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Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of the notary Ser Piero di Antonio da Vinci and a local peasant woman Caterina, who was perhaps the major influence on his life. He was raised in his father’s house, where his stepmother, Albiera di Giovanni Amadori, alternatively ignored and mistreated him. At 17, he was apprenticed to a respected Florentine master, Andrea del Verrocchio, and studied both painting and sculpture. His earliest known drawing is a landscape of the Arno Valley from 1473, and by the late 1470s he was producing small paintings of his own as well as adding figures and details to his master’s works.

Florence was a wealthy and bustling city-state controlled by merchants and ruled by the banking family of Medici. Leonardo was later to comment somewhat mysteriously: “The Medici made me and the Medici destroyed me.” Lorenzo de Medici was Verrocchio’s patron, and he was acquainted with Lorenzo’s more esoteric interests. Verrocchio himself was reputed to be involved in magic and alchemy as well as mathematics and music, and may have passed these interests on to his pupil, Leonardo.

Lorenzo’s court, and indeed all of Florence, was crowded with secret groups and shadowy societies, some public and religious, and others more exclusive. Cosimo de Medici, Lorenzo’s father, supported the two greatest occultists of the age, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, and was responsible for the Corpus Hermetica’s translation into Latin. Lorenzo himself was the Grandmaster of a Neo-Platonic society called the Confraternity of the Magi, founded by his father. Also, a loose association of heretical, and even neo-Cathar, groups existed, referred to as the Companies of Night. Some of these heretics were artists, including prominent figures such as Sandro Botticelli.

In 1476, Leonardo was twice anonymously accused of homosexual activity but never charged, probably for lack of evidence. This accusation seems to have been the beginning of his obsession with secrecy, but there may have been more to it than appears on the surface. The accusation involved one Jacopo Saltarelli, who is described as a known heretic as well as a sodomite. Charges of heresy were common in Florence, and The Guild of Saint Luke, to which both Leonardo and Saltarelli belonged, was known for its heretical members rumoured to be part of the Companies of Night.

Adoration of the MagiBy 1478, Leonardo had his first major commission and was moving in a circle of young artists, among them Sandro Botticelli, whose works exhibit some interesting esoteric and heretical symbolism. Margaret Starbird focuses on Botticelli’s disguised Mary Magdalene paintings in Woman in an Alabaster Jar, and from these works it is easy to see that there was some sort of Magdalene underground in Florence. Leonardo may have absorbed some heretical ideas from his birth mother Caterina, who was rumoured to be an Old Believer, a surviving sect of the Bogomils. Later, Leonardo employed an old woman called Caterina as his housekeeper, and this may have been his mother, as Leonardo was especially solicitous of her well being. In that case, her influence, perhaps as a Cathar-like heretic, may have been profound and long lasting.

But we must keep in mind that Leonardo was not a confirmed believer in any sort of Christianity, heretical or otherwise. He was also not an occultist, although his vast curiosity would have led him to examine their claims closely, and he saw much of the Renaissance’s “science” as simply superstition. Leonardo was essentially a rationalist, not a visionary. So his acceptance of a heretical view of the dominant religion was not a matter of faith but more of rebellion against the established church and its social order. From the late 1470s onward, whenever Leonardo was forced to deal with Christian themes, which was almost all of his commissions, he seems to have taken great pains to work in heretical images and implications. Something in him took great pleasure in flaunting his knowledge in the face of ignorant faith.

Perhaps this impasse, this pull in different directions, caused the failure of his first two commissions. Of the first nothing remains, and very little may have been done, but the second, the “Adoration of the Magi,” survives in its half-finished state. This, in its curious way, is the most clearly heretical of all Leonardo’s paintings.

reminder of Salvadore DaliCompleted a few years earlier in 1475, Botticelli’s Adoration inspired Leonardo to attempt his own version. However his insight into the scene is more advanced than Botticelli’s. The moment pictured is the same: The Christ Child, in what is traditionally considered a pre-figuration of the Eucharist, blesses Balthasar, the third wise man, as Joseph and a small crowd of retainers look on. But Leonardo took these elements to a new level of intensity and strangeness.

