Crossing the culture
Leonardo's modern mind
The National Gallery’s latest exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, invites a reappraisal of one of the least prolific and most prominent artists of all time, posing poignant questions for the modern — and postmodern — thinker.
It is partly due to the scarcity of Leonardo’s works that the show has attracted so much attention; the exhibition is ‘the most complete display of Leonardo’s rare surviving paintings ever held’, containing several works that have never been seen in the UK1. There is also excitement over the inclusion of the recently rediscovered ‘Salvator Mundi’. But, according to curator Luke Syson, there is a further reason why the time was right for the world to pay attention to Leonardo as a painter: ‘It was [...] important for the National Gallery to provide a sensible corrective to Dan Brown’s mystical, heretical Leonardo.’2
Rescuing his reputation
Now infamous, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is the best-selling book of the 21st century to date. It has inspired a riot of comment, particularly from Christian publications: in 2006 alone EN ran six articles with the words ‘Da Vinci Code’ in the title, each trying to help sort the fact from the fiction. The Da Vinci Code contained worrying inaccuracies about the gospel, and also about Leonardo; so much so that evangelical author Nancy Pearcey has sought to rescue the reputation of both in her latest book, Saving Leonardo.3
The book charts the attack of secular ideology on the Christian mind, tracing a movement in art history away from coherence, unity and truthfulness. It was praised in The Economist as a useful guidebook to the postmodern mindset, helping ‘the religiously astute understand the forces in culture that are at odds with a concept of God’.4 Pearcey positions Leonardo at the core of the battle, describing him as a deeply religious artist who also stands as ‘a symbol of the modern mind and its tragic inability to find unified truth’.5
For though he was surely a Renaissance man to the core, Leonardo also anticipated modernity. His ‘Vitruvian Man’, which appears in a gruesome form in Dan Brown’s novel, anticipates the modern vision of the mechanical body, lying dissected and rationalised. He is encased in a square that symbolises our limitations in the physical world. However, he simultaneously lies in a circle, expressing his nature as a spiritual being belonging to the eternal heavenly sphere. This is a holistic image of man in which the physical and spiritual realities are united, as yet unrent by empiricism.
Yearnings of the soul
Although the ‘Vitruvian Man’ itself does not feature at the National, the exhibition draws attention to the ways in which Leonardo explored ‘the relationship between the human form, the yearnings of the human soul and the presence of God’.6 It is an exploration fraught with complications. Leonardo’s idealised forms aim to produce a beauty even greater than nature, placing the artist as the supreme Creator. However, his art conveys profound Christian truths, and he attributed his skill to God. His ultimate hope was that the two might be united; that, through close observation and naturalistic art, ‘the artist’s powers of invention might reveal a glimpse of the divine imagination’.7
Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’ is the painting that Pearcey describes as the most famous example of this desire, and it is also at the crux of Brown’s book. The original remains on the wall of a Dominican convent in Milan, but the National exhibit places it nonetheless at the culmination of Leonardo’s period at the Milanese Court. It is represented by a full-scale copy by Giampietrino, on loan from the Royal Academy. The exhibition describes Leonardo’s original vision for the iconic work: ‘to place the reactions of the 12 distinct individuals within an ideally proportioned composition that would communicate the beauty and divine mystery of Christ’s imminent sacrifice’.8 At the heart of a believably human scene, depicted with beauty, order and design, lies an enigmatic spiritual truth.
‘The Last Supper’, along with much of Leonardo’s work, draws the crowds because of its mysterious quality. It poses questions that captivate the modern mind searching for coherent truth. Was ‘The Last Supper’ a hint about the lineage of Jesus? (No.) Can ‘Salvator Mundi’ really be attributed to him? (Probably.) What we can be certain of is that he will continue to be celebrated as an artist who expressed the great mystery of the gospels: ‘that the spiritual realm has entered deeply into ordinary life’.9
Rachel Thorpe works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles are available at http://www.rachelthorpe.com
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan runs from November 9 2011 Ð February 5 2012 at the National Gallery, London.
1. Press release, ‘Exhibitions at the National Gallery 2011’ (issued July 2010), National Gallery: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/about-us/press-and-media/exhibitions-programme-2011
2. ‘Q&A: Staging the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition’ (November 8 2011), BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-15466904
3. Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo (2010), Broadman & Holman Publishers.
4. J.D, ‘Nancy Pearcey: Rallying to restore God’, The Economist, December 10 2010
6. Exhibition catalogue available at http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/