Gnosticism, Ignorance, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”

​It seems that in an increasingly faithless age, the Western world cannot get enough of looking for hidden messages in everything. The reprogramming of the History Channel for example, from carefully researched documentaries about actual history, to ridiculous shows about conspiracies involving extra-terrestrials, Bigfoot, or the freemasons – or all three – is but one example of how culturally ignorant and gnostic our society has become. Unfortunately, this wave of secular Gnosticism has also overflowed into our scholarly institutions.

Recently ArtNet ran an article about Leonardo da Vinci and the supposed hidden messages in his famous fresco of “The Last Supper” in Milan, linking to a video on the subject produced by the Smithsonian. Normally, when clicking on such an article, one must take a deep breath before proceeding, and prepare to be astounded by the sheer stupidity that one is about to read. In this case, although I was pleasantly surprised at first, by the end of the piece I was in full eye-roll mode.

The researcher featured in the article/video, Mario Taddei, is a Milanese inventor and Leonardo da Vinci expert. He gained some prominence during the Dan Brown era of about a decade ago, back when the laughably bad book “The Da Vinci Code” was a best-seller, and Tom Hanks had some overdue tax bill to pay which required him to play the lead in the atrocious film of the same name. Since then Taddei has been consulted by a number of media outlets in order for him to comment on, and often debunk, the theories put forward by Brown regarding Leonardo.

To give him credit, in the Smithsonian video Taddei points out that Dan Brown’s theories about the “Last Supper” are utter nonsense. He correctly notes that Leonardo was to some extent restricted in what he was painting by the Christian iconography that preceded his depiction of the Last Supper. The video also points out that hidden letters with obscure meanings could be spotted in virtually any painting ever painted, not just Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. Toward the end of the video however, things go off the rails.  

It is never a good idea to make sweeping generalizations about subjects which you do not understand very well. Thus I am somewhat surprised that the Smithsonian could not simply have called someone over at the National Gallery, before making a rather unfortunate statement in this video. For near the end of the piece, the narrator claims that: “Before Leonardo da Vinci, all versions of the Last Supper showed Jesus and His Disciples with haloes.”
This statement is utterly false.

In Dierc Bouts’ magnificent “Last Supper”, which forms the center panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament at St. Peter’s in Louvain – a work so coveted by many over the centuries that it was stolen to order by the Nazis during World War II – neither Christ nor any of the Apostles are sporting haloes. The same is true of the “Last Supper” by Andrea del Castagno (or more likely by his workshop) which is now in the National Gallery in London, where there is not a single halo to be seen. Even the minor Flemish artist Joos Van Wassenhove painted a halo-less Last Supper for the powerful Montefeltro family, the Dukes of Urbino. All of these works, as it happens, were painted decades before Leonardo’s “Last Supper”.

While it is true that conventionally, representations of the figures at the Last Supper usually had haloes, there were partial exceptions to this rule long before Leonardo. There are countless examples from Byzantine and Romanesque art produced between the 5th and 11th centuries in which the only figure shown with a halo at the Last Supper is Christ. Moreover, many artists before Leonardo never or hardly ever put haloes on their religious figures in any picture, including the great Jan Van Eyck. Thus, Leonardo’s idea was hardly original. 

More curious still is the assertion by Taddei in the film as to why Leonardo chose to omit the haloes.“I believe that Leonardo never put the halos because he thinks that these people are common people, and this is the true secret of Leonardo,” Taddei comments in the video. “There is no extra-terrestrial or supernatural object inside The Last Supper. Leonardo wants to tell us that the 13 men are simple men, and this is something much more powerful.”

It should be noted that, in the early part of his career, Leonardo most certainly did put haloes on his figures. His “Annunciation” of circa 1472-1475 for example, features haloes on both the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, and his “Benois Madonna” of 1478 places haloes on the Madonna and Child. It is true that Leonardo later abandoned the practice of painting haloes in all of his religious paintings, but probably not for the reason given by Taddei. After all, while not conclusive, the earliest-known copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, painted by his assistant Giampietrino about 20 years later, has haloes on the figures.

In both versions of Leonardo’s “The Virgin of the Rocks” – one of which is in The Louvre and the other in The National Gallery in London – an angel accompanies the Virgin, Christ Child, and St. John the Baptist. While none of the human figures in the Louvre version have haloes, the angel is surely “extra-terrestrial or supernatural”, yet it does not have a halo either. In the National Gallery version, all of the human figures have haloes, but again the angel does not. Even if the human haloes were added by a later hand, since neither of the angels bear haloes, it is hard to argue that Leonardo abandoned the halo because he was trying to humanize a figure that was, by definition, not a human being. Moreover, throughout art history, angels sometimes wear haloes, and sometimes they do not; this was the case long before Leonardo.  

