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I’ve always said that I was born too late. Usually I just mean that I’d be happiest as a 1950’s housewife. A real June Cleaver-type, you know? Vacuuming in heels? Heck, yeah, I’m there! But it’s even more accurate to say what my dad has told me.

“You were born in the wrong century.”

*sighs* Yep, he’s right. The 21st century just isn’t doing it for me. Now, the late 15th, early 16th century? When the art world was flourishing with incredible religious paintings and sculptures? YES. That’s where someone like me belongs.

The Italian Renaissance was a time when everything old was made new again, and creativity was abundant. The Renaissance effectively ended what is known as the Byzantine era. It pushed away the stiff, flat forms that had dominated art during the Middle Ages, replacing them with much more classical, realistic depictions of the human body, harkening back to the art of ancient Greece.

Now, I love Byzantine art. I mean for crying out loud, my Twitter bio says, I’m a “Commission artist specializing in Byzantine styled Bible symbolism.” But there is nothing more beautiful to me than the religious works that emerged from the hundred year period of about 1450 to 1550.

Many great artists came out of the Renaissance period. Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli, Titian, Fra Filippo Lippi, Carlo Crivelli, Raphael. But the greatest of these was arguably Leonardo Da Vinci.

Francesco Melzi's Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci

Francesco Melzi’s Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci

Born April 15, 1452, 563 years later, Da Vinci is considered one of the greatest artists of all time. He is the quintessential “Renaissance Man”. The artist was known primarily as a painter, but he was so much more than that.

Da Vinci’s thirst for knowledge was second to none. He painted, he sculpted, he was a mathematical genius and a military engineer. He studied botany, anatomy, and astronomy. In addition to being an accomplished artist, he was also an architect, intellect and a scientist, and perhaps one of the most brilliant inventors the world has ever known. He studied absolutely everything and I believe it was his vast knowledge that allowed him to create such breathtaking works of art.

In truth great love springs from the full knowledge of the thing that one loves; and if you do not know it, you can love it but little or not at all.

He didn’t just paint a picture. He created the forms and figures knowing exactly what went into their natural being. At a time when ordering an anatomy textbook from Amazon didn’t exist, Da Vinci, like other artists prior to the 20th century, took things apart to see how they worked. Some of his most impressive works are his anatomical drawings. What better way to learn how the human body went together than to cut one apart!

Anatomical Drawing Fetus

The painter who has a knowledge of the sinews, muscles and tendons will know very well in the movement of a limb, how many and which of the sinews are the cause of it, and which muscle by the swelling is the cause of the contraction of that sinew.

Anatomical Drawing1

Unlike some other great artists, Leonardo’s list of paintings is a fairly short one. There aren’t hundreds of Da Vinci’s to be admired like there are Van Goghs. The number is actually more like only 30. You may also be surprised to learn that Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous work is actually one of my least favourite paintings.

The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is thought to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine cloth merchant. The Louvre in Paris is the painting’s home and they date the piece to between 1503 and 1506. I’d venture to say that a thousand stories have been birthed by that one mysterious smile. This unknown lady has become one of the most famous women in the world.

What is fair in men passes away, but not so in art.

The painting has been beautifully executed. From Lisa’s delicately veiled head down to those soft, luminous hands at rest. She is a wonderful example of Leonardo’s mastery of sfumato –a painting technique characterized by imperceptible transitions between colours and tones. Sfumato literally means “to evaporate like smoke”. Da Vinci’s gradations of shading are soft and subtle. There are no lines or borders. Light blends into dark, and no hard transitions are visible.

But the technical perfection is, to me, flawed by one simple fact: Mona Lisa is not an overly attractive woman. For me, she lacks the beauty of, say, the angel or even Mary in “The Virgin of the Rocks.”

Study for the angel in "The Virgin of the Rocks"

Study for the angel in “The Virgin of the Rocks”

Now, originally I started a little write-up talking about the two versions of “The Virgin of the Rocks”, but there’s such a great little mystery there that I’ve decided to save that discussion for its own blog post. Stay tuned!

Another of Leonardo’s lovely ladies is the girl in “La Belle Ferronniere”, or “Portrait of a Woman of the Court of Milan”.

DSCN2695

There is also the Virgin in a cartoon by Leonardo housed in the National Gallery of London — “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Young St. John the Baptist”.

St. Anne

Alone, she’s a figure of striking beauty, but with its extreme shadows and highlights, the work as a whole is a tad unnerving to look at. Especially the eerie figure of St. Anne…

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Virgin_and_Child_with_Ss_Anne_and_John_the_Baptist

A similar work made the news a few years back when the question of “To restore, or not to restore” started a very heated debate. Now, yes, I have some pretty strong opinions myself when it comes to restoring/conserving artwork, but that too is a topic for another day.

The painting in question was Da Vinci’s “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne”.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne original

As you can see, the surface of the painting had become quite splotchy, and some of the back boards had cracked, leaving a nasty visible “break” down the center of the figures. Many were concerned that restorers were over-cleaning the work, and that instead of enhancing the work’s original colours and bringing to light small subtleties lost thanks to the multiple coats of browning varnish, that the painting would turn into something completely different than what Leonardo had intended. I watched a fascinating documentary about the painting’s restoration — “Leonardo da Vinci: The Restoration of the Century“. Here’s what it looks like now.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne - restored

The most striking difference is the brightness of the blue on Mary’s clothes. The restorer filled the crack and did all the touch up in acrylics. I actually watched the documentary twice, because let me tell you, this is somewhat of a dream job for me. If I lived elsewhere, you would probably find me in the back room of an art museum, conserving the art I hold so dear.

