The Incredible Hidden
One of the artist's most curious religious works is The Virgin of the Rocks, of which he painted two
versions - one that now hangs in the Louvre, in Paris, and the other that draws the crowds in London's National
Gallery. This was commissioned by a religious order known as the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception,
intending it to be the centrepiece of a triptych for the altar of their chapel in the church of San Francesco Grand
in Milan. The monks laid down careful specifications: not only the scene it was to depict (see below), but also
that it had to include a gaggle of Old Testament prophets plus a few cherubs, all decked out in extravagant gold
leaf. What they received was so different that it culminated in a lawsuit between themselves and the artist that
dragged on for 20 years. Even that was perhaps considerably better than what might have happened to Leonardo - if
the monks had had 'eyes to see'...
The Virgin of the Rocks
Even to the uncritical eye The Virgin of the Rocks is gloomy and peculiar: the figures seem almost
squashed into the lower half of the painting, while the upper half, right up to the skyline, is taken up with dark
tumbling rocks, interspersed with a few straggly weeds.
The reason that there are two versions of this work is that the Confraternity were appalled by what they
considered Leonardo's 'heresy' in the first version and demanded he present a 'proper', pious version. So what was
his great sin? He had omitted to give the holy figures haloes....
If what Picknett and Prince argue to be the artist's real intention is true, then that should have very much
been the least of their worries! Of the two versions, it is the one that now graces the Louvre that is by far the
most heretical, although certain rather astonishing details can be discerned in both of them.
The scene that was commissioned was a non-biblical episode that the Church invented to cover over the rather
embarrassing fact that clearly, if the Baptist was going to baptise - in other words, initiate - Jesus in
adulthood, he himself must have had the authority to do so. Given this thought-provoking concept, the early Church
Fathers invented a meeting between Jesus and his mother (and step-father Joseph) on one side and John and his
traditional protector, the archangel Uriel on the other, during the flight into Egypt. During this episode, it was
claimed that the infant Jesus bestowed on John the authority with which to baptise him in later life.
A first glance at the painting appears to show just that: all the major four characters in the drama are
present, except Joseph, who is conspicuous by his absence. The Virgin puts her arm protectively round the child
John, while Uriel points mysteriously to baby Jesus - looking straight out at the observer in a meaningful fashion
- who raises one podgy hand in blessing. Those who expect nothing more from Leonardo than brilliant (if mysterious)
brushwork and moving devotional themes are universally satisfied by this famous work, but even art historians have
noticed a curious illogicality about it that, if taken to its conclusion, presents an apparently puzzling
We see John under Mary's arm, and Jesus with Uriel - but why aren't the two children with their rightful
guardians? It is instructive to consider what happens if they are, indeed, with their true protectors: Jesus with
his mother, and John with Uriel. In that case, it is John who is giving the blessing and Jesus who kneels to
Once again, there is a distinct Johannite complexion to Leonardo's work. Always it is John the Baptist who is
either portrayed as spiritually superior to Jesus or who is being in some way threatened by him or his mother.
But even that is not all the heresy in The Virgin of the Rocks according to Picknett and Prince. When they first
began to research this subject they were impressed by Leonardo's characteristic subtlety, declaring that there was
nothing that 'was the equivalent of sticking a red nose on St Peter'. Since making that claim in the early 1990s,
however, they have radically changed their view, believing they have perceived at least one major example of the
artist's blatant, even gross, blasphemy. This, too, is in The Virgin of the Rocks and on one level certainly makes
sense of the painting's title!
Leonardo was undoubtedly a master of many things, one of them being psychology. He knew how to 'play' his
audience and was a superb illusionist and conjuror, using sleight of hand to amaze and alarm the ladies of the
courts where he worked. He understood all about the illusions of perception, how the mindset of one person will
permit them to see outrageous objects in a painting while that of another will cause their conscious mind to blank
So... as a heretic addressing other heretics, out of the mass of rocks, he had created massive testicles above -
almost growing out of - the Virgin Mary's head, and a giant phallus rising proudly above it clear to the skyline,
where it is topped by a little spurt of vegetation. It may be significant that the Italian for 'testicles' in his
day was 'rocks'. One may safely take it that he meant the 'Virgin' in the title somewhat ironically, and presumably
also reflects what he really thought of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, which had commissioned the
painting. Clearly, Leonardo was no devotee of the Virgin Mary.
A New Look at The Last Supper
The Last Supper
Yet equally he seemed to possess something approaching reverence - or at least respect - for another biblical
woman, although a considerably more maligned one.
