The woman with a bald forehead

One unhappy day I was called to see the ‘Benois Madonna’. I found myself confronted by a young woman with a bald forehead and puffed cheeks, a toothless smile, blear eyes, and a furrowed throat. The uncanny, anile apparition plays with a child who looks like a hollow mask fixed on inflated body and limbs. The hands are wretched, the folds purposeless and fussy, the color like whey. And yet I had to acknowledge that this painful affair was the work of Leonardo da Vinci. It was hard, but the effort freed me, and the indignation I felt gave me the resolution to proclaim my freedom. Bernard Berenson (1865-1959)

Clockwise: Ginevra de’ Benci, The Annunciation, Benois Madonna, Madonna of the Carnatio

The four heads shown above were painted by Leonardo da Vinci. All have what can be termed as a ‘high-forehead’. Could the woman in all four paintings be one and the same person at different stages in her life? If so, could she even be the enigmatic woman known as the Mona Lisa or Gioconda?

detail from The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre, Paris

Fish tales

Leonardo da Vinci liked his Archangels.

The Angel Gabriel is portrayed in his painting of the Annunciation (Uffizi, Florence)

The Archangel Uriel appears with the Virgin and the infants Jesus and John the Baptist in the Louvre version of the Virgin of the Rocks.

Archangel Raphael accompanies Tobit on his journey in the painting titled Tobias and the Angel, attributed to both Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo (National Gallery, London)

It is said that Leonardo, portrayed as Tobias carrying a fish, painted the fine detail in the creature.

When Leonardo later painted The Annunciation, not only did he portray the Archangel Gabriel, but also referenced the Archangel Raphael.

The Raphael reference is a pointer to the fish painted by Leonardo in the Tobias and Angel painting. In The Annunciation painting it is formed by the shape of the hem of Gabriel’s white undergarment.

A trio of connections

This trio of figures from Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper is another match to the two examples posted yesterday

Judas appears to be sitting on Peter’s lap but pushed forward to make way for Peter to be able to lean across to John. The turned head of Judas can be matched to the turned head of Chloris and the Child Jesus. Both also appear to be pushed forward or lowered to the ground. Judas fell to the ground after hanging himself.

The stretched neck of Peter is a match for the stretched heads of Zephyrus and the Virgin Mary. His crooked arm behind the arm of Judas can be matched to Elizabeth’s crooked arm behind the Virgin’s left arm. Peter’s left hand rests on John’s shoulder; Chloris’s left arm rests on Flora’s shoulder.

The right hand of Chloris is shaped to represent a graft onto Flora’s leg; the right hand of Judas is similarly shaped, while his right hand is already grafted to his moneybag, “the root of all kinds of evil”.

John’s head can be linked to those of Flora and St Anne. John’s hand’s rest on the table above his lap while Flora’s hand are also entered on her lap.

The flowers on the ground in Botticelli’s Primavera become the small loves of bread in The Last Supper painting and transform into stones beneath the feet of the Virgin and St Anne.

A conversion narrative

I meant to have added this observation to my previous post, but no matter. It’s another example of Leonardo da Vinci continuing the banter between himself and Sandro Botticelli.

On the left is detail from Botticelli’s Primavera painting; on the right, a later work by Leonardo, The Virgin and Child with St Anne. It’s a mix and match affair. Leonardo was responding to a narrative Botticelli disguised in some of his other paintings that touched on the personal life of the polymath.

In the Primavera detail, the hound in the corner is replaced by the lamb in Leonardo’s response. The figure of Flora is changed into St Anne (notice the elbow’s position and shaping). The wind god Zephyrus becomes the Virgin Mary, while the Christ child, with his head turned, is substituted for Chloris.

UPDATE: April 28, 2023

A correction to my interpretation of the hound being replaced by the lamb… The lamb, as a reference to the Lamb of God (Christ), becomes the figure of Chloris, as is the Christ Child. The hound reference appears elsewhere in Leonardo’s painting, which I will explain in a future post.

