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 charge against Leonardo and the other men was 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, the cloud can be referred to as “The Cloud of Unknowing” an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in the 14th century. It’s another book Leonardo has 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 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 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, but in different circumstances, before he left Florence and moved to Milan.
• My next post will deal with the identity of the four men accused alongside Leonardo.
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