Thursday, June 26, 2014

St John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci 1452 –  1519
St John the Baptist
Oil on walnut wood
69 cm × 57 cm (27.2 in × 22.4 in)
Louvre, Paris

It is one of the master`s final (if not final) paintings

A young St. John comes out  from a dark background where there is no indication of space or of time.

The young saint is looking intently at the viewer but only by means of his right eye and not his left. He seems to be glancing at something else with his left eye. 

The eyes were generally regarded as the windows to the soul

Indeed in one of his Notebooks, Leonardo made precisely the same remark.

Leonardo was driven in his anatomical studies to find the seat of the soul

He called the location of the soul  the sensus communis, or confluence of the mental and imaginative faculties of man and the seat of the soul.

In these drawings from one of his Notebooks in HM The Queen`s collection at Windsor, he thought he had discovered its location. Notwithstanding that, these works are superb anatomical drawings and are landmarks in the history of anatomical illustration

Sometimes geniuses do not always get it right all the time

Leonardo da Vinci 1452 –  1519
Recto: The skull sectioned. Verso: The cranium
Pen and ink over black chalk
18.8 x 13.4 cm

In Windsor, RL :19019r in HM The Queen`s Collection, Leonardo wrote:
""The soul seems to reside in the part of judgment, and the part of judgment appears to reside in that place where all the senses meet; and this is called sensa comune; and [the soul] is not all-pervading throughout the body, as many have thought, rather it is entirely in one part. 
Because if it [the soul] were all-pervading and the same in every part, there would have been no need to make the instruments of the senses follow the same path to meet in one single spot."
(Jean Paul Richter,  The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci :1970, vol. 2, p.101, no. 838)

This is therefore not just a portrait of an ordinary man but of someone who has been singled out by God, an important actor  in the history of Salvation

We see his face full on, a curtain which hides a pure soul which has been touched by the divine

With our imagination we might glimpse what Leonardo has depicted behind the thin and delicate curtain of flesh, bone, muscle and blood

But it is also a portrait

Of portraiture, Leonardo had this advice in his Notebooks:
"If you should have a court yard that you can at pleasure cover with a linen awning that
light will be good. Or when you want to take a portrait do it in dull weather, or as evening falls, making the sitter stand with his back to one of the walls of the court yard. 
Note in the streets, as evening falls, the faces  of the men and women, and when the weather is
dull, what softness and delicacy you may perceive in them. 
Hence, Oh Painter! have a court arranged with the walls tinted black and a narrow roof projecting within the walls. It should be 10 braccia wide and 20 braccia long and 10 braccia high and covered with a linen awning; or else paint a work towards evening or when it is cloudy or misty, and this is a perfect light."
(Richter  The Literary Works of Leonardo  da Vinci  Volume I, para 520 (1888))

The physiognomy is of course that of a Florentine. Florence`s patron saint was and is John the Baptist, the Precursor

The famous Baptistry in the city is called Battistero di San Giovanni Battista, the Baptistry of St John the Baptist

One of his relics, a finger bone, was donated to the city by the anti-pope John XXIII (1370 - 1419) which is still preserved in a precious monstrance in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence

The legend is that it is the finger which the Baptist used to point out Christ when he said "Ecce Agnus Dei"

Leonardo as a Tuscan and as sometime resident of Florence would have been well aware of the relic and the devotion of the city for the saint

Hence the pose in the painting

The saint points to Heaven: the traditional gesture of John the Baptist in art but also the gesture of St Anne in Leonardo's cartoon The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist (The Burlington House Cartoon) in The National Gallery in London

There are only two saints who were born without sin: the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist

Mary was conceived without sin

John was  cleansed of original sin in the womb of his mother at the time of the Visitation of Mary to St Elizabeth when in the womb he was filled with the Holy Spirit

Along with the Virgin Mary, he is  the only saint whose birth is commemorated because it marked the beginning of the fulfillment of the divine promises

But it was not a case of Tuscan parochialism and local pride that made Leonardo paint this great figure more than once in his career

Even before his birth, Gabriel told Zachary how great his son would be: Luke 1: 5 -20
"3 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. 
14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 
15 for he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. 
He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, 
16 and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 
17 He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
We also recall that in Luke 7:28 and in Matthew, Christ himself said of John:
"I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
The name John, derives from the  Hebrew; Jehohanan,  "Jahweh hath mercy"

His mission was the call to repentance and to proclaim the way of the Lord

The face is frankly androgynous. 

There is a gentle smile of greeting, of acceptance but it has been described as mysterious and sphinx like

The face is certainly beautiful. The sitter or model has not been identified

It could be an amalgam of various people the artist had noticed or studied over the years including himself. There are even signs that some Florentine depictions of David (another patron of Florence) may have entered the mix

Again in his Notebooks, Leonardo wrote:
"It seems to me to be no small charm in a painter when he gives his figures a pleasing air, and this grace, if he have it not by nature, he may acquire by incidental study in this way: 
Look about you and take the best parts of many beautiful faces, of which the beauty is confirmed rather by public fame than by your own judgment; for you might be mistaken and choose faces which have some resemblance to your own. 
For it would seem that such resemblances often please us; and if you should be ugly, you would select faces that were not beautiful and you would then make ugly faces, as many painters do. 
For often a master's work resembles himself. So select beauties as I tell you, and fix them in your mind."
Richter  The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci  Volume I, para 587

Some have wrongly assumed that there is a homoerotic quality to the painting. Sigmund Freud has a lot to answer for. He based his false thesis on an error in translation

Some even that it is pagan on the basis of the thyrsus, vine leaves and panther skin with an alleged likeness to Bacchus. However Leonardo knew his Scripture. He would have recalled the words of the Archangel:
"He will drink neither wine nor strong drink"
This is not a John the Baptist by Caravaggio

The saint may have qualities of both sexes or of none. In that, the figure shares the same qualities as the Angels - the Messengers of God and the greatest of the prophets such as Elijah for whom the libido may or may not be the most important element of his or her life or may be non-existent

He is a youth.

