Leonardo’s ‘claw’… there’s more…

Last week, the world’s media reported on the diagnosis made by two Italian doctors which suggested Leonardo da Vinci suffered with ulnar palsy, or what is known as “claw hand”. The claim was first presented in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine on May 3, 2019, by Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi.

That Leonardo was inflicted with a paralysis in his right hand is not unknown to historians. Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, wrote in his travel diary about a visit to Leonardo in 1517. “One cannot indeed expect any more good work from him as a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand.”

Drs Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi base their diagnosis on two portraits of Leonardo, a red-chalk drawing attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1540-1608), and the other to an engraving made in 1505 by Marcantonio Raimondo (ca 1480-1527)

A section of the engraving of Orpheus made by Marcantonio Raimondo in 1505 which is said to resemble Leonardo da Vinci. Cleveland Museum of Art.

The engraving purports to show Leonardo playing a lira da braccio, suggesting therefore he may still had use of his right hand to enable to bow the instrument. The red-chalk drawing depicts Leonardo with his right hand cradled in the folds of his gown as if supporting an injured arm.

A section of the red-chalk drawing of Leonardo da Vinci by Giovanni Ambrogio Figino.

Historians generally attribute Leonardo’s paralysis to have manifested late in his life, but there is evidence to suggest the polymath bore his affliction even earlier and to the period he was living in Florence before moving to Milan in1482. The evidence is provided by three of his contemporaries, Andrea del Verriccio, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Perugino. Even Leonardo himself produced work that hinted at his disability.

Dr Lazzeri suggests that an acute upper limb trauma, possibly from a fall, could have resulted in ulner palsy. He eplains, “The ulnar nerve runs from the shoulder to the little finger and manages almost all the hand muscles that allow fine motor movement.” Perhaps in the light of the this new analysis by Drs Lazzeri and Rossi, it can now be better understood just why Leonardo did not always complete his paintings or was at least slow to do so.

In 1479 a group of Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It was considered a reconciliation initiative between Pope Sixtus IV and Lorenzo de’ Medici following the murder of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano by conspirators supported by Sixtus. The four principal artists were Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugini, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli. Surprisingly Leonardo da Vinci was not among the group. Could one of the reasons for his absence have been some kind of incapacity at the time, perhaps the result of an injury to his right arm?

In 1481, Leonardo was commissioned to paint an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi. It was never completed. Prior to that he started to paint St Jerome in the Wilderness. This work also remained unfinished and is now housed in the Vatican Museums.

A section of Jerome in the Wilderness by Leonardo, now housed in the Vatican Museums.

Revisitng this work it is clear to see the emphasis placed on the suffering of St Jerome in the process of beating his breast with the rock held in his right hand. What is now particularly obvious in the light of last week’s report is the prominence and detail given to the right shoulder, the collar bone and afflicted expression on Jerome’s face. Outstretching his arm is seemingly a most painful process, enough to make him grimace and turn his head away. Could this be Leonardo recording the pain of his own injury in some way? Notice the claw-shaped grip around the stone held in the right hand.

Another painting that throws light on Leonardo’s claw-hand is Andrea de Verrocchio’s version of Tobias and the Angel (1470-65). For the angel Raphael read Verrocchio and for Tobias, Leonardo – the master instructing his apprentice. Close inspection of the linked arms clearly shows deformity in the young man’s right hand, particularly the little finger. Some art experts suggest Leonardo may have painted the fish that Tobias is carrying in his left hand.

A section from The Angel and Tobias by Andrea del Verrocchio, 1470-75, National Gallery.

Although Leonardo wasn’t part of the Florentine team sent to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel, he does feature in one of its paintings – The Trials of Moses – attributed to Botticelli. Leonardo is presented as the Egyptian being put to the sword by Moses and later buried. Both hands of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, are formed as claws!

A section from the fresco depicting the Trials of Moses, 1482, Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel

Returning to Florence in 1482 Botticelli went onto complete an earlier commission before he was called away to Rome, the Adoration of the Magi, the adaption now housed with Leonardo’s version in the Uffizi, Florence. The earlier mention of Leonardo being buried is alluded to again by Botticelli. The stone head to the left of the Holy Family group is Leonardo shown as the half buried Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. But this is not the only reference to Leonardo in the painting. In fact, there are are several, one of which points to the claw feature in Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel but is also given another meaning by Botticelli as part of one of several themes in the painting.