Laps and lobes

So what can be said of this image? For starters, it’s turned upside down from how it would be seen in normal circumstances. Is it human? Is it an animal? 

In fact, it represents both – Jesus as the long-eared sacrificial Lamb of God.

Viewed normally, it’s the lap of the Virgin Mary in Leonardo da Vinci’s early painting of The Annunciation. But in this position it takes on a new form, as a winged bird with its fanned tail on the ground It represents Mary being conceived by the Holy Spirit (a dove) and covered by the power of the Most High with its shadow (Luke 1:35).

Detail from The Annunciation, Leonardo da Vinci, Uffiz, Florence

Leonardo embedded other interpretations in the folds of the blue gown which I shall explain at another time. For now I want to return to the long ears or lobes of the lamb and point to a similar feature on the face of the sarcophagus or altar. Note the ear-like lobes linked by a garland. 

The sarcophagus lobes and garland point to a later painting by Sandro Botticelli, known as The Virgin and Child with John the Baptist.

The Virgin and Child with John the Baptist, Sandro Botticelli, Barber Institute, Birmingham UK

In this picture the Infant Jesus and the Baptist are depicted embracing.Their hands touch each other’s ear lobe, while their arms form the link representing the garland featured in The Annunciation. Observe also the shadowed lobes in the Child’s halo.

Leonardo was aware of this Botticelli painting – there are three versions – and some years later parodied it with a version of his own when he painted The Virgin and Child with St Anne.

In this scene we see the Child Jesus grasping the ears of the Lamb of God, his mother reaching with both hands, one of which is placed near where the right lung and kidney is located. Both organs have lobes. Notice also the pink petal and lobe shape on the Virgin’s right shoulder. Her outstretched right arm is the link between the two lobe references.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, by Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre, Paris

And then there is the lap connection, Mary seated on the lap of her mother. The reference to the Holy Spirit covering the the Virgin is also there. Her blue gown is shaped as a bird, but not as a vulture as once described by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in an essay he wrote titled, Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood.

Among the many anatomical drawings made by Leonardo is one of a pair of lungs. Botticelli picked up on this and also referred to it in his painting Primavera. There are other references to Leonardo’s drawings of body parts made by Botticelli in his painting of the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist which I intend to present at another time.

Venus renaissance

“For many, Botticelli’s Venus embodies the Renaissance ideal of beauty, but have you ever wondered what that might look like today? Italy’s ministry of tourism has launched a campaign that reimagines the iconic figure as an influencer—and it has been swiftly ridiculed on social media.” Details at this link.

But who “influenced” Botticelli? Details at this link.

A visit to the Barber

Today I was able to visit the Barber Institute to study Sandro Botticelli’s painting of The Virgin and Child with John the Baptist.

I’ve posted on this painting previously at these links:
In the beginning was the Word
Three times a lady

But I have since discovered the painting has a strong link to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mother and Child with St Anne, and I shall be posting more about this.

Today’s visit was rewarding. I was able to recognise a feature I hadn’t picked up on before. As I looked at the painting, I wondered about the thin gold strip between the Baptist and the Virgin. It forms part of the background scene but yet seems out of place. Was it there to link the two figures in any way? And then the answer came to me.

Embedded in the Virgin’s mantle is a Picasso-like facial feature, perhaps pointing to one of her titles, Our Lady of Sorrows. The lower half of the face is veiled. Above that are depicted the nose and the eye. 

The Baptist is shown clothed in a camel skin. So the thin gold strip represents a needle and is Botticelli’s way of pointing to the verse from Matthew’s gospel about the danger of riches, when Jesus said to his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (20:19).

Rotate the painting 90 degrees and notice the shape of a camel’s head in John the Baptist’s camel-skin garment.

The Virgin represents Our Lady of Mount Carmel from which the Carmelite Order takes its name. The mount was also given the name Camel Nose or Antelope Nose because of its shape. The Virgin is shown barefoot, and so represents the Order of Discalced Carmelites, the reformed section of the Order whose members walk with their feet uncovered.

