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 known 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
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 that 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.
Picknett 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 in 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
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 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.
Yet 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? After 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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