Surely one of the two most instantly-recognised paintings in the world is Leonardo's Last Supper (the other
being, of course, the Mona Lisa). Yet curiously, according to some, this apparently pious wall painting is replete
with many details that few seem ever to have noticed: for example, the highly stylised hand gestures of the
disciples have been discerned as being taken from quasi- or early Masonic ritual, or as representations of the
signs of the zodiac. (Although Leonardo usually - and publicly - poured scorn on all matter psychic, his accounts
show that he paid an astrologer on at least one occasion.) And an anomalous hand, which seems to belong to nobody
at the table, thrusts a dagger towards a disciple's stomach. Yet little compares with the strangely ambivalent
figure sitting on Jesus' right-hand side (on his left to the observer)....
Depicted leaning exaggeratedly to one side away from Jesus, the central figure, this is supposed to be the young
St John, or John the Beloved. Yet in the New Testament he is described as leaning on Jesus' bosom, not edging away
in this manner. And why would John have breasts and a gold necklace? 'He' seems to be mostly a 'she'!
Yet this figure also boasts a tiny frill of beard. So who is this composite being supposed to represent? Perhaps
a clue lies in the fact that 'he' is wearing mirror image clothes to Jesus: where Christ wears a red robe and a
blue cloak, this character wears a blue robe and a red cloak (or pinkish in the 'restored' version: actually it was
originally the same red). And taken together, they form a large spread-eagled 'M' shape. It seems that Leonardo
was, on one level, intending to represent a woman whose name began with 'M' as Jesus' right-hand 'man'. Who else
but Mary Magdalene, the women now widely believed to have been either Jesus' wife or lover?
But why should Leonardo tempt fate by inserting her so guilefully into such a major work of art? After all, if
his intention were uncovered, he might well have suffered as all heretics suffered. Perhaps, if challenged, he
might have claimed that he was merely representing a callow youth - John the Beloved - although the necklace may
make him seem rather too effeminate, not to mention the breasts! Yet perhaps in a sense he was representing the
disciple John as well as Mary Magdalene, for if she were the same as Mary of Bethany in the New Testament, that
would mean she and John were siblings.
Indeed, Leonardo was fond of drawing hermaphrodites, covering many pages with doodles - some pornographically
graphic - of beings with both sets of genitalia. It may be that they were merely part of his personal sexual
fantasies, but equally it may be significant that in his day, hermaphrodites were symbols of perfection to
alchemists (not only seekers after the technique that was believed would change base metal into gold, but also what
we would call research scientists). In making John and Mary into one figure, was he hinting that they had achieved
some kind of spiritual perfection - which, clearly, he believed was signally lacking from the character of the
The Adoration of the Magi
Also, in The Last Supper, the disciple standing next to Jesus on the left is thrusting his forefinger into the
air in an almost threatening manner. It is that ubiquitous 'John gesture' and it may not be too fanciful -
certainly in the context of Leonardo's other hidden codes - to interpret as saying: 'Remember John... who is also,
in spirit, at this feast.'
And, as in The Adoration of the Magi, here the artist also painted himself with his back to Jesus, as the disciple
St Jude or Thaddeus (the second from the observer's right). Some commentators believe this is because he did not
feel worthy to face Christ, but given all the other clues in his works, it seems nothing could be further from the
But why had Leonardo gone to such lengths to imbue his paintings with so much apparently bitter and outrageous
heresy? Was it some profound quirk on his part - after all, geniuses are notoriously odd - or were these secret
blasphemies actually based on something he knew, or thought he knew? Did Leonardo da Vinci really have access to
shocking lost knowledge about Jesus, his mother, and those who followed him?
Deeper into Heresy
Largely because of the ground-breaking 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard
Leigh and Henry Lincoln, the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is now openly discussed and even
accepted widely. If she was indeed, Jesus' 'other half' - either married or as lovers - then Leonardo's depiction
of her in clothes that are the mirror-image of her husband's makes perfect sense. But how did Leonardo know of
their relationship when in his time and place the Catholic Church ruled supreme with its insistence that Jesus
lived and died a virgin and had no close relationship with any woman?