The Virgin and Child with St Anne

Leonardo da Vinci was a man gifted with an enquiring and inventive mind, and a talent to express his ingenuity in various ways.

He observed nature and life in minute detail, accepting nothing at face value; he seemingly questioned everything; he thirsted for knowledge that would present a wider perspective and understanding of the world around him; he wanted answers; he certainly wasn’t conventional in his approach to painting; he was always willing to experiment, to embed features and narratives that perhaps would prompt questions or stimulate an enquiry from those who viewed his work. What prompted the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa is one example.

Leonardo once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Jonathan Swift (1667-1710), the Irish-born poet and satirist wrote: “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”

With these two quotes in mind, consider the picture below, titled The Virgin and Child with St Anne. Said to be “unfinished” it was painted by Leonardo and is dated by art historians between 1501 and 1519. That’s quite a spread, which suggests there probably isn’t any paper trail recording details of its commission, that’s if it was commissioned by any patron. 

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, by Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre, Paris

The Louvre in Paris, where the painting is kept, speculates that “it is likely the painting was commissioned by King Louis XII of France, following the birth of his daughter in 1499, but it was never delivered to him”.

Another claim is: “The painting was commissioned as the high altarpiece for the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence and its theme had long preoccupied Leonardo.”

As the title suggests, the figures seen in the painting represent the child Jesus, his mother Mary, and her mother Anne.

But with Leonardo’s exceptional vision, was his intention to invite viewers to participate and share in “seeing what is invisible to others”? Just what are some of the mysteries and messages embedded in this painting?

More on this in future posts, but in the meantime keep in mind that, in my opinion, the painting is a tribute to Sandro Botticelli who died in impoverished circumstances in 1510, the year before the assigned range of dates given to the work. Leonardo died in 1519.

“Is that hand wielding a dagger?”

The dagger held by the disciple Peter in The Last Supper mural painted by Leonardo da Vinci begs the question: Why is it pointing in the direction of Andrew who seems to be pleading “not guilty” and showing a clean pair of hands in response to the charge made by Jesus that someone at the table would betray him?

image source: Haltadefinizione

Is there some kind of mystery attached to this particular feature, or was Leonardo simply layering the dagger with another narrative.

What may not be so obvious, particularly because of the mural’s deterioration over the centuries, is the location of a second dagger, tucked behind a piece of bread at the right hand corner of the table next to Simon the Zealot. No other knives are on the table.

image source: Haltadefinizione

Leonardo has identified Simon as belonging to a splinter group of Jewish Zealots known as the Sicari who concealed knives in their cloaks, and at public meetings used them to attack anyone sympathetic to the Roman occupation of Judea. Hence SImon’s wide sleeves.

It’s no coincidence that Leonardo emphasised the dagger and Peter’s sleight of hand. Peter’s original name was Simon Peter. Jesus changed the name to Cephas, meaning rock. So we have a Simon on the left, and another on the right.

This is an indication that Leonardo mirrored or balanced elements on each side of Jesus the central figure. He adopted a similar approach for one of his first ever paintings, The Annunciation. 

Leonardo was also likely referring to an association with a Franciscan friar and mathematician he lodged with in Milan for a few years, Lucca Pacioli (pictured right). The friar is said to have published the first work in Europe on the double-entry system of book-keeping where every entry to an account requires a corresponding and opposite entry to a different account. On one side, Simon Peter’s knife; on the other, Simon the Zealot’s.

Simon died a martyr. His body was sawn in half, which explains the sliced piece of bread next to the knife.

I shall present more on other narratives Leonardo embedded at this end of the table, and what else Peter’s dagger is pointing to, in a future post.

Leonardo da Vinci’s disembodied hand

Detail from The Last Supper mosaic by Giacomo Raffaelli, Minorites Church, Vienna.

Again, Sophie was speechless. In the painting, Peter was leaning menacingly toward Mary Magdalene and slicing his blade-like hand across her neck. The same threatening gesture as in Madonna of the Rocks!

