Leonardo Da Vinci: Renaissance Humanist, Naturalist, Artist, Scientist

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Leonardo Da Vinci: Renaissance Humanist, Naturalist, Artist, Scientist

'The Last Supper', 1494-1498. Artist: Leonardo Da Vinci.
Print Collector/Contributor/Hulton Fine Art Collection

Paintings, Drawings, Photos, Images

The popularity of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code book is enormous; unfortunately, its errors and deceptiveness are also enormous. Some defend it as a work of fiction, but the book insists that the fiction is based on historical facts. Almost nothing in the book is factual, however, and the presentation of falsehoods as facts misleads readers. People think that, in the guise of fiction, they are being let in on secrets long covered up.

It's unfortunate that Leonardo Da Vinci has been dragged into this through misrepresentation of his name in the title and misrepresentation of one of his greatest paintings. Leonardo was not the person portrayed by Dan Brown, but he was a great humanist who made important contributions not just to art, but also to the principles of empirical observation and science should not go overlooked. Atheists should reject the anti-intellectual misuse of Leonardo by the likes of Dan Brown and replace it with the humanistic reality of Leonardo's life.

Leonardo Da Vinci, usually just thought of as an artist, is terribly misused in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The real Leonardo was a scientist and naturalist.

Leonardo Da Vinci, born in the village of Vinci in Tuscany, Italy, on April 15, 1452, was one of the most important figures of the Renaissance. While people may realize that he as an important artist, though, they don't realize how important he was as an early skeptic, naturalist, materialist, and scientist.

There is no evidence that Leonardo Da Vinci was an atheist, but he was an early a role model in how to approach both scientific and artistic problems from a naturalistic, skeptical perspective. Modern atheistic humanism owes a great deal to Renaissance Humanism as well as many individual Renaissance humanists like Leonardo.

Art, Nature, and Naturalism

Leonardo Da Vinci believed that a good artist must be a good scientist to understand best and describe nature. This was what made the Renaissance Man which Leonardo was such a good example of belief that integrated knowledge of diverse subjects made a person better in all those individual subjects. This was also why Leonardo was such a strong skeptic, casting doubt on many of the popular pseudosciences of his day -, especially astrology, for example.

One reason why Renaissance Humanism was a major break from Medieval Christianity was the shift in focus away from faith and otherworldly concerns and towards empirical investigations, naturalistic explanations, and skeptical attitudes. None of this was pursued enough to establish a secular, atheistic alternative to theistic religion, but it laid the groundwork for modern science, modern skepticism, and modern freethought.

Skepticism vs. Gullibility

This is why the real Leonardo Da Vinci was so unlike Dan Brown's book. The Da Vinci Code doesn't encourage the intellectual values of skepticism and critical thinking which Leonardo himself both championed and exemplified (even if imperfectly). Dan Brown's book is instead founded upon a massive conspiracy of political and religious authorities and secrets. Dan Brown in effect encourages replacing one set of religious myths with a different one based on faith in the power of conspiracies.

Moreover, the very title of Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code means The from Vinci Code because "Da Vinci" is a reference to Leonardo's town of origin, not his surname. This is perhaps a relatively minor error, but it's representative of Brown's failure to pay attention to historical details in a book that purports to be based on historical truth.

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Leonardo Da Vinci & Science, Observation, Empiricism, and Mathematics

Leonardo Da Vinci is best known for his art and secondarily for his sketches of inventions which were far ahead of their time - inventions like parachutes, flying machines, and so forth. Less well known is the degree to which Leonardo was an advocate for careful empirical observation and an early version of the scientific method, making him important to the development of both science and skepticism.

It was still popular for scholars to believe they could obtain certain knowledge of the world through pure thinking and divine revelation. Leonardo rejected this in favor of empirical observation and experience. Scattered through his notebooks are notations on scientific methodology and empirical inquiry as means for obtaining reliable knowledge about how the world works. Although he called himself an "unlettered man," he insisted that "Wisdom is the daughter of experience."

