This is no ordinary painting. This is the will of an old man, the last work of great artist. His will to expose a glimpse of himself without ever revealing himself fully. This is the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. If it is easier to understand Da Vinci‘s work in science through his Codex. It is more difficult to read into his painting. He warns us in one of his notebooks by borrowing these verses to the Metamorphosis of Ovid: “ I doubt o Greek that you can do the account of my exploits even if you already know them. Because I made them without witnesses with only the forces of the darkness as accomplice” .
The law of causality says that there is always something in the effect of a cause that belongs to the cause itself. Despite his will to conceal himself in his work, we are convinced that the Master left occasionally here and there a print of his true self through his brushes. Nevertheless, it is not so much what we understand about Da Vinci that helps us to understand him, but to understand ourselves. The entire work of Leonardo invites us to a great exercise of humility. How much of himself and ourselves can still be found in his last work? The radiant character and aura of the master, just like the sun which glows without discrimination, made of him a universal figure. He belongs to everybody because his works benefit the whole of humanity. What then can the Saint John The Baptist still give to us?
Saint John the Baptist is the last work of the master.
He gave to it his full care, even though, during that same time, he kept retouching and figuring out the portrait of Mona Lisa. Everything is present in the Saint John the Baptist and much more; the years of discoveries and sorrows of the past, the accumulated experiences in the moments of plenitude and scarceness, of wondering and wandering, the mastery of the theme of the light that illuminates Saint John the Baptist in contrast to the dark background, and finally the spiritual presence that springs from the holy man himself, whose index finger points upwards suggesting an otherworldly realm. What about his eyes and his smile that we see coming back on so many art work of Da Vinci, likewise in the Mona Lisa. Everything is there and much more in this remarkable beauty of the work, in the finesse and refinement of the features of Saint John the Baptist, the face, the arms, the posture, the shoulders, the chest and that sublime index finger pointing to the firmament. All these details have been thought out, painted with extreme meticulousness and perfection to the point that Saint John the Baptist is confusing us. Is it really the man who baptized Christ that Leonardo painted? Or is it the master’s vision of what a beautiful human being should be in its most vivid expression?
It is worth noting that Da Vinci had an interest in the human anatomy and he devoted not only a great amount of time studying the body but also in doing so risking his own life by practicing autopsy because it was forbidden by the authorities, the Vatican. The Saint John The Baptist is a vision of beauty, in all its shapes and forms, all together in one body, all at the same time not only virile and masculine, but also brought to its ultimate perfection by all the femininity that emerges from it. A face of an elegant beauty with features that marries all forms of the masculine and also those of the feminine: whether it is the eyebrows, the cheekbones, the cheeks, the perfect curls of the hair that are an unequivocal feature, not only of the masculine, but also of the feminine.
Indeed it is not only physically that the Saint John the Baptist is an expression of such a beauty, but also in his aura.
Features that only the mind can communicate like this flame in his eyes which connect to ours when we linger staring at them. Not the least is his smile, this pout, that says a lot about Leonardo. As a great master and as, at his usual, Da Vinci returns us to ourselves when we are facing him through his painting. The most disturbing thing about the Saint John the Baptist is that despite the fact that the Saint is announcing the spirit and the light, he has this look full of carnal vitality, very much in contrast to what he represents. His body, although masculine, is however suggesting something very feminine.
Some people see in it the expression of the master’s unproven homosexuality. In fact, on April 9, 1476, an anonymous indictment against Leonardo and three other men, accusing them of sexual practices against the young Goldsmith, Jacobo D’Andrea Salterelli, was filed in the infamous box of Florence, Tamburo, at the Palazzo della Signoria to the authorities. Due to the lack of evidence, the charge was dismissed. However, it must be said that although homosexuality in the fifteenth century was prohibited by the church, it was widespread in high society and among artists.
However, the interest and importance of Saint John the Baptist is not to inform us about the sexual orientations of the master, but rather about the ultimate expression of the beauty as he saw it later in his life. He pushed that understanding to its climax beyond the limits of the body and mocking not only the social conventions, but also the clear boundaries between the masculine and the feminine by merging them in one body. The art is a tension within the interiority of the artist and how he expresses it in the real world, how he transfers that tension into an idea and after into a matter. This precise degree of tension is very visible in Leonardo when we remember the extrovert that he was before that infamous indictment of April 1476 and the introvert he had become immediately after and for the rest of his life.