‘And here too,’ Langdon said, pointing now to the crowd of disciples near Peter. ‘A bit ominous, no?’

Sophie squinted and saw a hand emerging from the crowd of disciples. ‘Is that hand wielding a dagger?’

‘Yes. Stranger still, if you count the arms, you’ll see that the hand belongs to … no one at all. It’s disembodied. Anonymous.’

Dan Brown, The DA VINCI CODE

This passage from Dan Brown’s big earner, The Da Vinci Code, had untold readers checking out the claim of a ‘disembodied’ hand in Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of The Last Supper

The general conclusion is that there is no mystery – the left hand belongs to St Peter as does the “knife-welding dagger” in his right hand.

But what Dan Brown, Robert Langdon the ‘symbolist’ and Sophie failed to spot was another ‘disembodied hand’ elsewhere on the wall. Peter’s seemingly displaced left hand is a pointer, a sign to direct observers to “seek and find” – Cerca Trova.

Of course, the pointing hand can be understood in several ways. First and foremost, as pointing in the direction of Jesus who, in John’s gospel (14:6), after informing his disciples at the Last Supper that one of them would betray him, went on to reveal he was “…the Way, the Truth, and the Life”.

With outstretched arms, Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, is seemingly pondering on the direction his life is about to take. On each side are six disciples, all with their arms and hands activated in one way or another, wondering and considering which one of them is to betray Jesus. Those at a distance lean forward; those nearest to Jesus lean backward in an attempt to distance themselves from his outstretched arms and hands. 

Leonardo has placed Jesus as a fulcrum or crux, leveraging and measuring the hearts of each group of disciples either side of him. Just like the feasting Persian king Belshazzar and the story of the Writing on the Wall, Judas has been measured, weighed in the balance, and found wanting (Daniel 5).

Leonardo paired this judgment made against Belshazzar and Judas with one that preoccupied him on a personal basis for over twenty years when, in 1476, an anonymous charge against him was made to the Florentine authorities accusing him of sodomy.In 1496 he began to ‘write’ in paint on the wall of a monastery wall his own judgement against the two people responsible for the anonymous accusation.

So on the left side of Jesus we see a group of three men, generally understood to be the disciples Thomas. James the Great, and Philip. But undercover they represent the artists Domenico Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vinci and Sandra Botticelli.

Detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper

Now it is Leonardo portrayed as the fulcrum and seated off-balance, weighing the guilt of the two men either side. And it is Thomas who is found wanting. Thomas “the twin”, paired with Judas, the disciple who stole from the common purse, the thief who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. It was Thomas who doubted the Resurrection and would only believe if he could place his finger into Christ’s wounds.

As for the upright finger, the finger that denotes who wrote the denunciation of Leonardo, it refers to the time when the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman accused of adultery to Jesus, saying the Law demanded her death by stoning. Jesus responded by first writing in the sand with his finger and then saying “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent down and started writing in the sand again. (John 8:3-10). Whatever the message was that he wrote in the sand, the scribes and Pharisees took note and dispersed.

The moving hand that wrote on the wall during Belshazzar’s banquet, is the same hand that wrote in the sand, a revealing hand about a person’s intention or state of heart. In Leonardo’s case the moving hand can be understood as the two hands attached to his left arm. Like Peter’s knife hand, it is turned or twisted; a hand behind the back, a sleight of hand prepared to steal, a covered or disguised hand, but one known and identified by Leonardo as the left hand of Domenico Ghirlandaio.

A similar motif is present in Leonardo’s painting of The Annunciation. It also explains why Leonardo wrote and probably painted with his left hand. He had limited movement in his right hand. It is always depicted as a claw-shape, similar to the claw-shape in the right hand of Jesus. So the two references to disembodied hand in The Last Supper mural is Leonardo pointing out the physical disability in his own right hand that likely accompanied him throughout his life.