        
More importantly, putting aside the bizarre use of the term “extra-terrestrial” in the context of analyzing a work of Christian sacred art, Taddei betrays his lack of understanding in saying that there is nothing “supernatural” going on in this scene. For Catholics, and certainly for the Dominican Friars who commissioned Leonardo’s painting, the Last Supper marks the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Leonardo would have known and understood this, as would the men who paid him to paint this picture. He was not simply portraying a meal, like he might a Kiwanis Club banquet in Des Moines, but rather a supernatural event.

Signor Taddei may be many things, but he is neither an art historian nor a theologian. He should be given credit for debunking the nonsense that Dan Brown attempted to pass off as fact, and the Smithsonian should be credited as well for putting together this video allowing him to do so in a concise way. Yet one does not remedy someone else’s chicanery by making easily disproved assertions, nor by presenting half-baked theories based on a poor understanding of the subject matter.

Lost Leonardo? The Drawing, the Painting, and the Swiss Bank Vault

As a child, I was always fascinated by a famous portrait drawing of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci.  A reproduction of the drawing, which is presently in The Louvre, illustrated a section about the d’Este sisters in a large book about the Italian Renaissance.  While the accompanying portrait of Beatrice, supposedly the more beautiful of the two, left me unimpressed as to either beauty or technical skill, I found the near-contemporaneous portrait by Leonardo absolutely captivating. While not as pretty as her sister, Isabella in her portrait seemed to be the deeper soul, more interesting and more immediate, her portrait looking like a faded photograph.

So it was particularly fascinating to read that authorities have recovered what at least one expert believes to be the finished Leonardo portrait of Isabella d’Este, of which The Louvre drawing would be a preparatory sketch.  The work, which had been in Rome but was later moved to a bank vault in Switzerland, was at the point of being illegally sold when it was seized. Italian law is extremely strict when it comes to works of art leaving the country, and the owners of this work had not obtained either permission to send the work abroad, nor an export license to sell it.

Looking at the painting itself, while one can immediately spot the similarity to the Leonardo drawing of Isabella d’Este, the finished work is somewhat different in appearance. It is obscured by what, to many eyes, may seem unusual add-ons. Unlike the image of Isabella in the drawing, the figure in the painting is wearing a diadem, and rests her right arm, which is holding a palm branch, atop what appears to be a wheel.

For those of my readers who are fellow Catholics, or who are familiar with Christian iconography, these attributes will immediately identity the figure not as Isabella d’Este, but as St. Catherine of Alexandria. A popular subject in Italian Renaissance art, Catherine was a princess martyred in the 4th century persecutions of the Emperor Maxentius, hence the crown of a princess and the palm of a martyr. One of the instruments of her torture before her death was a spiked wheel [ N.B. which is where the spinning firework known as a “Catherine Wheel” got its name.]

While this may seem an odd thing to have happened to the portrait of one of the most famous women of the Renaissance, such “makeovers” were not unusual in art history. The most obvious example would be the placement of strategic plaster fig leaves over the genitalia of nude sculptures, but even in painting, when a work seemed to be dingy or in need of a facelift, an owner or a dealer might have the piece repainted to turn it into something more appealing to a particular buyer.

Discoveries of long-missing masterworks beneath centuries of overpaint still occur on a regular basis.  However, rediscovering a major painting by Leonardo da Vinci would be quite the coup, if this work is eventually authenticated. Personally, I am suspicious, for two reasons.

First, whereas much of the 20th century was spent by art historians debunking overly-optimistic attributions of Old Master paintings and sculptures to famous artists, since the beginning of the 21st century we seem to have been heading headlong in the opposite direction. We have been rediscovering lost paintings and sculptures by the great names of Western art all over the place. Is this because of our access to improved technology and greater levels of scholarly collaboration on an international basis, or is there some other explanation?

Second, while it is difficult to make a judgment from a single photograph, to me the painting looks wrong. The one thing which da Vinci did better than anyone else was hands. Look at the panoply of hands in his Last Supper, even in its sorry current state, and you will see what I mean. Isabella’s hand however, if this is indeed her portrait, is awkward. Her unnaturally long index finger doesn’t seem to point so much as bounce uncomfortably in the breeze, like a tree branch about to snap. Her curled fingers are too stumpy to be part of the same hand that would hold such an enormous finger.