The quote of Ovid that Da Vinci is using for himself is ever-present in the painting of the Saint John the Baptist, as if everything rested on this tension between the shadow and the light, the masculine and the feminine, the good and the evil, the reason and the passions. This in-between moment helps us to understand that the day adds nothing to the light itself, just as the dark mantle of the night does not subtract anything from the same light. Moreover, it makes us understand that it is an unfair exercise to pose the masculine as what is opposed to the feminine. It is important in what it means to be a human being: that our joys and sorrows, that our hopes and dreams show always the humanity in us and not the incarnate individual to whom Da Vinci opposes the Saint John the Baptist, who has both the beauty and the grace of the masculine and the feminine.
This half-man and this half-woman or better yet, this man and this woman at the same time is the Saint John the Baptist as painted by Leonardo. He is undoubtedly an androgyne being. Everything is there and much more, we know from his biographers that Leonardo, because of his situation as a child born outside of wedlock, was in his early childhood separated from his mother and was lonely. As a result, he could not receive a solid education. He spent a lot of time in the wild, marveling at plants, insects, birds, animals, etc. There he developed a great sense of intimacy with nature and also an out-of-the-ordinary visual acuity that will have decisive implications in his life, not only in science, but also in arts and as a person. As a living being, he was completely vegetarian urging his entourage in his words “Don’t make of your belly a grave”. It is certainly in his moments of solitude and observation that he understood that nature does not oppose the terms of the relation that it unites, but it completes them to perfection.
It was nature itself, before his years of apprenticeship, in Verrochio‘s workshop, that was the only great master of the young Leonardo, introducing him to its subtle secrets of forms and light.
It is still that same nature that holds as homogeneous the whole structure of reality which the terms of our mind consider to be opposite. Hence the bold idea of a work of a perfect human body or an androgyne being may have certainly been tacitly and silently part of the interests of the young Leonardo, but without ever having been able to take the precedent on the existential necessities of the artist’s life up to the Saint John the Baptist very late in his life.
It should be said here that it is the ultimate effort to achieve a work that unifies all the aspects of the human beauty on the same medium that was certainly the first concern of Leonardo and not the androgyne being itself as the result. Otherwise, we would not only make a false trial to the master, but we would make him guilty of our intents to understand him through our lenses and not his perspective. Leonardo was not only a brilliant genius inventor, he also had the talent and ability to carry to perfection what some before him had already invented. The shortcomings of the inventions, which Da Vinci improved, were partly due to the lack of a keen sense of observation and also to the poor schematics of the sketches. It is no exaggeration to say that Leonardo is the pioneer of industrial design. He could visualize in his mind the parts and the whole. He could then develop perfect models that allowed a more efficient construction of the machines and tools that he already had in his mind. Leonardo‘s artistic universe followed that path using the same rule. He used science to paint the human body perfectly in its motion, as well as to expose its mind and the passions of its soul.
The androgyne being is not a concept that Da Vinci created.
It is an old Greek myth. But the Saint John the Baptist’s painting, which rests on it and brings together both the beauty of the body, the light, the spirit and the passions of the soul is unique to Leonardo. Saint John the Baptist is therefore unique in this sense. We have to return to Greek antiquity, to understand, with the philosopher Plato, the myth of the androgyne beings. In the Symposium, 189d.193d, he gives the floor to the comic poet Aristophanes to explain the existence of the eros. The latter tells the story of three races; men, women and androgyne.
The last race was extraordinary in strength and in vigor, which led them to challenge the gods. Zeus decided that in order to weaken them and to take advantage of them, they had to be separated. The consequence of this separation was that each half was missing the other and went to search for it by embracing and kissing another half that they could find hoping to stumble on the right one. Zeus, helped by Apollo, had also taken care to fix the sexual organs in order to allow reproduction. This had two majors consequences; primo if two opposites mates; “they would give birth for the perpetuation of the species” and secundo if it is between the same sex, between a male and a male, it would “bring Satiety would separate them for a while” . For Plato, therefore, speaking through Aristophanes, “This is the moment when the innate love of men for one another comes”, in other words “the true love and pure friendship”.