As to the finger of Thomas-Domenico, it references another Persian, the polymath Omar Khayyam and one of many quatrains he wrote, the most well-known being the verse about the Moving Finger:

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Seemingly, Leonardo was still not in a place where he could fully forgive Domenico Ghirlandaio for his betrayal.

References to Omar Khayyam appear in other paintings by Leonardo.

More on this in a future post.

Sleepy heads

Having posted yesterday the image alongside – which I believe to be Leonardo da Vinci – the Art Newspaper has today published a very similar likeness of a young person asleep, said to be a drawing by Sandro Botticelli. 

The nose seems shorter on Botticelli’s drawing and was the model male or female?

More information about this and other drawings attributed to Botticelli at the Art Newspaper website.

Head of a woman looking down to the left, 1468-70 Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, UK

“I have no favourites”

Here’s an interesting image I came across yesterday. It represents John the Evangelist, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 20:2), resting close to Christ at the Last Supper.

Leonardo da Vinci portrayed as John the Evangelist in the Badia Passignano version of The Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The detail is from the first of three Last Supper frescoes painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio and is located in the Badia Passignano, near Florence.

The fresco was brought to life again in 2015 after restoration.

I doubt if anyone realised at the time that the face of John the disciple is in fact Leonardo da Vinci.

The fresco was said to have been painted in 1476. If so, that would be the same year Leonardo was anonymously reported for sodomy along with four other men. However, Ghirlandaio’s fresco could only have been painted after Leonardo had completed The Annunciation, because he has referenced some of its features. The reason for this is that both works have embedded cryptic clues that refer to the anonymous accusation against Leonardo.

In The Annunciation, Leonardo reveals both Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli as those responsible for the charge against him. In The Last Supper painting Ghirlaindo portrays himself as the Christ figure, who John claimed he was loved by – the Domenico who may have been the one Leonardo mentioned when he wrote: ‘Fioravante di Domenico… in Florence is my most cherished companion, as though he were my…’

The Badia Passing version of The Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Could the Badia Passignano version of The Last Supper confirm what was once a close relationship between Domenico and Leonardo? And who did Ghirlandaio place in the guise of Judas his betrayer, but Sandro Botticelli.

Ghirlandaio, Leonardo and Botticelli, in the guise of Christ, John the Evangelist and Judas

Seemingly, the fall-out between the three men was to last even beyond the death of Ghirlandaio in January 1494, because Leonardo continued with the spat by responding to Ghirlandaio’s buck-passing accusation when he portrayed Ghirlandaio as Jesus in his more famous version of The Last Supper.

Detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s version of The Last Supper

In 1480 Ghirlandaio painted another version of The Last Supper, this time in the refectory of the Convent of the Ognissanti in Florence. Here the roles are reversed. Botticelli is portrayed as Christ, Ghirlandaio as John, and Leonardo as Judas. To the right of Judas is a figure depicted as a Man of Sorrows wringing his hands – a symbol of repentance. It’s another version of Domenico, and probably represents James the Great, the brother of John. This version of a Man of Sorrows can be identified with Ghirlandaio’s role in the self portrait he made some ten years later, and in it referenced his part in Leonardo’s The Annunciation many years earlier.

Domenico Ghirlandaio portrayed as Men of Sorrows

The Man of Sorrows shows two marble columns in the background. They represent numeral 2 and 11 and refer to the short sentence in Romans 2:11 when St Paul said: “God has no favourites”. In other words, as much as Leonardo had considered Ghirlandaio favoured him above others, Ghirlandaio, for whatever reason, thought otherwise. Perhaps Leonardo suspected Ghirlandaio was jealous of his superior talent as a painter and concerned he would lose commissions and favour from patrons to the younger man.

So when we see the young Leonardo in Ghirlandaio’s first Last Supper fresco resting his head against Jesus in the guise of Domenico (“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” John 14:9) and the close physical connection of the disciple John (portrayed as the young Leonardo), and also take into account the reference “I have no favourites”, then a reason for the gap between the two men in Leonardo’s Last Supper becomes apparent.