Adoration of the Magi, 1482, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

Leonardo is the figure wearing the pink cape crouching in front of Botticelli who is positioned in the right corner of the frame. The fingers of Leonardo’ right hand claw into the back of the hand of Giuliano de’ Medici. As to the reason for this, that’s another story.

Leonardo’s right hand is shown as clawing into the back Giuliano de’ Medici’s left hand.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, positioned next to Botticelli and wearing a feathered hat, was one of the artists who shared the workload in frescoing the walls of the Sistine Chapel. He also returned to Florence afterwards to complete a commisison he was given earlier to fresco the Sassetti Chapel in the Santa Trinita basilica. He produced five frescos on the life of St Francis. One of these, the last in the cycle, depicts the Death of St Francis seen surrounded by fellow friars and Florentine notables. The central figure hovering above the dead saint is meant to represent a knight named Jerome who doubted the authenticity and claims of the stigmata associated with Francis during his saintly life. When Francis died, Jerome examined the manifested wounds of Christ on the body of the holy man and was convinced they were genuine and so convereted his life.

A section of the fresco, Death of Francis, 1483-86, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sassetti Chapel.

Here Ghirlandaio has borrowed the Leonardo/Egyptian figure from Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel fresco – note the similarity in hair colour and style, and the shade of the red and blue garments. Leonardo is known for dissecting dead bodies in his search for how the human body functions, and his notebooks are filled with drawing and sketches recording his findings. So here we have not only the connection back to Leonardo’s early painting of Jerome in the Wilderness, but also Ghirlandaio linking it to the knight known as Jerome who doubted the stigmata of Francis. Ghirlandaio also confirms Leonardo’s claw hand, not just by the shape of the right hand reaching into the body’s side wound, but also by the claw-shaped ‘praying hands’ of the two figures either side of Leonardo.

Leonardo held a skeptical view about some aspects Christianity, and was even considered a non-believer by some people. Ghirlandaio, it seems, was a believer in ‘miracles’ and in the use and power of relics to obtain physical healing. Perhaps this is why he presented Leonardo before the dead Francis in this final fresco, as an expression of his own personal faith and prayer made visible for others to witness. It is said that Leonardo renconciled with the Catholic Church when he was close to death and paid for Masses to be said for his soul’s salvation after he died.

The claim that Leonardo is represented in the engraving produced by Marcantonio Raimondo in 1505, has some merit. When he left Florence for Milan he brought with him a a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head as a gift for the Milanese ruler Ludovico Sforza. In Raimondo’s engraving Leonardo is depicted playing a ‘lira da braccio’ – an arm lyre – for the animals gathered around him. He is presented as Orpheus, “a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth”, said to be able to charm all creatures with his music.

Parnnasus, 1497, Andrea Mantegna, Louvre, Paris

Leonardo portrayed as Orpheus may have been inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s famous painting Parnassus, now displayed in the Louvre. This is another work with several references to Leonardo and also Botticelli. In fact, it’s a parody on Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, which explains why Mantegna embedded the references to Leonardo. In the left corner of the painting is a young man seated on a tree trunk and playing a lyre for the dancing Maneads. The figure is Orpheus but also represents Giuliano de’ Medici. His left hand is claw-shaped to pluck the strings of the lyre. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration Giuliano is also placed in the left corner, alongside a silver-head horse representing Leonardo’s lyre.

Orpheus, but also representing Giuliano Medici and possibly the young musician Atalante Migliorotti who accompanied Leonardo when he moved to Milan.

From these examples it can be seen that Leonardo’s claw-hand was not a late development in life, and that his contemporaries portayed his ailment in their paintings. There are probably more to come to light as the works I have cited are only those I have studied in recent months.

Cosimo, Sixtus, and now Jerome

St Jerome in the Wilderness, c 1480, Leonardo da Vinci, Vatican Museums

St Jerome in the Wilderness is another unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Believed to have been started sometime in 1480 before Leonardo moved from Florence to Milan, it’s now housed in the Vatican Museums.