In Luke we recall:
""[T]he child [John the Baptist] grew and was strengthened in spirit, and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to Israel." 

The face is proportionate. But do we really notice how much work, effort and study went in to making it so - and apparently so effortlessly

In his Notebooks from which he intended to compile a book on Painting he once wrote:
"310. The space between the parting of the lips [the mouth] and the base of the nose is one-seventh of the face. 
The space from the mouth to the bottom of the chin _c d_ is the fourth part of the face and equal to the width of the mouth. 
The space from the chin to the base of the nose _e f_ is the third part of the face and equal to the length of the nose and to the forehead. 
The distance from the middle of the nose to the bottom of the chin _g h_, is half the length of the face. 
The distance from the top of the nose, where the eyebrows begin, to the bottom of the chin, _i k_, is two thirds of the face. 
The space from the parting of the lips to the top of the chin _l m_, that is where the chin ends and passes into the lower lip of the mouth, is the third of the distance from the parting of the lips to the bottom of the chin and is the twelfth part of the face. 
From the top to the bottom of the chin _m n_ is the sixth part of the face and is the fifty fourth part of a man's height. 
From the farthest projection of the chin to the throat _o p_ is equal to the space between the mouth and the bottom of the chin, and a fourth of the face.
The distance from the top of the throat to the pit of the throat below _q r_ is half the length of the face and the eighteenth part of a man's height. 
From the chin to the back of the neck _s t_, is the same distance as between the mouth and the roots of the hair, that is three quarters of the head. 
From the chin to the jaw bone _v x_ is half the head and equal to the thickness of the neck in profile. 
The thickness of the head from the brow to the nape is once and 3/4 that of the neck."
(The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Volume I, translated by Jean Paul Richter (1888))

For some reason the famous quote of Jesus in Luke 12:7 comes to mind:
" Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows"

In his left hand (barely visible) he holds a cross which he holds to his breast, next to his heart

A lamb holding a cross was the recognised symbol of the "Agnus Dei"

Yet another reference to John 1:29, where John the Baptist sees Jesus and exclaims, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."

The next day he repeats the appellation (John 1:36)

But St John himself may also be "a lamb"

The lamb "without blemish and without stain"  appears in the Old Testament. At the original Passover the Jews were instructed to kill a lamb "without blemish" and sprinkle its blood on the doors so that The Angel of Death would pass by

Immaculate, pure, virtuous, atonement, baptism, baptism by blood

The Precursor, like Jesus, was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and did not open his mouth as his life was extinguished

As the Baptist is reported to have said in John 3:
"He must become greater; I must become less"

He  is bending round his torso so that he comes under a light coming from the left.

The figure has long curly hair which hangs down in such a way as to provide a counterpoint to the degree of rotation of the torso

The face and the neck follow a curve which starts at the breast

It looks deceptively easy. The verisimilitude derives from his years of study and experience especially in his study of anatomy

Below in his notebook we see his depiction of the surface muscles of the neck and the shoulder. 

In the long note on the right, he has written:
"The neck has four movements. The first to raise the face, the second to lower it, the third to turn it to the right and the left, the fourth to bend the head to the right and the left."
Other movements he calls "mixed"

Leonardo subtly highlights the saint`s neck. It will be that neck which suffers the blow that causes his death

Leonardo da Vinci 1452 –  1519
The surface muscles of the neck and the shoulder
Pen and ink over black chalk
292 x 199 mm
RL 19003R
The Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle  © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

In the following depiction of the muscles of the shoulder, he depicts the mechanics of the movement of the shoulder joint

He has divided the pectoralis major into sections which depict the lines of force along which the muscle acts

In this way he depicts a proper geometrical and mechanical pattern and explains how following such a scheme a proper and accurate depiction of the musculature of the shoulder and its muscles are delineated

Leonardo da Vinci 1452 –  1519
The muscles of the shoulder
Pen and ink over black chalk
292 x 199 mm
RL 19003V
The Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle  © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

In his Notebooks, Leonardo wrote:
"The limbs should be adapted to the body with grace and with reference to the effect that you wish the figure to produce. And if you wish to produce a figure that shall of itself look light and graceful you must make the limbs elegant and extended, and without too much display of the muscles; and those few that are needed for your purpose you must indicate softly, that is, not very prominent and without strong shadows ; the limbs, and particularly the arms easy; that is, none of the limbs should be in a straight line with the adjoining parts... 
The positions of the head and arms are endless and I shall therefore not enlarge on any rules for them. Still, let them be easy and pleasing, with various turns and twists, and the joints gracefully bent, that they may not look like pieces of wood."
(The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Volume I, translated by Jean Paul Richter (1888))
And so we see the study that went into depicting the saint`s neck

This  of course only goes a short way to explain why Leonardo is regarded as a genius in art and why his St John the Baptist is a masterwork of genius,  religious art and intense personal devotion