Of course, I am perfectly happy to be proven wrong. If this is a missing Leonardo, the final product of a project whose preparation was so well-known, then with proper cleaning and restoration, it would be of immense importance in art history. In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see what science tells us.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500) The Louvre, Paris

Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500)
The Louvre, Paris

Art, Transfigured

Today the Church marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that moment recounted in the Gospels when Christ briefly revealed His true nature to His three closest disciples, Sts. Peters, James, and John.  Without question the single most iconic image of this event in the history of art is Raphael’s eponymous altarpiece, which he was working on when he died, now in the Vatican.  Chances are you will recognize the image of Jesus which appears in the painting, even if you have never seen the entire work at full length, for it has proven to be one of the most enduring images of Christ in the world.  And this last masterpiece by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance gives us the opportunity to consider what secular art historians so often fail to consider when examining Western art, which is the influence of spiritual writing on popular piety.

The painting itself is unusual at first glance because it combines two different stories from the Bible: that of the Transfiguration, which dominates the upper half of the piece, and the attempt by the other Apostles not present at the Transfiguration to cure a boy possessed by demons, which takes up the lower half.  Because these two events occurred sequentially, rather than simultaneously, in the Gospels, one way to “read” the painting would be somewhat like how we read a comic strip.  However nothing in religious art, back when people actually thought about things like iconography and spirituality, happens by chance.  This is what makes the study of art history not only fascinating, but something of a multi-disciplinary subject.

A current theory for the juxtaposition of events shown in this altarpiece would not be apparent unless one was also familiar with the writing of the Franciscan mystic, Blessed Amadeo of Portugal (1420-1482), who suggested that the Transfiguration was a Biblical preview of Christ’s return in glory at the Last Judgment.  The Apostles down at the bottom of Mount Tabor are unable to cast the demon from the boy on their own, and they have to wait until Jesus comes back to them for the healing to happen.  Thus, symbolically, evil cannot be finally cast out from the world until Christ returns.

In the early 16th century, a collection of Blessed Amadeo’s sermons and writings attributed to him were combined into a work entitled the “Apocalipsis Nova”, or “The New Apocalypse”.  It was published after his death, and loosely formed a commentary on the Book of Revelation based on Blessed Amadeo’s own thoughts and experiences, in part examining the symbolism of that book of the Bible.  This work was widely circulated among the well-read and well-to-do in Rome and elsewhere, as they reflected on the signs of the times, and the role they themselves were playing in them.

We often forget that until the so-called Enlightenment, most people were deeply concerned about the impending coming of Christ again in time, in order to render the Last Judgment.  This ongoing concern is reflected through a long period of Western art, including sculptures depicting the Last Judgment which usually dominated the Western facade of the great cathedrals, all the way to Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel.  It is perhaps all too telling that today, one rarely sees this subject treated in art, or if it is, it is treated somewhat mockingly.

What is interesting about Blessed Amadeo is that after his death some of his work and the work attributed to him was condemned as heretical by theologians, and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.  As it turned out, with greater scholarship it later became apparent that some of the works attributed to Blessed Amadeo which were clearly heretical, turned out not to be by him, but rather were written by another Amadeo or even by unknown individuals, and given his name.  However at the time that Raphael was working, Blessed Amadeo’s spiritual writing was certainly popular, but not exactly acceptable, at least in certain circles.  One can imagine those reading the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, a century later, going through the same issues.

This question mark over Blessed Amadeo’s work arose even though he had not only been a confessor to Pope Sixtus IV, but he had also founded and led a reform movement of the Franciscans known as the Amadeans, who sought to bring the Friars Minor back to their roots of poverty and simplicity.  As an interesting footnote, the fact that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment appears where it does in the Sistine Chapel is likely no accident, for the structure was originally built by Blessed Amadeo’s friend, Sixtus IV.  So despite whatever controversy his spiritual writing engendered, Blessed Amadeo’s recounting of visions of heaven and the saints struck a chord with the well-read and the powerful.  He influenced not only works of art such as this, but the spirituality of influential people such as the Medici family, one of whom originally commissioned this painting from Raphael, and the Hapsburg family, particularly those in Spain.

Like other spiritual writers before and after him, Blessed Amadeo was sometimes misunderstood by his contemporaries, even while his mysticism was embraced by others.  However with the Feast of the Transfiguration today, and with Blessed Amadeo’s own feast day coming up on August 10th, we can appreciate how he has helped us to picture an event in a way which our tiny human brains can understand: a brief glimpse of the Divine in all its glory.  It also gives us, at a more earthly level, a greater appreciation that the study of great art in the Western tradition goes well-beyond simply looking at the image and understanding – or THINKING we understand – what we are seeing.  For even as this painting of the Transfiguration has a permanent impact on how we imagine that event in our own minds, the story behind how this particular interpretation came to be can be just as powerful, if we dig deeper into the story of its creation.

Raphael

“The Transfiguration” by Raphael (1516-1520)
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City