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.
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.
You must be logged in to post a comment.