At sometime in its history the panel was reduced in size. However, before it was cut down it served as inspiration for the upper half of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi. It’s not hard to recognise that the kneeling Magi before the Infant Jesus is not only meant to resemble both Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV as mentioned in previous posts, but also the figure of St Jerome depicted in Leonardo’s early work.

Other elements in Leonardo’s painting are also echoed and in a future post I will refer to these and the reason why Botticelli has made the connection to Jerome and placed the Saint – one of the early “Doctors of the Church” – in such a central position in his painting.

Matching pair… Leonardo’s St Jerome and Botticelli’s Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV

Of Duchys, Kingdoms and Empires

This clip from the Monforte Altarpiece shows Maximilian I, husband of Mary of Burgundy. They were married in 1477. Maximillian was later crowned King of the Romans (1486), became Archduke of Austria in 1493, and proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor in 1508.

He is depicted kneeling at the side of Casper, one of the three adoring Magi painted by Hugo van der Goes. The figure of Casper is also assigned four other identities: the artist himself; St Jerome; St James the Greater; and Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor and father of Maximilian I.

Hugo has deliberately created uncertainty as to which of the two figures is receiving the chalice. Both have a hand on the vessel. Is it the son Maximilian serving his father Frederick, or is it symbolic of a transference of power, which can also be employed in a religious sense, from Father to Son?

Furthermore, the transaction relates to the time when Hugo van der Goes was a lay brother at the Rood Klooster, an Augustinian priory, where he was allowed to continue his work as a painter. Many notable personages would visit the priory in Brabant, one being Maximilian I who, in 1478, met with Hugo and presented him with a gift of expensive wine (perhaps for one of his paintings). So in this scenario the standing figure receiving the “wine mixed with myrrh” from Maximilian is Hugo van der Goes. The mix of wine with myrrh is a biblical refrence to when Jesus was offered the drink while he was on the cross (Mark 20:23), and probably a reference to the mental anguish suffered by Hugo in his later life.

It’s at this point that a third identity for Casper is introduced – that of St James the Greater, a son of Zebedee and brother to John “the beloved disciple”. St James is the patron saint of Compostella, the pilgrimage shrine in Spain. Monforte de Lemos was once a base for the Order of Hospitallers of St John that served and accommodated pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostella.

It was Salome, the mother of James and John, who requested Jesus to grant her two sons seats either side of him in heaven. Jesus responded: “Can they drink the cup that I am going to drink”, that is the bitter cup of “wine mixed with myrrh”. The brother’s responded that they could but Jesus explained that the places were not his to give but for those his Father had prepared them for. A close inspection of the stem of the chalice shows two cartouches in the style of Egyptian hieroglyphics. There are several other Egyptian references made in the painting. Oval cartouches with a line underneath are symbols inscribed with the names of royal kings. In this instance, there are no inscriptions to reveal any identity. The containers or places have been prepared but have yet to be filled.

Another reference to the Father and Son relationship is the sculpted profile formed by the four-finger grip in the chalice stem. It is meant to suggest a reflection of Maximilian’s profile, like father, like son, or in biblical terms, the repsonse given by Jesus to Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Image courtesy of The Knight Shop

The profile and Maximilian gazing at the chalice combine to make another point, the Archduke of Austria’s fascination with suited armour. The “fluting” on the stem of the chalice is associated with a style of plating favoured by Maximilian that later became known as “Maximilian armour”. While the fluted armour was designed as a feature to deflect pointed weapons, helmets were equiped with visors shaped as bellows, similar to the finger formation gripping the chalice. Visor as in visage echoes the earlier reference to seeing the Father in Jesus as well as facing up to death – and drinking from the cup of salvation.

The fourth identity given to Casper is St Jerome, one of the Four Doctors of the Church. An attribute depicted in paintings of St Jerome is a lion. In this showing a lion features in the fur trim of the black coat. However, Maximilian is also portrayed as a lion. He has a gold mane and his profile is meant to depict a golden lion – the heraldic symbol of the Duchy of Brabant.

There is more iconography that connects to the four identities but links to other features in the painting.