St. John the Baptist
So much is known about Leonardo da Vinci, our world’s greatest polymath, he is probably the most studied and dissected figure in history.
Even his painting techniques leave artists still in wonderment today.
Leonardo (1452-1519) managed to establish imperceptible transitions between light and shade, his brushwork so subtle it is difficult to detect his strokes even on close inspection.
His invention of ‘sfumato’, literally meaning vanished or evaporated, enabled him to blend his colours and outlines, as he described it, ‘without borders, in the manner of smoke’.
Leonardo was entranced by the fall and play of light on surfaces and flesh. He wanted to perfect a luminescence in his portraits, applying layer upon layer of faint almost transparent colour, in sparingly thin veils. It allowed his subjects to glow in ethereal splendour.
As Georgio Vasari, chronicler of the Renaissance, described a Leonardo picture at the time, ‘As art may imitate nature, she does not appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood. On looking closely at the pit of her throat, one could swear that the pulses were beating.’
Of course, it is well known that Leonardo drew upon his own fascination with human anatomy to achieve such realism.
His interest in capturing the sinews and musculature of the body led him to endlessly dismember corpses, at a time when embalming was not practiced and bodies were hard to preserve.
His depictions of the heart, vascular system and genitals are some of the first precise studies ever made of the internal organs of the body, a breakthrough in biology as well as invaluable source material for his paintings.
In the years 1513-1516 he completed St John the Baptist, believed to be his last painting.
St John appears to be pointing to heaven, smiling as gently and serenely as Mona Lisa as he emerges out of the darkness Leonardo placed behind him.
Observers have suggested that St John appears to be effeminate in this portrayal, with his left hand held in a feminine way at his chest, his hair in gentle ringlets, and his features faun-like and ambiguous.
This was not the John the Baptist of the bible they claim, an earthy, somewhat fiery man of the desert, dressed in rags and living on locusts and honey.
Clearly, Leonardo liked to conceive a very personal interpretation, and must have rather enjoyed the inscrutable, almost mystical air his portrait conveys.
You will not be surprised to know that even at a young age, Leonardo truly was a Golden Child. At the age of just 15 he gained his apprenticeship to work in the revered studio of leading Florentine artist Verrocchio.
He learned fast from his master, a painter who was always greatly concerned with the quality of execution, insisting that each painting must convincingly express the human figure. From that point on, it became clear that da Vinci’s approach to art was always based on using tradition, and improving on it, rather than rebelling against it.
It was quickly apparent that Leonardo’s skills were extraordinary. During the Italian Renaissance it was commonplace for masters and assistants to collaborate on commissions. But Verrocchio found that young Leonardo could create indiscernible evolutions from hard to soft, from pale to dark – a revelation in applying paint which far exceeded his own powers.
Soon, Leonardo was to set up his own studio, and his reputation was such, that even while very young, he was chosen by a major church for a complete altarpiece.
In this work, Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo’s new approach developed, moving beyond the use of traditional linear perspective, where objects appear smaller in proportion the further away they are. He could employ his paint to make distant objects less distinct, and more muted in colour.
Leonardo was promptly summoned to take up the position of court artist to the Duke of Milan, where it was soon noted that young da Vinci was inventive in any number of ways, and fascinated by the laws of motion and propulsion.
His first Milanese painting, The Virgin of the Rocks allowed da Vinci to utilise his ability to represent nature in dimmed light, using the figures of the Holy Family sheltered in a cave.
Explaining his viewpoint, Leonardo suggested ‘artists should practice drawing at dusk in courtyards with walls painted black’.
When da Vinci returned to Florence, he was greeted with great acclaim, with other artists drawn to his breathtaking methods and eager to become disciples.
But soon, Leonardo found himself working for the powerful Borgia family, essentially as the leading military engineer of the era.
He still found time to complete a number of the world’s great masterpieces, including Mona Lisa, whose mysterious smile is always in the process of appearing and disappearing.
Leonardo’s influence on other painters of the day cannot be overstated. Raphael and Michelangelo were all able to absorb and modify his techniques rather than merely copying his style.
Unfortunately, relatively few da Vinci works have survived, particularly as his output was quite small. Fortunately, The Last Supper, painted during his time in Milan between 1495-1498, is still in reasonable condition for a fresco using tempura and oil on plaster.
Created for the city’s monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie, this magnificent work measures a commanding 15 by 29 feet. Each apostle’s distinct emotion and expression are revealed, with Jesus centred, and yet isolated, as he declares; ‘One of you shall betray me’. No other artist has ever been equal to capturing this most significant of moments with such touching clarity.
Leonardo’s endless achievements during his long life of 67 years have been well documented.
And the electrifying effect he would have upon all art that followed still resonates today just as it did in the 15th century.