The consequences and implications of these words for the Renaissance and Da Vinci’s society were capital punishment or exile. So why would Leonardo have painted an androgyne Saint John the Baptist to represent the person who baptized Christ? When we have in mind the accusation against him about his alleged innate love of man for each other, this innate love was not a forbidden act in ancient Greek society, but centuries of Christianity up to the Renaissance had relegated it to the status of an abomination in the eyes of God. The plea in favor of Leonardo rests more on the side of the art, regarding The Saint John the Baptist, than the religion and the society. By the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the androgyne myth will be revisited by psychoanalysis trying to understand in depth our sexualities and genders.
There is no need to recall the scandal that Sigmund Freud’s newly elaborated theories had generated in the world at the end of the nineteenth century. The Pansexualism with its breakthrough, but also its limits, had been so decried and certainly misunderstood. Grotesquely understood, pansexualism wants that everything is sexual in our life, from the baby who experiences an erotic pleasure in sucking the breast milk, to the psychotic or neurotic adult. We will have to wait for Carl Gustave Jung, with the introduction of the collective unconscious and the concepts of the archetypes, to redraw our unconscious path and functions, and also to explain the key role of sexuality while relativizing the pansexualism.
Pierre Daco, much later in his book, The Triumphs Of Psychoanalysis, revisited Freud and Jung under new light going back to the meaning of the Greek myths, including the famous Oedipus complex, and also the myth of the androgyne being. Moreover, the results of the psycho-analysis sessions showed that the other sex is not only the one who faces us, but that we have in ourselves the other of ourselves. So we would be at some level of our personalities both male and female. So that gender is hard to determine. The way we understand our sex is not only a social construct, but also cultural and religious. Nowadays the findings in genetics also show that in the XY chromosome pair, it is only a molecule or a brick that determines whether an individual is male or female. Some individuals are XY, phenotype, but are actually lacking that brick on their Y. They may appear as male, but they have a XX genotype and vice versa. All these considerations, both in science and art, psychoanalysis and genetics, not only bring us back to the myth of the androgynous being, but also place us again in front of the Saint John the Baptist, which is stating the same thing.
Art transforms knowledge into understanding.
Art does not obey to the notion of causality according to the criteria of the mind. It acts on us beyond the sphere of the knowing, while supporting the knowledge. Art transforms knowledge into understanding. We call it an emotional understanding. It makes us feel the abstract through a concrete medium. It is not the music itself that is the cause of our joys and sorrows, but the layers and dimensions that it opens and touches within our souls. There is not only an endogenous or inner aspect to art but also another exogenous or external to any form of art invariably of its medium. So art talks to us, not only on an empirical level, but also on a metaphysical one. The “I love Mozart more than Beethoven” or “U2″ more than “The Police” is not always focused on the artist itself or the band. But on how their art finds us inside. Mozart, in the movie Amadeus, had this sentence for his defense; “I am a vulgar man, but my music is not”. As if art channels something higher than our mortal conditions, social ranks, nations, and belief system. Even the gods are not indifferent regarding to art.
Orpheus with his golden lyre had so deeply touched Hades to push the God to free Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife, from Hades kingdom. It is in these endogenous substrates that art has the infinite power to touch us in a silent dialogue. There is an entire network of connection and meaning between an artist, his work and his audience. These links are entangled in close and complex relations; all of them personal, historical, subjective and objective. The Saint John the Baptist offers us precisely this intimate and introspective look not only on Leonardo, but also on ourselves questioning our ideas of beauty, sex, gender, religion, society, freedom, etc.
The Saint John the Baptist ultimately stands before us, not only as a painting, but also as a mirror.
What we see through it, is more a reflection through the pareidolia effect than a painting. He is a man. He is a man with very feminine traits. He is maybe both a man and a woman. Just like the three races in the Symposium myth. There is much more to the Saint John the Baptist than what we see on the canvas. The art is an attempt to capture a moment of tension between the interiority and the exteriority. There is in each one of us a personality or some traits of our personality which are male and also female. They often ignore each other elegantly. It is our daily actions, our ways of moving and our gestures that highlight for each one of us these aspects of our inner personalities. The artists and their works are no strangers to that. It is even often an asset in art where creation is not only a conception but also a birth, a movement of life from the inside out.