Detail from The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

The gap is a triangular V-shape. The shape of Jesus with his outstretched arms is also triangular, but inverted. The two shapes placed side by side form a parallelogram. In other words, Leonardo is drawing a parallel to Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper frescoes and probably intended as a final response to the banter between the three artists that continued for a period of twenty years.

Notice also the two columns that frame Jesus – a reference to the two columns in Ghirlandaio’s Man of Sorrows pointing to St Paul’s words from Romans 2:11, “God has no favourites”, and Leonardo’s confirmation of the separation of himself from Ghirlandaio portrayed as Christ. This scenario may also represent Leonardo pointing to his own choice of keeping his distance from Church, but reconciling later in life. It’s why he is seen leaning in the direction of Peter, chosen by Christ to be the rock of faith on which he would build his church.

For sure, both Leonardo and Ghirlandaio felt a deep betrayal in their lives, hence Leonardo choosing to portray the time at the Last Supper when Jesus announced that someone at the table, someone close to him, would betray him.

Botticelli continued to stoke the fires of dispute with various references to Leonardo in his own paintings. The most notable to the sodomy accusation is parodied in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Ghirlandaio referred to the incident in his painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Santa Trinita, Florence

But as I understand, the origins of the dispute can be clearly recognised in Verrocchio’s version of the Baptism of Christ in which Leonardo clearly had a hand in painting. Botticelli is depicted gazing lovingly at Leonardo who only has eyes for the Baptist portrayed by Ghirlandaio. His gaze is firmly focused on the crown of Jesus.

The Baptism of Christ by Andreadel Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence.

Perhaps Andrea del Verrocchio understood the nature of his apprentices better than themselves when he set out to paint the Baptism of Christ

Not surprising, the work also has a strong link to Leonardo’s The Annunciation, and suggests he contributed more to the painting than has been understood in the past.

Crowning moments

While here in the U.K. preparations are underway for the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla at the Abbey Church of Westminster on May 6, 2023, here’s another coronation scene painted c.1492.

The Coronation of the Virgin Mary is dated a couple of years after Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the Man of Sorrows which Leonardo referenced and applied as one of the identities to the figure of Jesus in The Last Supper.

In my previous post I stated Leonardo gave Ghirlandaio another role in The Last Supper, that of Judas.

What I hadn’t considered was that Leonardo may have sourced his image of Ghirlandaio from elsewhere. But today I happened to come across the Coronation of the Virgin and discovered the painting was a joint production by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli.

To be continued, with an explanation of the iconography that connects the two heads, apart from any facial likeness.

D is for…?

The picture above shows two initials carved on the bark of a tree in woodland near to my home. The monogram’s message is clear-cut: K loves B.

It reminds me of a monogram associated with Leonardo da Vinci, formed by linking the letters L, D and V. But notice the emphasis on the letter D. What could be the explanation for the D’s dominance in the monogram?

Was Leonardo providing a cryptic clue to some form of friendship, a close bond, perhaps?

In his book Leonardo da Vinci, The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man, Martin Kemp directs the reader to “Two imperfectly legible lines of writing on a torn sheet from 1478” that “suggest the kind of affectionate relationships he [Leonardo} established: ‘Fioravante di Domenico… in Florence is my most cherished companion, as though he were my…’” 

Leonardo never completed the sentence written above the drawing of two heads facing each other, one being Leonardo, the other, presumably, Domenico. D for Domenico, L for Leonardo. 

On this sheet the young Leonardo appears to be studying intensely the visage of he older man. A similar comparison can be made in Andrea del Verrocchio’s painting of the Baptism of Christ. Here we see Leonardo, as the angel in the forefront, gazing not at Jesus, but the head of Domenico Ghirlandaio depicted as John the Baptist.

The Baptism of Christ (1472-75) by Andrea del Verrochio, Uffizi, Florence.

There are other drawings by Leonardo that resemble the mysterious Domenico, seemingly toothless and ‘sour-faced’. Notice the lion (Leonardo?) on two of the illustrations.

