions was against the dissection of dead bodies, on the grounds that not only was it blasphemy to destroy God's handiwork, but bodies had to remain whole for the Day of Judgement when they would be resurrected. Yet Leonardo virtually flaunted his nocturnal activities in charnel houses, when he pursued his anatomical research among the corpses of the unfortunate paupers. Somehow he had wangled a special permit from the Church, and even though it was later revoked, he was never prosecuted for the many nights he spent in grim work amid the decomposing cadavers. Once again, he simply got away with it.

Yet some manifestations of his dangerously idiosyncratic take on life were, by any standards, hugely thought-provoking.... Leonardo's anti-Church views have long been obvious to his biographers, for while he accepted several commissions to create major religious paintings - such as his world-famous 'The Last Supper' - his notebooks contain unequivocal references to what he perceived as the corruption, venality and superstitious stupidity of the clergy. Yet this may have gone considerably deeper with him than mere anticlericalism. Perhaps, as some evidence suggests, he was no atheist or even an agnostic - but an active heretic whose personal beliefs still have the power to shock.

A Decapitated Christ?

While researching the background to the Shroud of Turin from the late 1980s, British investigators Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince began to be increasingly convinced The Shroud of Turinthat the Florentinian Maestro had actually faked the alleged holy relic himself, using a primitive - but nevertheless ingenious - form of photography. But if he had indeed created this alleged image of the crucified Jesus, what were his motives for doing so?

Some researchers - such as Turin-based researcher Maria Consolata Corti - who also believe that the Florentinian Maestro had a hand in creating Christianity's most precious (and controversial) relic believe he faked it because of his extreme reverence for Jesus Christ. But Picknett and Prince counter this argument, saying: 'No one but a convinced heretic would have dared to fake Jesus' face and holy, redemptive blood, especially in those days. No true believer would have even contemplated committing such a heinous crime: only someone with no fear for his immortal soul would have even attempted this extraordinarily blasphemous act.' Besides, as both Corti and Picknett and Prince believe he used his own face in the place of Jesus' on the allegedly miraculous cloth, it does begin to seem more like a joke - or even deliberate sacrilege - than evidence of deep piety on Leonardo's part.

The Head of the Turin Shorud. Notice how the neck ends in a straight linePicknett and Prince believe that there are clues about the true nature of Leonardo's heresy in most of his surviving works - even in the stark image of the crucified man known as the Shroud of Turin. Their research has led them to conclude that the image of the face (which they claim is his) was created at a different time from the rest of the body (which they claim belongs to an unknown corpse). But would this two-part process alone explain the anomaly of the apparently severed head?

Picknett and Prince noticed that the neck ends in a straight line, and the image of the area underneath disappears into nothing for a few telling inches before abruptly beginning again at the upper chest. This they double-checked through the exhaustive work of British computer buff Andy Haveland-Robinson, who showed conclusively that the image fell away to nothing beneath what appears to be a demarcation line under the neck. But that in itself is a puzzle, for surely a genius like Leonardo would have been able to cover up such a mistake?

But what, those authors suggest, if this wasn't an error after all, but an encoded heretical message 'for those with eyes to see'? Could it be possible that he was trying to signal something specific, something that he could not possibly have stated openly in his time and place? Was he attempting to convey to posterity that someone who had been beheaded was - morally and spiritually - 'over' one who was crucified? Which New Testament character had been beheaded? There is only one: John the Baptist, who was decapitated on the orders of Herod, after being asked for his head on a platter by his step-daughter and wife Herodias.

Indeed, Picknett and Prince had noted clear evidence of Leonardo's apparent extreme devotion to John the Baptist in his paintings and other works of art.

