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Leonardo, disciple of John
Certain aspects of Leonardo’s career lead one to suspect that the artist was deeply committed to what we may call the Church of John. The most eloquent indication of this commitment came to light in 1483, when he delivered to the Milanese Franciscans a canvas for their main altar, which in no measure corresponded to the work they had commissioned him to produce. Instead of a composition to exalt the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception, Leonardo delivered a scene depicting Mary and the Archangel Uriel, together with Jesus and Saint John the Baptist as infants, hiding in a cave during their flight to Egypt. The portrait, which bears no relation to any of the canonic Gospels, left Leonardo and the Franciscans litigating against each other for years, a case that ended with the artist’s being obliged to rework the painting and incorporate several new motifs. Today these two versions of the “Virgin of the Rocks” are to be found respectively at the Louvre and at the National Gallery.
It is known that Leonardo was accused of finding inspiration for his work in the book of a heretical friar named Amadeo de Portugal, who in his writings described the Virgin not as mother of Christ but as symbol of wisdom. In his Apocalipsis Nova he also praised John’s church “of the spirit.” And repudiated the materialism of Peter. Those were times in which the Dominican Savonarola preached from Florence against Pope Alexander VI and accused the pontifical States of sating themselves in riches. Perhaps Leonardo sympathized with this group of intellectuals critical of the institution of Peter; and for this reason, in the first version of the “Virgin of the Rocks,” painted Mary without the halo of sanctity, and Uriel pointing with a finger to John the Baptist, thus indicating which of the children was actually the more important of the two.
Where is the halo?
Its absence is notable, not only in the “Virgin of the Rocks,” but in the “Last Supper” as well. Dr. Brambilla’s restoration reveals no trace of a halo to be found anywhere. Thanks to her work we know that none of the mural’s thirteen figures ever displayed one. Leonardo, breaking all the norms ofthe epoch, did not paint a group of saints... but rather a gathering of men of flesh and blood. And such an obvious observation escaped the notice of Picknett and Prince.
There’s more: Dan Brown dismissed a fundamental key to the Cenacolo. Leonardo da Vinci included a self-portrait among the disciples. To be precise: he is the second figure, counting from rightto left. With long hair and white beard, he represents Judas Tadeo and has his arms crossed while conversing with the Apostle Simon. But what is really strange about the portrait is that Da Vinci is situated at the table with his back turned to Jesus! How are we meant to interpret this novel symbolism? Why has the master painter allied himself against the orthodoxy of his time? And who, in reality, are the figures that surround him and also have their backs turned on Christ?
I wrote my last work, The Secret Supper, in part to provide some answer to these questions. However, the historical investigation I plunged into before actually writing that novel, in the end, led me to conclusions I would never have suspected.
That Leonardo elaborated his Cenacolo in opposition to the religiously correct of his day is reflected not simply by the absence of heads with halos, or by the weapon in the hand of Peter, or even by the artist’s own stance within the scene. One has to observe other details as well. For example, the meal itself. On the table of the “Last Supper,” Jesus is not inaugurating the Eucharist, as he does traditionally in this moment. There is no sign of the Holy Grail, nor of the host or the bread to be broken.According to what Leonardo declared to the Dominicans of Santa Maria, the action of the mural is taken from Chapter 13 of the Gospel of John, when Jesus proclaims, “Verily I say unto you that one of you will betray me.” This scene occurs in the midst of the Jewish Passover, during which tradition calls for lamb to be served at the banquet. In the restoration by Dr. Brambilla, however, it was discovered that it is not lamb that the Twelve are eating that night, but rather fish, oranges, and a bit of wine.Fish? Perhaps Leonardo wanted to return us to that most ancient Christian symbol of all, more or less completely forgotten by the XVth century? But why?