Leonardo's emphasis on observation and empirical science was not separate from his art. He believed a good artist should also be a good scientist because an artist cannot reproduce color, texture, depth, and proportion accurately unless they are a careful and practiced observer of reality around them.

The important of proportion may have been one of Leonardo's most abiding passions: proportion in numbers, sounds, time, weight, space, etc. One of Leonardo's most famous drawings is Vitruvius, or the Vitruvian Man, designed to demonstrate the proportions of the human body. This drawing has been used by a variety of humanist movements and organizations because of its association with Leonardo's stress on the importance of scientific observation, his role in Renaissance Humanism, and also of course his role in the history of art -- humanism is not just a philosophy of logic and science, but also of life and aesthetics.

The text above and below the drawing is in mirror writing - Leonardo was a secretive man who often wrote his journals in code. This may be connected to a personal life which involved behavior frowned upon by the authorities. As early as 1476, while still an apprentice, he was accused of sodomy with a male model. Leonardo's extensive use of code seems to be responsible for the widespread belief in his involvement in secret organizations, allowing fiction writers like Dan Brown to misappropriate his life and work for their conspiratorial theories.

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Last Supper, Painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1498

The Lord's Supper, the final meal of Jesus with his disciples when he is supposed to have instituted the communion celebration, is the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci's painting Last Supper. It also plays a key role in Dan Brown's conspiracy-driven religious mythology, but most readers of The Da Vinci Code don't seem to realize the degree to which Brown misrepresents the painting - perhaps due to their own religious and artistic illiteracy.

Leonardo Da Vinci was an artist and as such depended upon artistic conventions. The convention was for Judas to be seated opposite the others and with his back to the viewer; here Judas is seated on the same side of the table as the others. Another absent convention was to place halos over the heads of everyone but Judas. Leonardo's painting is thus more humanistic and less religious than most: Judas the betrayer is as much a part of the group as anyone, and everyone in the group is equally human rather than saintly and holy. This reflects Leonardo's humanistic and artistic beliefs, a strong mark against anyone trying to misuse the work in grand religious conspiracy theories.

We must also understand the scriptural sources of the Last Supper. Leonardo's immediate source is John 13:21, when Jesus announces that a disciple will betray him. It is also supposed to be a depiction of the origin of the communion ritual, but scripture is conflicted on what really happened. Only Corinthians is explicit in requiring that followers repeat the ritual, for example, and only Matthew mentions that this is done for the forgiveness of sins.

These were not news reports: just as communion differs from one denomination to the next today, it differed among early Christian communities. Local customizing of religious rituals was normal and common, so what Da Vinci is portraying is his artistic interpretation of one community's localized communion liturgy, not a news report of historical events.

Dan Brown uses the scene for it's relationship to the Holy Grail, even though John doesn't mention bread or a cup. Brown somehow concludes that the absence of a cup means the Holy Grail must be something other than a cup: the disciple John, who is really Mary Magdalene. This is no more improbable than the orthodox Christian story, but it is an almost willful misrepresentation that is believed when people don't understand the artistic and religious sources.

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Last Supper, Detail from the Left

The source used by Leonardo Da Vinci is John 13:21 and is supposed to represent the exact moment when Jesus announces to his disciples that one of them would betray him: "When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me." Thus the reactions of all the disciples are the reactions to hearing that one of them is a traitor to Jesus who would cause the death of their teacher. Each reacts in a different way.

On the far left of the painting are grouped Bartholomew, James the Lesser and Andrew, with Andrew throwing up his hand as if to say "stop!" The fact that he is to be betrayed by someone who is eating with him at that time heightens the enormity of the act - in the ancient world, people who break bread together were assumed to have established a bond with each other, one not lightly broken.