Another and more detailed portrait of Domenico produced by Leonardo (shown below) is assumed to be a preliminary drawing for one of the twelve apostles, the Head of Judas, as featured in The Last Supper mural – or could it represent Peter as well? Both men betrayed Christ.

The Head of Judas (c.1495) by Leonardo da Vinci, Royal Collection Trust

So why would Leonardo want to define this particular Domenico – and if it is Ghirlandaio – as Judas, or even Peter, (bearing in mind my previous post stated that the figure of Christ also represented Ghirlandaio)?

Detail from Leonardo’s mural of The Last Supper, showing the Judas, Peter and John

More about this in a future post.
Another post that relates to the LDV logo at this link.
And at this link, the man who anonymously ‘outed’ Leonardo da Vinci.

Matching the Man of Sorrows

Over the Easter holiday weekend I came across this beautiful Man of Sorrows painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio, dated c.1490. It’s housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and forms part of a collection of artworks willed to the city in 1917 by the corporate lawyer and art collector John G. Johnson.

I wonder if the PMA realises what a unique treasure it has in its possession and on exhibit?

The painting is dated circa 1490. At one time it was considered to have been produced by the Netherlandish painter Hans Membling, and I’m not aware of who or when the work was attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio,  but it is, in fact a self-portrait of the Florentine painter.

It must have been a late work by Ghirlandaio because he died from the plague at a relatively young age of 45 in January 1494. 

In the following year, 1495, Leonardo da Vinci began work on painting his famous mural of The Last Supper in the refectory attached to the monastery of Santa Marie Delle Grazia, in Milan.

Ghirlandaio’s self portrait was the inspiration and model for the central figure of Jesus in The Last Supper mural.

And I would go as far as to hypothesise that the face of Christ in the Salvatore Mundi painting, auctioned at Christie’s in 2017, is a composite of both Leonardo da Vinci and Domenico Ghirlandaio.

There are other features in Ghirlandaio’s painting that Leonardo referred to in The Last Supper. Both paintings also reference one of Leonardo’s earliest works, The Annunciation.

I shall expand on this in a future post.

What did Leonardo’s mother really look like?

• From La Voce di New York:

The cover of the book, Caterina’s Smile

An Italian scholar and novelist has provided a fresh theory for an old debate over the identity of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother, drawing on a recently unearthed document as evidence that she arrived on the Italian peninsula as a slave from the Caucasus region of Central Asia.

Carlo Vecce, an Italian literature professor at the University of Naples L’Orientale, has revealed his theory in a new novel, “Il Sorriso di Caterina,” or “Caterina’s Smile.” He based his claim on a document discovered in the State Archives in Florence that granted freedom to a girl named Caterina. 

I don’t know who is the model for the book cover, but it’s a beautiful image, and Carlo Vecce has provided a fresh theory as to who was Leonardo’s mother.

But what did Caterina really look like? On this matter I have a theory of my own:

Leonardo may have portrayed his mother as the model for the Virgin Mary in his painting of The Annunciation. Are any clues to Caterina’s identity embedded in the painting itself? Or could the young woman’s identity be someone else who was close to Leonardo? 

In a future post I intend to reveal the iconography that identifies the four men who were were summoned with Leonardo before the Florentine authorities in 1476 to answer an anonymous accusation of sodomy made against them.

The Denunciation?

This is the right hand of God that appears in Fra Filippo Lippi’s painting of The Annunciation (London version) sending forth the Holy Spirit to overshadow the Virgin Mary so she may conceive and bear a son to be named Jesus.

In Leonardo da Vinci’s version of The Annunciation, the hand of God is also indicated, but visibly absent, and for a specific reason.

It was the finger of God that inscribed the two tablets of stone setting out his Law – The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments – for the people to live by, an event disguised by Leonardo as the window above the Virgin’s head.

