Friday, November 30, 2007

Leonardo Da Vinci Continues to Fascinate, Mystify and Inspire

Years after the hype over The Da Vinci Code subsided, the real work of Leonardo continues to hold the public’s and scholars’ attention. Recently, several news stories and websites have reported that the intriguing Last Supper (Il Cenacolo or L'Ultima Cena) is again revealing some of its secrets.

Painted on the wall of the Refectory of Santa Maria Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan between 1495-1498, the work was one of the first to depict the events of the story of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples in a dramatic, animated fashion. As the 2006 Rosicrucian Museum exhibit Leonardo Da Vinci: Artist, Scientist, Mystic, with a person of Leonardo’s brilliance in the arts and sciences, as well as knowledge of natural laws, it is little surprise that he left us some enigmatic messages in his works. Speculation and mystery have always surrounded certain aspects of his achievements. Some theorize that he may have been responsible for the image on the Shroud of Turin, but no conclusive evidence has yet been established.

Certainly, Leonardo was not a typical believer of the 15th-16th century. As his biographer Vasari put in his 1550 edition of the artist’s life: “his cast of mind was so heretical that he did not adhere to any religion, thinking perhaps that it was better to be a philosopher than a Christian.”

Modern biographer Marco Rosci suggests that he “adopted an empirical approach to every thought, opinion, and action and accepted no truth unless verified or verifiable, whether related to natural phenomena, human behavior, or social activities. He still pinned his faith in logical certainty, in the often-repeated affirmation that mathematics and geometry were the true foundations of knowledge.”

Leonardo followed a path of knowledge – what he could discover for himself, rather than belief in what someone else had told him. Throughout the centuries many have wondered whether he encoded some of his thoughts and ideas into his art. One famous examples of this is in his paintings, The Last Supper.

In The Last Supper, the figure to Jesus’ right has traditionally been identified as John, “the beloved disciple.” However, some have speculated (most recently, Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code) that this indistinct figure is, in fact, Mary Magdalene, whom some claim to be the wife of Jesus. Others also point out that the raised finger gesture by the Apostle to Jesus’ left may be a hostile sign, intended by Leonardo to criticize the official positions of the Christianity of his time.

Additional enigmas include the “space” between Jesus and the figure to his right, and also the “third hand” gripping a knife near the Apostle Peter. Finally, an oddity for a Passover Meal, there appears no lamb on the table. This last detail has recently been corroborated by Pope Benedict XVI in his homily on Holy Thursday in Rome (as well as in his spring 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth), where he suggested that Jesus celebrated the Passover on the Essene Calendar, and that Jesus’ family were associated with the Essenes. The Essenes were vegetarians, and this would account for the absence of lamb. This aspect is more thoroughly discussed in the December 2007 issue of the Rosicrucian Digest: The Essenes.

Even more controversially, Spanish author Javier Sierra’s highly enjoyable novel The Secret Supper , first published in English in 2006, links Leonardo’s masterpiece to an ancient tradition that worked in opposition to the Church of Peter. Sierra even gives an explanation for Leonardo’s unusual technique of painting the scene on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster, by laying down a sealing layer of pitch, gesso and mastic, then painting onto this with tempera, which has caused the masterpiece to weather the ages poorly.

Modern scientific techniques have now entered the arena in a major way, with the recent announcements of new scanning and analysis tools. Mauro Gavinelli and a scientific team at the art photography firm HAL9000 have taken 1,677 panoramic images of the Last Supper at a resolution of 16-billion-pixels, a definition that is 1,600 times finer than that from a 10 mega-pixel camera.

Earlier scientific analysis of Leonardo’s works have revealed startling details under the pigments. One example is the Adoration of the Magi (1481). In the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Recent studies by Dr. Maurizio Seracini have revealed layers beneath the painting with long concealed figures.

Another example of the mysteries hidden underneath paintings in the Uffizi Gallery, not by Leonardo, but of him, is a Portrait of Leonardo DaVinci. Created by an unknown artist at the end of the 17th century, it has been in the Uffizi Gallery since 1715 and now it is exhibited in the Vasari Corridor. X-rays revealed some years ago that there is another subject under this portrait (which may be a 17th century painting of Mary Magdalene). This portrayal of Leonardo has become one of the most familiar in the world. An oil copy by W.K. Fisher (1940) hangs in the Rosicrucian Research Library in San José.

It is likely that we will never know specifically what Leonardo was trying to convey through these ambiguities in his works. Nevertheless, we can certainly know that his own mysticism and spirituality, as expressed in all of his work, was dedicated to discovering the laws that govern the universe and humanity, and to conveying those laws through beauty and inventiveness to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.