In our previous article on Mona Lisa, we noted that she “will continue to evoke in us these various feelings and voices that refer us to our own internal dialogue with art and beauty through these multiple expressions“. The Saint John the Baptist does the same, and it goes even further because it touches the very notion of the beauty, which is not outside, but within. It is like touching some aspects that our culture and education are shutting down all the time, because of our rigid conception of the social function of our gender. But Leonardo, through the Saint Jean Baptist places the beauty in a movement of profound reconciliation between the masculine and the feminine. The Saint John the Baptist offers us, not only the painting of a Saint, but the psychological portrait of Leonardo himself as an artist. But much more as this man; fond of secrets, intrigues and mysteries that gives himself to us for the last time, but in a completely hidden way for us to discover. Finally, and above all, this is himself as the last vision of what is the absolute beauty of the human body and also pointing to the mind.
One of the most eloquent features of Da Vinci‘s personality is his free spirit. Some of his biographers reported that he would buy birds in a cage with the sole aim of freeing them in the wild. It is only natural that his last painting was in some ways a will to put together what centuries of traditions, religions, and cultural influences had always considered distinct: the body and the mind, the male and the female, in order to paint the most beautiful being which unites all those attributes. Those considerations help us even more to understand what truly an artist is. Artists are male and female from within who allow the transition of an idea into a shape, of the light into a matter. This latter painting is not only the last will of a painter to his profession, but also an open letter to the artists and all forms of arts. No form of art comes with a gender tag, but it is the artists, the patrons, the society, the religion (the market nowadays) that frame it that way.
Art is light.
All form of matter is born from the light, but the art exists first and independently of the artists who crystallize it accordingly to the medium offered to them by life. It is the nature of light to light up the world without discrimination. It is up to the artists to do the work of light within themselves, to let it pass without the filters of their culture, their religion and their prejudices. No matter how gifted an artist can be, he will always be a human being with all the perfections and the flaws that come with the gift. Just like the Saint John the Baptist is strongly suggesting a great testimony of the light, but still so human…
Everything is there in the Saint John the Baptist and even much more because he is not only the portrait of this holy man, but of Leonardo himself, and of us, as we evolve in our own understanding of the true nature of things, reality and life. Da Vinci through his painting has raised more questions than answering them. He gives us the right to ask those same questions, but shows us that we can only answer our own, if there is an answer, and not his. He gives us clues to find him and to know a bit about himself, but gives us the license to agree or disagree. There’s a spark in the Saint John the Baptist eyes and that spark is ours. It is our humanity, naked without title, gender, religion and social classes. That is why the Saint John the Baptist says so much about Leonardo and about ourselves.
10 Replies to “Echoes and Reflections on Saint John the Baptist and Leonardo Da Vinci.”
Your writing is a work of art, transitioning ideas into matter and matter into light again. Beautiful how you carve out the core of art from the simultaneously existing masculine and feminine. Thank you!
Thank you very much dear Cristina. Bob Marley used to say « Who feels, knows it »
Interesting observations, and fascinating background on Da Vinci. In fact, at first glimpse, I thought it was a female figure giving somebody the finger. 😉 (A recent meme of Mona Lisa comes to mind). Nicely written. Happy to know the author. 😊
Thank you so much dear Karen. You know how much I love your way of putting things into perspective. I am also glad to know you. Many thanks.
Thank you Paul for your thoughtful and inspired writings. A light in the dark times.
Thank you for the gift of your friendship.
I read it twice now and love every word: Layer above layer, details about Da Vinci, his life, historical context, philosophy and spirituality melting into a piece of art about art. Especially touched me how his whole life and he himself resides in his last work. Thank you!
Brillant mon frère! It was totally like sitting with you again and witness your wild brain go on and on… trying to capture the essence of everything. You stayed true to yourself. 👏🏽👏🏽
Aksanti muyomba !