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Trumping Mona Lisa at the Louvre

Trumping Mona Lisa at the Louvre

A friend of mine recently complained over dinner that, during his half-day visit to the Louvre, he ventured to spend a few precious moments with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but when he finally had the fair lady in his sights he was beaten back by savage scores of La Giocanda’s pilgrims. The battle of Mona Lisa has always been de rigueur, exacerbated in recent years by that blithering Dan Brown’s flimsy fiction and our collective Bucket List Syndrome, our desperation to do everything from scale Kilimanjaro to find God at the tail end of a weekend in the desert chasing magic mushrooms with absinthe. Seeing the Mona Lisa falls somewhere in between.

After the ruckus, my friend gave up all hope of gazing into those evocative , sfumato’d eyes. He slumped away thinking, as most of us disgruntled Louvre patrons inevitably have or will after our cruel jostle with the the lady’s Beatlemania-inspired fans, what the hell’s so damn great about the Mona Lisa anyway?

C’est la vie,” I consoled him. ”At least you saw the other da Vinci.”

“What other da Vinci?”

Oh, people!

Sadly, most of us venture all the way to Paris thinking that one eyebrowless Florentina (the fault of da Vinci’s glaze vanishing over time) is the sun, moon and stars of our universal maestro’s artistic legacy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Leonardo was losing eternal sleep over this, since our bucket list fast-tracking to Signora del Giocondo usually means forsaking 3 masterpieces, each from different Leonardo periods, just outside her door.

Once you regain your space and sanity after attempting a moment with Mona at the Louvre, do not pass GO or collect $200 without feasting your eyes on these 3 Leonardo paintings, each of which bears more than enough beauty, history and juicy scandal to compete with that treasured little tease any day.

Virgin of the Rocks, 1483-1486

History and Subject: Commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception for the church of San Francesco Grande, Virgin of the Rocks was Leonardo’s first commission upon arriving in Milan. He had a strict timeline to adhere to; the painting was commissioned in April of 1483 and was to be completed in time for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th, of the same year.

But remember, this is Leonardo we’re talking about. He was infamous for exhausting deadlines and leaving unfinished works. No surprise then that the Virgin was served up incomplete and became the catalyst for a lawsuit (see below).

A popular subject in Leonardo’s day, the painting depicts John the Baptist and Christ as infants, meeting up while on the lam from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. On the left John, in the embrace of the Virgin’s hand and cloak, kneels in prayer and looks at Christ who is blessing him from the foreground on the right. These gestures, together with the pool of water in the foreground, prophesize Christ’s baptism. Despite the uncanny resemblance, the figure pointing at John to the extreme right behind Christ isn’t E.T. phoning home, but John’s protector the archangel Uriel.

Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks

Notes on a Scandal: Virgin of the Rocks wasn’t heisted from the Louvre by an overzealous Italian patriot who kept it hidden under his bed for 2 years, as was Mona Lisa in the early 1900s, but it did embroil Leo, the French king and a bunch of monks in a nasty, 3 year lawsuit.

It seems Leonardo and his assistants the de Predis brothers felt low-balled by the Confraternity’s 800 lire contract. They wanted 1,200 lire, arguing that even though the painting was finished (the Confraternity felt otherwise) the framing alone had eaten up all the costs. With only 100 lire of the original sum in his wallet, Leonardo wanted either the additional 400 lire or permission to sell the painting for a better price. The stubborn little monks declined, which in 1503 lead Ambrogio de Predis to bring out the big guns, asking King Louis XII of France to intervene on their behalf.

3 years later it was determined that the painting was unfinished. With the caveat that he do a second Virgin within 2 years and only receive 200 lire for it, Leonardo could keep his original without getting any extra loot from the monk’s coffers. This is why there are now 2 Virgins in existence, the Louvre painting and the 2nd, later copy at the National Gallery of London. Since the Louvre painting first turned up in records of the French royal collection in 1625, many surmise Leonardo gifted it to King Louis in gratitude for his intervention.

Trumping the Mona Lisa: Leonardo was a fervent geologist. He was devoted to studying natural landscapes and the process of erosion, in particular the effects of water on the shifting shapes of the earth. We go ga-ga over Mona Lisa’s landscape of labyrinthine paths flowing from ice-capped mountains, but the meticulous rendering of the rugged, undulating sandstone rocks that frame the Holy Family emphasizes their safety in the grotto where they rest, protected from Herod’s massacre, and is one of Leonardo’s most powerful and exacting natural landscapes.

Virgin and Child with St. Anne, circa 1508

History and Subject: Commissioned by Leonardo’s old, monk-intimidating friend King Louis of France, Virgin and Child with St. Anne (Anne was King Louis’ wife’s name, as well as the patron saint of pregnant and infertile women) was painted in honor of the 1499 birth of the king’s daughter Claude, although it was not begun for many years later. Leonardo’s obsession since the late 1400s with the Virgin and St. Anne theme, exemplified by the Burlington House Cartoon and tons of other sketches, compelled him to eagerly take up the task.