A Passion for the Baptist

His only surviving sculpture, a joint work with notorious alchemist and occultist Gianni di Rustici, was of John the Baptist. (It now stands over an entrance to the Baptistery The Mona Lisain Florence, unfortunately providing perfect target practice for the scruffy local pigeons.) Indeed, the Baptist theme is everywhere in his life and works: when he died in France in 1519, he looked upon only two paintings from his deathbed. One was the Mona Lisa, keeping her mystery to the very end, and the other his strange, dark painting of a young John the Baptist, whose enigmatic knowing smile is strikingly similar.

Surely this is somewhat strange for the allegedly great sceptic and atheist? Why should he, of all people, choose to die in the presence of such a religious painting? The puzzle is compounded by the fact that this work was never commissioned: Leonardo chose to paint it for himself.

In this work John is pointing upwards with his right forefinger, a sign that usually referred to the Holy Spirit in religious painting at that time, but which Leonardo seemed Leonardo da Vinci's 'John the Baptist'to imbue with a meaning of his own. Whatever it was supposed to mean, close examination of his works appears to show that to him it always had associations with John the Baptist - either being actually made by him, or by others to refer to him, as the context reveals. This is what Picknett and Prince refer to as Leonardo's 'John gesture'.

It is a repeated and insistent motif. In Leonardo's unfinished Adoration of the Magi (c. 1482 - around the same time that Picknett and Prince claim he faked the Shroud) the theme is, of course, usually taken to be exactly what the title says - the worship of the infant Jesus and the Virgin by the wise men from the East, who kneel before them with their traditional gifts. But closer inspection reveals a very different tone from the deeply reverential mood supposed to be invoked by the episode. The magi are presenting frankincense and myrrh - but there is no gold. Perhaps it is significant that to those of Leonardo's day gold symbolised perfection and kingship: here it seems Jesus is not being recognised as royal.

Worse - on closer inspection it appears that the throng of worshippers around Jesus and his mother are horribly decrepit, like walking corpses clawing at them. Yet in the background is another group, much younger and healthier, who appear to be worshipping a tree. Not only is this the carob tree, symbol in traditional religious iconography of John the Baptist, but as if to reinforce the point, a young man standing close to it is making the 'John gesture'... Can Leonardo possibly be making a curiously blasphemous statement about the Holy Family - in favour of the Baptist? It seems this may well be so, for there in the bottom right-hand corner is a figure art historians say is none other than the artist himself, violently turning away from Jesus and his mother.

There is also the distinctly 'Johannite' (pro-John the Baptist) flavour to the famous 'Cartoon' (which now hangs, amid hushed reverence, in a special room in London's National Gallery), and which was the preliminary drawing for The Virgin and Child with St Anne (1501). Superficially, the Cartoon is a beautiful pious depiction of the Virgin and the infant Jesus, who is blessing the slightly older John, who in turn is leaning against the knees of St Anne, Mary's own mother.

The Virgin and Child with St AnneYet once again there are curious details: 'St Anne' looks not only suspiciously male, but her enormous hand is making the 'John gesture' above the child's head, while she stares almost threateningly into the Virgin's serenely oblivious face. It may not be a coincidence that Jesus appears to be steadying John's head, not for a blessing - but for a blow...

This air of threat to the Baptist was translated into the finished painting, although on the surface it looks remarkably different. In The Virgin and Child With St Anne John has completely vanished: in his place there is a lamb, which the infant Jesus has by the ears, looking up to his mother as if for approval. Indeed, one chubby little leg appears to cut across the lamb's neck, as if severing it...

But is this heretical idea of a Jesus who somehow menaced John an accurate interpretation of the artist's major works? The Adoration of the MagiAfter all, what may appear to a few as Jesus almost pulling the ears off the lamb may well seem totally innocuous to others - perhaps he was merely playing with it in a somewhat rough, but typical child-like fashion.

Yet the hints about something profoundly Johannite and heretical are building up: the carob tree/Baptist worshippers of The Adoration of the Magi do seem remarkably more attractive than those who crawl at the feet of Mary and Jesus... So is there any other evidence that Leonardo took this apparently outlandish - and most would believe, totally blasphemous - view of Jesus Christ's relationship with John the Baptist?

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