Our modern vision is reminded of Salvador Dali by the ghostly horsemen, broken arches and stairway to nowhere in the background. These surrealistic images were meant to suggest the back-story, conflicts and travels, of the three wise men. The middle and foreground are taken by the adoration itself, with the Virgin and Child at the center of a roughly triangular arrangement. In Leonardo’s version, the stately crowd of retainers have become a semi circle of raving worshipers. Just above the Virgin’s left shoulder stands a large tree, The Tree of Life or the lineage Tree of Jesse, and just behind that is an enigmatic figure pointing up with one hand and toward the Virgin and child in the foreground with the other.

enigmatic figureThis is Leonardo’s signature gesture. He would repeat it in every significant painting to the end of his life. What he meant remains somewhat obscure, but from this first representation we can gain a glimpse of its implications. The mysterious figure is pointing to the Star/Tree, and apparently explaining the phenomenon to a group who are staring at the Star/Tree rather than at the Virgin and Child. (Star/Tree is used here because Leonardo didn’t paint a star, the Star of Bethelem, and clearly meant for the Tree to stand in for that image.)

The small group who see the Star/Tree are the initiates, the few, and they are being instructed by a hidden teacher, the secret knowledge that knows the astronomical insight behind the public mythic expressions. Just below this image is a man with his hand to his brow looking with astonishment at the Virgin and Child. Curiously enough, his features closely resemble those of Peter in the “Last Supper.” Behind the Virgin is Joseph, here offering a crust of bread, which is ignored while the Child blesses the offering of the wise man.

As the esoteric and heretical symbols pile up on top of each other, our attention is drawn to the two enigmatic figures that frame the painting. On the far left is a hermit or a philosopher and on the far right, looking out of the painting, is a young knight, a Parsival-like figure. Art history tradition from the late 16th century holds that this young Grail knight is a self-portrait of Leonardo, suggesting that he painted himself into the story. If that was indeed Leonardo’s intent, then the information in the painting expresses Leonardo’s “initiation” into the mysteries of the Grail.

This can be understood by looking at the hermit/philosopher at the far left. In the Grail Romances, of both Chretien and Wolfram, there is a scene where a hermit, Trevizant, informs Parsival of his lineage and the nature of the Grail. This is perhaps the allusion Leonardo is making here. The story of the Grail is an alternative version of Christianity, one where the Eucharist is the ritual of anointing, not the bread and wine of the church’s Holy Communion. Here, it is Balthasar who receives the blessing, becoming the founder of the true church, and to the medieval understanding this pointed directly to one spot: Provence.

small group who see the starAs examined earlier, since the early 11th century, the Lords of Les Baux, the rocky outcropping of the Alpilles in Provence, claimed descent from the wise man Balthasar. The stories in the medieval Golden Legends are the inspiration for the scenes in the background of Leonardo’s painting, and it clearly locates the events in Provence. King Rene D’Anjou absorbed this claim in the 15th century as Count of Provence. He was an ardent collector of Grail legends, and this alternative view of Christianity’s origin was possibly passed on to the intelligentsia of Florence and Milan by King Rene’s exclusive Chivalric society, the Order of the Cresent. From this inspiration came Cosimo de Medici’s related order, the Confraternity of the Magi.

It is just possible that Leonardo, through his contacts in the Guild of St. Luke, made connections with the more aristocratic and esoteric “Magi.” His father, a wealthy Florentine notary or lawyer, may also have had contacts with Order members at Lorenzo de Medici’s court. It was Leonardo’s father who secured his first two commissions, so we might suppose that part of the “promotional” process was an introduction to the intellectual elite at court.

Vasari repeats the curious story that Leonardo was sent to Milan in 1482 by Lorenzo de Medici to present Ludovico Sforza with a silver horse-head lyre that he had designed and on which he played like a virtuoso. The image of Leonardo as a young and handsome troubadour, playing ethereal music on a silver lyre, is one that is somewhat at odds with the common perceptions based on the self-portrait from his later years. But Leonardo gained entry to the court of Milan as a kind of Renaissance rock star, rather than as a painter or a scientist. However, even given his beauty - see the Parsival image in the “Adoration” - and his talent, there is still an element of a deeper connection behind Leonardo’s acceptance at Ludovico’s court.