As with any old painting, it’s difficult to know for sure what was “okay” to remove and what perceived “flaws” might actually have been intended by the artist. The restored painting looks very nice, but the topic of whether this went too far is still very much alive. One of the cool things the cleaning uncovered though? A fingerprint in blue paint obscured by the dirty varnish hidden in the leaves of the tree. Obviously the remnant of some finger-blending. Is it Da Vinci’s? It certainly seems likely, and I think that’s pretty cool.

…whatever exists in the universe, in essence, in appearance, in the imagination, the painter has first in his mind and then in his hand.

It’s difficult sometimes for those of us who were born in the latter part of the 20th century to imagine a time when airplanes didn’t exist. We live in a world with some pretty amazing technology, but because we’ve never had to live without it, the sheer magnitude of the inventive genius behind it can be lost on us. A few hundred years before the Wright Brothers made history at Kitty Hawk, our Renaissance Man was already imagining what it would be like for man to leave the ground.

Da Vinci did extensive research on birds and studied the dynamics of what made them fly. He designed a helicopter, parachute, and a pair of enormous wings whose design resembles today’s hang gliders. His flying machine designs show that Leonardo was undoubtedly ahead of his time. In his notebooks can also be found sketches of war machines — things like tanks, a scythed chariot and a one-manned battleship. His giant crossbow and machine gun are very impressive, as are his designs for mortars that fire explosive shells. This is the kind of artillery that wouldn’t actually be produced until the 19th century. Oh, and did I mention he was designing an automobile too?

I wish to work miracles; it may be that I shall possess less than other men of more peaceful lives, or than those who want to grow rich in a day. I may live for a long time in great poverty, as always happens, and to all eternity will happen, to alchemists, the would-be creators of gold and silver, and to engineers who would have dead water stir itself into life and perpetual motion, and to those supreme fools, the necromancer and the enchanter.

Caravaggio is my favourite artist, but Leonardo Da Vinci is a close second. My favourite painting would have to be his “Saint John the Baptist’, painted about 1507.

St. John the Baptist

I absolutely adore this painting. I loved it so much that I even painted my own version of it some years ago.

Wendy Brydge - John the Baptist

“St. John the Baptist” is quite possibly the last of Leonardo’s paintings done entirely by his hand. (Like many of the great masters, Da Vinci worked with assistants later in his life.) It’s so beautifully painted that it takes my breath away whenever I see it.

I’m not a quarrelsome person, but there is something about this piece that I would like to say. It’s likely to offend, but seriously, that’s just too bad. It’s said that Saint John’s design is a reworking of an angel in a previous (and now lost) painting by Da Vinci. Allow me to quote from a book I have. As a great lover of both art and Biblical symbolism, and Da Vinci himself, I take great exception to this posturing:

“The conversion of The Angel into the almost perversely sensuous St. John bears erotic, possibly homosexual implications. For though St. John points piously upward toward the Prime Mover with his right hand, his salacious, inviting gaze and his nudity, barely concealed by a seductive leopard skin, allude instead to carnal desire. This St. John is a sort of fallen angel, who engages the spectator in a clearly obscene through.”

Mhmm. It continues in the same perverted vein, but this is enough for what I have to say. Just one simple thing, really: Get your f*cking minds out of the gutter. I can not even fathom the depths of filth that people will sink to in order to satisfy some disgustingly twisted lust in their wicked and rotten little black hearts.

And this isn’t just some fringe of society who try to read this kind of perversion into artwork. It’s the “experts” and “scholars” who promote this thinking. I will not even bother going into the symbolism *I* see in this piece (and yes, I DO think John is depicted in a more feminine manner on purpose), but suffice it to say, I do NOT find this painting represents ANYTHING the above quote suggests. I have had my fill of people who see phallic symbols in everything. Not EVERYthing is about sex. Got it? Yes? Good.

Painting is the way to learn to know the maker of all marvelous things.

There are two other works that I simply must mention here. The first is one I have already written a bit about in a previous post, “Depictions of Christ in Art“. It’s Da Vinci’s recently discovered “Salvator Mundi”.

Leonardo Da Vinci - Salvator Mundi

What a glorious painting! In 2011, “Salvator Mundi” became the first Da Vinci work to be accepted by scholars in more than a century. The modelling of the paint is superb and our Lord has been depicted with a mesmerizing, haunted gaze. A little different than the Jesus in the second of Da Vinci’s most famous paintings, “The Last Supper”.

The Last Supper

I love this painting as well. It’s full of symbolism. You know, there aren’t many people throughout history that I’d really like to meet, but Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the few I would. He doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for the things he understood and the incredibly clever way he worked symbolism into his art. That ownerless knife-wielding hand…? And no, it’s not Peter’s. (And for crying out loud, it IS John, not Mary Magdalene next to Jesus. I smell another blog post that discusses the symbolism in “The Last Supper”…)

The Last Supper Hand

There just are no words to describe Leonardo. Not adequately. The man, the artist, the master. He was always eager to learn. To practice, to experiment. He wanted to understand how things worked, and why they worked. His life was spent creating and he has left us with much food for thought if we care to look for it. There’s much more to his paintings than meets the eye and his genius is evident in his abundance of sketches and designs. Da Vinci was a man centuries ahead of his time. An artist, a thinker, a true Renaissance man, whose unique talents will continue to live on through his art for centuries to come.

As long as these my limbs endure, I shall possess a perpetual sorrow, and with good reason… It is a hurt to anyone to lose such a man, for nature cannot again produce his like.

Note: All quotes are attributed to Da Vinci.

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