Certainly, although the Church ruled the lives and minds of most people in 15th- and 16th-century Florence, the
de Medici court - of which Leonardo was a proud member - was curiously open-minded. Ancient magical texts were
sought and translated, and the whole court seethed with exciting and daring ideas. Perhaps among the forbidden
texts that came their way were fragments of 'lost' Gnostic gospels, of which similar ones resurfaced at Nag Hammadi
in 1945. And one of the most distinguishing features of these books is that they stress that Jesus and Mary
Magdalene were lovers (although, perhaps tellingly, even these forbidden books never refer to them as man and
Also there is the possibility that Leonardo's homeland of Tuscany in northern Italy still possessed - secretly,
of course - knowledge of the old Cathar heresy. This flourished in the Languedoc area of south-western France, and
centred on a primitive form of Christian worship. Cathars themselves believed that theirs was the original
Christianity as practised by Jesus and his followers, and they utterly refuted that of the Catholic Church as being
corrupt and gravely mistaken. Outdoor worshippers who shunned formal priesthood in favour of both male and female
preachers, and largely vegetarian and believers in reincarnation, the Cathars lived lives of such remarkable purity
that they were known as 'les bonhommes' - good men, or good people. They were almost completely wiped out by the
Pope's men in the middle of the 13th century, although some survived in Italy and elsewhere.
Although the Cathars left few written records - so most of what we know about them comes from their enemies - it
is known that they possessed a secret, alternative Gospel of John, and there are persuasive hints that they also
had access to other 'heretical' texts that may have been equally as authentic as those in the New Testament. And
thousands of Cathars –and even their sympathisers - went willingly to their deaths at the hands of the Pope's men
rather than recant their belief that Jesus and the Magdalene were lovers - almost certainly having learnt of this
from alternative, secret or 'Gnostic' gospels (see above). Did this help to explain the female aspect of the
hermaphroditic figure next to Jesus in Leonardo's Last Supper, who wears mirror-image clothes and who, with him,
forms a giant 'M' shape?
Did the Cathar heresy, which also flourished in Leonardo's area, find its way into his heart, mind - and,
ultimately, paintings? It is even possible, given the various tantalising hints and clues about his personal
beliefs - such as his anticlericalism and vegetarianism that his mother's name, the otherwise common enough
'Caterina', may mean 'the Cathar woman'. (Although she seems to have played merely a walk-on role in his early
life, a mysterious 'Caterina' turned up when he was a famous working artist and ended her days in his household. He
paid for a sumptuous funeral - hardly the expected response of a master of the house and a celebrated figure to the
death of a mere housekeeper.)
Although an acquaintanceship with the old Cathar beliefs may well have inculcated in him an extreme veneration
for the Magdalene, superficially at least it would hardly have encouraged him into such rampant and dangerous
Johannitism. In general, the Cathars seemed to consider the Baptist an evil influence, going so far as to call him
'a demon'. Yet at the same time, the Inquisition's intelligence gathering led them to believe that the Cathar's
owned the Baptist's head, believed to possess magical powers - and which, suggests Lynn Picknett in her book Mary
Magdalene: Christianity's Hidden Goddess,, together with Glastonbury-based researcher and artist Yuri Leitch - may
actually have been the real Holy Grail. So perhaps the Cathars revered John from a somewhat muddled perspective,
seeing him not as a holy man but, at least in his post-mortem state, as a powerful paranormal force to be reckoned
with, to be honoured and placated.
Old Master - and Grand Master...
The Priory of Sion Logo
There are many clues about Leonardo's involvement with dangerous heretical movements - perhaps at a very high
level indeed. In The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, authors Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln reveal the existence of a
largely French organisation dating from the 13th century, the Priory of Sion (or Priéurie de Sion), whose sworn
raison d'être was to protect and uphold the sacred bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. They list the society's
Grand Masters over the years: among the dazzling names such as Sir Isaac Newton and, more recently Jean Cocteau,
was Leonardo da Vinci.... Allegedly he assumed the role of Grand Master for the last nine years of his life (he
died in 1519 in France), and, like all the Priory of Sion's leaders, took the name 'John' (or 'Jean' or
'Giovanni'), although the authors express puzzlement over this tradition. Leonardo, they claimed, was 'John
Unfortunately, further research has revealed that the Priory of Sion only existed from the 1950s... Yet it does
seem that there have been similar groups throughout history, which focussed on secrets about Jesus, the Magdalene
and the Baptist - and it does make sense to involve Leonardo's name with Johannite beliefs. So is the 'Priory of
Sion' merely a convenient cover for other, truly ancient Orders and organisations?
And although most researchers latch on to the implications of a bloodline that came from Jesus and Mary
Magdalene, few seem to have noticed that the Grand Masters are always called John... Indeed, Picknett and Prince
have pointed out that 'Sion' is Welsh for 'John' - and the Celtic language seems to be particularly important to
the organisation, although no one knows why. Besides, the erstwhile Grand Master Pierre Plantard de Saint Clair
(who was in office in the 1980s when he was an informant of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln) stated unequivocally that
the Priory of Sion are 'the swordbearers of the Church of John'.
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