For one thing, Leonardo left his “Adoration” unfinished when he hurried off to Milan in the winter of 1482. The monks of San Donato a Scopeto never complained and eventually had another version painted. The non-completion of his first commission is even more telling. This was for the government itself, a painting for a chapel in the Palazzo Vecchio, and the lack of any response to Leonardo’s complete abandonment of the project suggests strong support from high places. The conclusion is that Leonardo was under the protection, from as early as 1478, of the elite at Lorenzo’s court. Just why, and for what reasons, remains a mystery.

hermit at far leftApparently as part of this semi-official involvement, Leonardo came into contact with members of the Order of the Crescent and the Confraternity of the Magi. We may even speculate, given the subject matter of the “Adoration,” that some time around 1480 Leonardo was actually initiated into the Order, or a variant of it. It was this same current that would initiate Botticelli and serve as the source for his Magdalene paintings of the mid 1480s. We can even find traces of the Magdalene tradition in Florentine painters as seemingly orthodox as Fra Angelico, and it is not hard to imagine all of these artists being influenced by the same source, King Rene’s Underground Stream.

The core revelation of this initiation, the key mythos, may be seen in the images of the “Adoration.” Leonardo himself, traditionally, is the young Grail knight to whom the story of the True Tree, the Grail and its alternative church, is being told. The details lead us, through common medieval legends directly to Provence, and therefore to King Rene D’Anjou. The coherence of the symbols is convincing enough to suggest that initiated or not, Leonardo had discerned an important, and heretical, secret. And he painted it in so obvious a manner that the secret was virtually on display for all to see. Even to the Medici this may have been just too much.

And so Leonardo was dispatched to Milan, to the court of Ludovico Sforza where he could exercise his talents more freely. He offered his services to Ludovico in a famous letter, where he barely mentions painting and dwells instead on military engineering and sculpture. At Ludovico’s court there many bright young practical thinkers, doctors, engineers, architects, men of fact and experience, and this intellectual richness fed Leonardo’s insatiable craving for information in ways that would have been impossible in Florence.

Leonardo never felt the need to leave Milan, until circumstances and the French King compelled him. He stayed for seventeen years and the variety of duties he was called upon to perform, from the founding of cannons and the installation of central heating in the palace to supervision of pageants and festivals, appealed to his multifaceted nature. Ludovico’s father, Francesco Sforza, was a founding member of King Rene’s Order of the Crescent, and Ludovico was its Grandmaster in the 1490s. This link was perhaps another reason why Leonardo felt safer in Milan.

teacherSoon after his arrival at Ludovico’s court, Leonardo received his first commission, an altarpiece for the Franciscan Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. This commission led to twenty-three years of acrimony and legal entanglements, before Leonardo completed it in 1506. That painting, which is now in the National Gallery in London, is not the only version. An earlier “Virgin in the Rocks,” now in the Louvre, existed and while it is clearly not the painting described in the legal documents, it is not clear when it was painted or exactly how it ended up with the King of France.

Kenneth Clark, the renowned art historian, was of the opinion that it was painted in Florence, finished at roughly the same time as the “Adoration” was begun. Leonardo took it with him, in this view, when he made his move to Milan as a demonstration of his mastery of painting. And perhaps, as we will see below, he used it as proof of his understanding of the Grail secrets.

The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was offered a copy, which is in keeping with the painting’s secondary status as a screen for the altar statue and the small amount the Franciscans were willing to pay for it. Leonardo sketched out a version, and then abandoned it, possibly after Ludovico Sforza bought the original. The Franciscans sued, and eventually, but only after Ludovico’s death, Leonardo finished the painting. In this second version, Leonardo left out certain details, and added others, that made the scene more acceptable to its orthodox patrons.

The original however is almost as heretical, although in a much more subtle manner, as the “Adoration.” The Franciscans wanted, according to the contract, “Our Lady and her Son with the angels, done in oils with the utmost care…” Nowhere is there any mention of John the Baptist. This alone argues against seeing the original “Virgin in the Rocks” as stemming from this contract. It is clearly far more than a simple Madonna and Child with an angel. If the Brothers had wanted John the Baptist included because of some special fondness for him, we can be certain he would have been included in the contract. However, they made no reference to him.