The vindictiveness with which Jesus describes the betrayer is, however, very strange. Jesus makes it clear that he knows that the events he is experiencing are predetermined by God: he, the Son of man, goes where it is "written" that he must. Isn't the same true of Judas? Doesn't he "goeth, as it is written of him"? If so, then it's unreasonable for him to be punished so harshly that he would wish that he "had never been born." Only an evil deity would punish a person for acting in exactly the way that the deity desired.

Also curious are the reactions of Jesus' disciples: instead of asking who the betrayer would be, each asks in turn if he will be the betrayer. Most normal people wouldn't wonder if they will end up betraying their teacher. Asking this question indicates that they, too, recognize that they are playing roles in some grand drama where the beginning, middle, and end of the script have already been written by God.

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Da Vinci's Last Supper: Where is the Holy Grail?

Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code is about finding the Holy Grail, but Brown's religious ideas are as bad as the orthodoxy he contradicts.

Analyzing the Painting

To Jesus' immediate right are Judas, Peter, and John in another group of three. Judas is in shadow, clutching the bag of silver he was paid for betraying Jesus. He is also reaching for a piece of bread just as Jesus is saying to Thomas and James (seated to Jesus' left) that the betrayer would take a piece of bread from Jesus.

Peter appears very angry here and is holding a knife, both of which may be allusions to how he will react in Gethsemane when Jesus is betrayed and arrested. John, the youngest of the twelve apostles, appears to be swooning at the news.

Dan Brown vs. Leonardo Da Vinci

With the stage set, let's consider the claim made by Dan Brown and followers of his ideas is that there is no cup in Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper. They use this as evidence for the idea that the "real" Holy Gail wasn't a cup at all, but Mary Magdalene who was married to Jesus and the mother of his child whose descendants were, among others, the Merovingian Dynasty. This terrible "secret" is supposed to be something that Catholic Church officials are willing to kill over.

The problem for this theory is that it's plainly false: Jesus is obviously pointing to a cup with his right hand, even as his left hand is pointing to a piece of bread (the Eucharist). Leonardo Da Vinci worked hard to make his art as realistic as possible so this isn't some magnificent, jewel-encrusted chalice used by kings; instead, it's a simple cup that would be used by a simple carpenter (though not of clay, as it probably would have been).

Anyone who has seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will be familiar with what's going on here; Dan Brown, it seems, has chosen poorly.

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Last Supper, Detail From the Right

To Jesus' immediate left are Thomas, James the Major, and Philip. Thomas and James are both upset; Philip appears to want an explanation. On the far right of the painting is the final group of three: Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot. They are engaged in conversation amongst themselves as if Matthew and Jude are hoping to get some sort of explanation from Simon.

As our eyes move across the painting, shifting from one apostle's reaction to the next, one thing which may become evident is how human the depiction of each figure is. There are no halos or any other marker of holiness - not even any symbols of divinity around Jesus himself. Every person is a human being, reacting in a human way. It is thus the human aspect of the moment which Leonardo Da Vinci was trying to capture and express, not the sacred or divine aspects usually focused on in Christian liturgy.

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Last Supper, Detail of the Apostle John

Some people believe that John the Apostle, seated immediately to Jesus' right, isn't John at all - instead, the figure here is Mary Magdalene. According to Dan Brown's work of fiction, The Da Vinci Code, secret revelations about the truth of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene are hidden throughout Leonardo's works (hence the "code"), and this is the most important one. Arguments on behalf of this idea include the claims that John has very effeminate features and swoons like a woman.

There are a number of fatal flaws to this claim. First, the figure appears to be wearing male clothing. Second, if the figure is Mary instead of John, then where is John? One of the twelve apostles is missing. Third, John is often depicted as somewhat effeminate because he was the youngest of the group. His swooning is attributed to the fact that he is also described as loving Jesus more fervently than the others. Finally, Leonardo Da Vinci often depicted young men in an effeminate way because he was apparently interested in them sexually.