The window frame can also be visualised in another way: The two tablets as representing the Old and New Testaments, and the scroll with its wing-shaped edge, as a roll cloud. The ledge above can be understood as another cloud formation, a ledge cloud. Both clouds can sometimes hint at a coming thunderstorm in their wake.

When Moses responded to God’s call from within a cloud on Mount Sinai he spent 40 days and nights on the mountain in the cloud and was eventually given the two stone tablets. After descending from Sinai he witnessed the people he had led out of Egypt dancing and worshiping a calf made of gold. In anger, Moses smashed the tablets on the ground. The thunderstorm had broken and descended from the cloud. The dark area alongside the tablets in the window, and the unfurling shadow under the ledge represent the storm.

So the window is a cloud motif, and its connection to a storm and darkness points to an episode in Leonardo’s early life when, in April 1476, he was denounced to the Florentine authorities with four other men, accused of sodomy. 

The letter of denunciation had been deposited in one of the city’s post boxes known as tambouri (drums). These holes in the wall or “holes of truth” were designed for the purpose of reporting misdemeanours and crimes. 

The charges against Leonardo and the other men were eventually dropped, principally because the accuser had not signed the letter and remained anonymous.

Along with Leonardo, four other men were named: Bartolomeo di Pasquino, a goldsmith; Lionardo Tornabuoni, from a noble family connected to the Medici; a tailor named Baccino; and a young man said to be a male prostitute, Jacopo Saltarelli.

Two months later another anonymous accusation against Leonardo was posted in a tamburo, and again, the charge was dropped for the same reason as previous.

Now Leonardo’s window takes on a new identity. It becomes a “hole of truth”, a tamburo, The two tablets represent the two denunciations, unsigned; the scroll, the written accusation. Hence the reason for the absent visible hand of God in the painting.

That the last charge was not made until June 1476 is helpful in dating Leonardo’s Annunciation painting. It could not have been started until, at the earliest later, in the same year.

Having shone the light on the accusations, Leonardo proceeded to identify in his painting those who were charged with sodomy – and also the two men he considered were responsible for writing and placing the accusation in the tamburo  – two notable artists, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli.

Not knowing at the time of the charges who his accuser was, Leonardo implied an alternative meaning to the cloud motif – an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in the 14th century known as “The Cloud of Unknowing”. It’s placed in the window and paired with an earlier work from the late fourth century penned by Augustine of Hippo and generally referred to as “Confessions”. Augustine also wrote on a similar theme of unknowing as in The Cloud.

A final link to Leonardo’s cloud can be recognised in the artist’s biography written by Charles Nicholl: Leonardo da Vinci, The Flights of the Mind.

When introducing Leonardo’s father Piero, an established notary in Florence, Nicholl describes Piero’s notarial insignia as “a kind of trademark – not unlike a printer’s device – can be seen on a contract dated November 1458. It is hand drawn, and shows a cloud with a letter P in it…”

The window scroll is the reference to notary, while Leonardo has utilised the left side and bottom edges of the window frame to represent the letter L and the first letter of his full name which was Lionardo di ser Piero da Vinci (Leonardo, son of ser Piero da Vinci).

It is here that Leonardo laid the ground to reference the Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit (the Spirit being the winged edge of the scroll) to make a connection to Sandro Botticelli and another painting by Fra Filippo Lippi, The Vision of St Augustine. Botticelli served as an apprentice under Fra Filippo.

Like his father, a notary, Leonardo recorded in notebooks many of his observations and discoveries, a type of biography or confession of his life. The two stones in the window are also a reference to his early notebooks.

While Leonardo may never have made any handwritten record of his dark times being brought before the courts accused of sodomy, or if he did, they are are either lost or still to be discovered, his painting of The Annunciation paradoxically records his Denunciation, and is a visible record to his accusers and one which both Botticelli and Ghirlandaio parodied in later paintings of their own. 

Botticelli, in particular, went on to further suggest that Leonardo may have fallen from grace again a few years later before he left Florence and moved to Milan, but in different circumstances,