For one thing, including John the Baptist at all was rather odd and only vaguely orthodox. There is only one small reference in the Apocryphal Gospels that suggests a meeting between Jesus and his cousin John at an early age, but it is so tangential, and does not directly name John, that we might safely ignore it as a source. So why is he there at all? The motif of the rocky wilderness was symbolic of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, but the addition of John the Baptist adds an oddly disturbing note to the painting.

grotto or quarry?Even more curious is his placement. The infant John kneels beside Mary, whose right arm and hand embrace him as her cloak, in a protective gesture, falls around him. She is also looking down at him with an odd tilt of her head, one that we will see again in the “Last Supper.” John is praying toward the other infant, Jesus, who is blessing him. Mary’s left hand hovers above the infant Jesus’ head. Stranger still is the enigmatic woman, considered to be an angel, with one of the most elegantly beautiful faces of all time, slyly looking out at the viewer and pointing, in half of Leonardo’s signature gesture, toward the infant John.

The location is also distinctive, as if it is a quarry rather than a grotto, with two outward views. One looks out on a rocky and mountainous landscape of sharp cliff faces, and through the other can be seen a curious upright stone of the kind left behind by Roman quarry masters to show the depth of the excavation. Just above is another indication that the scene is an old quarry. Two craved slabs of stone, forming a V, cross a crevice like support beams in a roof. On top of the enclosure just as it would be in an old quarry, the ground level of trees and grass can be seen.

Leonardo was trying to communicate something important in the first version of this painting. The angelic woman looking out at the viewer is dressed in the traditional colors of the Magdalene, and as in Botticelli’s work, has golden-red hair. She is pointing to John, protected by Mary, while supporting the infant Jesus. The painting confuses the issue of which is the Christ by doing away with halos. Were it not for the gesture of blessing by the infant Jesus, there would be no identifying clues. The issue is further confused by the fact that the angel/Magdalene seems maternally connected to the infant Jesus.

We are left with the impression that somehow John the Baptist, or at least the infant supposed to represent him, is more significant than Jesus himself. This is a decidedly unusual view for an Immaculate Conception altarpiece. Leonardo would return to this theme of John the Baptist as a youthful Christ-figure several more times, most famously in one of his last works, so it must have had considerable power for him.

But even more curious, the longer one studies the location depicted in the painting, the clearer it becomes that Leonardo was trying to describe a real place. Not one that he had seen personally, but one in which certain signs, which could be described to him, made its general location obvious. A mountainous region of sharp cliffs and small peaks where an ancient quarry retained its upright stone, a place possibly connected with the Holy Family’s flight and the Magdalene. Considering the legends of Mary Magdalene and her family arriving in France, at St. Marie-de-le-Mer, then location alone points to the Alpilles and then to Glanum, the only Roman quarry left with its marker stone still standing.

Virgin in the RocksThis original painting ended up with Ludovico who apparently gave it to Louis XII of France, where it passed to his son Francis I. He was so moved by it that he later offered Leonardo safe haven in his last years in the Chateau country of the Loire Valley. The Brothers waited, impatiently, for twenty-three years until after Ludovico’s death for their version, in which there is no pointing hand, and everyone has halos. The location is also subtly altered to make it more a fantasy landscape than an indication of a real place. This painting was displayed for several centuries at the monastery, but the original, with its odd clues to a heretical mystery remained sequestered away in the French royal collection until after the Revolution.

A little more than a year after Leonardo finished the “Last Supper” his comfortable sojourn in Milan was shattered by the overthrow of Ludovico. By that time however, Leonardo’s fame was international and one of his royal admirers was Louis XII of France, the new de facto ruler of Milan. Louis XII was familiar with Leonardo’s “Virgin in the Rocks,” it may have been given to him the year before by Ludovico in their early negotiations, and as soon as he could he came to see the “Last Supper.” Leonardo wasted no time in proposing a new commission to Louis, and he produced a design cartoon of Mary, with Jesus and John the Baptist, perched on her mother St. Anne’s lap. He would later return to this theme, but after a few months, Leonardo abandoned this version, and Milan.

The period from 1500 to 1506 was one of restlessness and unsettled travelling. Leonardo left Milan for Mantua and then Venice, but returned to Florence by the spring. There he embarked on a fruitful period, painting a new “Virgin and Child with St. Anne,” and other smaller works. In 1502, he set out on a trip across northern Italy making maps and design fortifications for Cesare Borgia, and again was back in Florence by the spring of 1503. That year he painted the Mona Lisa, and started on the great mural, “The Battle of Anghiari,” for the council chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio.

This was inadvertently destroyed, or at least severely damaged, once again by Leonardo’s proclivity for experimentation. By 1506, he was once again in Milan, working this time for the French governor. With only brief visits back to Florence, he stayed in Milan until 1512, when the French were expelled, and then travelled to Rome with the Medici Pope, Leo X. This lasted until Leo’s death in 1516, when Leonardo accepted the offer of Francis I and moved to a chateau near Cloux in the Loire valley, where he remained until his death in 1519.

St. JohnLeonardo in this later period painted several works with similar vaguely heretical content, most prominently his “St. John” and “St. John in the Wilderness.”  Indeed in his “St. John in the Wilderness” he openly displays the key to the secret. Imagine that the young St. John from the Virgin in the Rocks has grown up and is sitting on a rough hewn rock from the quarry nearby. The foreground suggests a similar landscape, and in an early study for the work, perhaps done in 1510, the rock is very prominent. This is quite specific in its detail; it has the feel of a real place. In fact, the background rocks/castle in the finished version suggests at first glance the odd peaks in the left hand side of the Virgin painting.

But as we look closer at that background, the connection dissolves. Here we see not perhaps a mountain peak, but a square keep in rock surrounded by water, a virtual island. A fantasy landscape perhaps, which is strange, combined with the specific detail of the figure’s location. The sensation of the painting is that the distant background is somehow removed, in time and space, from the frame of the figure on the rock. Could the strange rocky island ever have existed?  If we assume that our St. John figure walked up from the quarry of the Virgin in the Rocks, at Glanum, to this high seat, then we are looking out from the Alpilles onto the Crau. And down there, in the first century AD, were in fact three rocky islands standing isolated above a marshy flood plain. One of them would become the Abbaye de Montmajor, which shelters, in the shadow of its square Benedictine church, the chapel of St. Pierre, hermitage spot of an unusual Provencal saint, St. Trophime.

sketchCould Leonardo be pointing to a connection between his mysterious St. John and this real local saint? Curiously enough, St. Trophime is best known for leaving his knee print in a sarcophagus lid in the Alyscamps in 50 AD, and Leonardo goes to great lengths, as can be seen in the early sketch, to capture that knee as a counter weight to the pointing finger. In this sense, the finger is pointing to St. John, while showing off his knee, as if to say that yes, I’m the one who left the knee print; I’m the true St. Trophime, holy triumph and trophy all at once. Combined with the ancient view of Montmajor, the identification becomes concrete.

Three of Leonardo’s paintings, “The Adoration,” “the Virgin in the Rocks” and “St. John in the Wilderness,” point us directly to some kind of alternative Christianity in Provence. The Adoration introduces the importance of Balthazar, the third wise man claimed by the Lords of Les Baux, and the Virgin of the Rocks suggests that the quarries at Glanum had a connection to both Jesus and St. John. In the St. John painting we see that child grown up, identifying himself as the local St. Trophime. Leonardo, as much a trickster as Nostradamus, has left us the major clues to discovering the secret of the Grail.

Nostradamus however knew nothing of Leonardo’s heretical work. Therefore his six quatrains, enigmatic as they are as a whole, do provide a sort independent verification of the secret displayed so cleverly in Leonardo’s paintings. Nostradamus’ “Sextus MANSOL” and Leonardo’s St. John seem to be pointing at the same local legend, that of St. Trophime and the holy stone of the Alyscamps. The connection point, as Leonardo suggests, is somewhere between St. Remy and Les Baux.

This Study Note continues with The Secret.