Bogged down my his limitless engineering pursuits, Leonardo, surprise! surprise!, ceased working on St. Anne sometime between 1508 and 1513. Along with Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist, this was the only other painting in Leonardo’s possession at the time of his death on May 2nd, 1518 in Amboise, France. It’s believed that King Francois I – who picked up the deceased King Louis’ slack by giving Leonardo a house down the street from his magnificent castle and secreting their frequent visits by building an underground passage between  them – bought the painting from Leonardo’s assistant after his death.

Virgin and Child with St. Anne is another variation on the subjects of a unified Holy Family and prophecy about infant Christ’s future. The Virgin sits in an oblique pose in her mother St. Anne’s lap while trying to stop her little ruffian Christ from yanking the ears off the lamb he’s torturing playing with. As the “lamb of God,” Christ’s childhood grapple with an actual lamb symbolizes his impending Passion.

Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin and Child with St Annee

Notes on a Scandal: Nothing says BIG! GAY! SCANDAL! quite like breastfeeding, vulture rape fantasies, hieroglyphics, and Freud. Try this homoerotic madness on for size.

According to Freud’s German translation, Leonardo once wrote about his childhood, “It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures—for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.”

In his famous essay entitled Leonardo da Vinci, a Memory of Childhood, Freud psychoanalyzed the tail feathers off of Leonardo’s bizarre bird dream. If you look a the the Virgin with your head tilted to the left, like Freud you’ll see that the drapery over Mary’s legs does in fact appear to be a vulture with two wings, a long, craning neck and a beak. A beak, Freud tells us, that’s pecking away at the Virgin, creating an image that represents Leonardo’s mother breastfeeding him and therefore stands as exhibit “A” evidence of  a “passive homosexual” childhood dream.

Innocence lost as the Holy Family is defiled by the unmidas-like touch of a Renaissance sodomite with a paintbrush. And where did Freud come up with this whole vulture-as-a-symbol-of-the-Madonna thing? Why, much like Dan Brown’s prolific Da Vinci Code symbologist Robert Langdon, Egyptian hieroglyphics, of course.

A small tragedy for Freud, then, that the word vulture got lost in his German translation. It was really a kite, not his vulture-mother, flogging Leonardo’s lips with her tail. Despite the debacle, Freud can still delight in his theory’s whole gay angle considering a young Leonardo’s arrest and brief detainment on sodomy charges.

Trumping the Mona Lisa: Much of the hoopla surrounding Mona Lisa has to do with Leonardo’s painting innovations concerning body posturing, perspective and landscape. All great for a one woman show, but the complicated posturing of these four figures in pyramidal form retains a harmonious lightness and grace that’s far more impressive considering the height and heaviness of the central figures, Mary and St. Anne.

Leonardo’s ingenious use of sfumato, a painting technique achieved by making subtle changes in shading from light to dark, creates a mountainous background scene that mingles seamlessly with the foreground. St. Anne’s triangular veil blending in with the mountainous landscape behind is a great example of this. A landscape, by the way, that isn’t dissimilar and doesn’t have different horizons on the left and right sides like that behind the Mona Lisa.

St. John the Baptist, 1513-1516

History and Subject: As I mentioned, St. John the Baptist is one of the 3 paintings Leonardo had with him in France at the time of his death in 1518. It is believed to have been completed during his last stay in Rome sometime between 1513 – 1516.

St. John, holding a cross made of reeds and donning animal skin (both added by another artist at a later date) is emerging from a mysterious dark background. His index finger points heavenward (known as the “John gesture,” this would be much copied in subsequent spiritual works) in a twofold symbol of salvation by way of baptism and the coming of Christ.

Leonardo da Vinci's John the Baptist

Notes on a Scandal: If you thought Freud’s breastfeeding vulture fetish was the worst of Leonardo’s problem, obviously you haven’t heard the one about St. John the Hermpahrodite. Read on, friend.

Many artists before and during Leonardo’s time portrayed John the Baptist as a rugged, hollow-cheeked ascetic, thanks to biblical accounts of his abstemious life in the dusty desert wearing camel skin and dining on locusts and honey. Mmm, yum. Leonardo’s John is anything but the archetype, looking as he does like what many critics have called androgynous or – gasp! – hermaphroditic. Another member of the Holy Family perverted in one fell, Leonine brush stroke.

John is looking a little femme and flirty. And as a naturally curly-haired gal myself, I can’t help but envy whatever tonic The Baptist uses to tame those tresses. But famed Leonardo expert Walter Pater isn’t so taken with John’s cascading locks as I, writing Christ’s cousin has “woman’s hair no one would go into the wilderness to seek” and a “treacherous smile [that] would have us understand something far beyond the outward gesture or circumstance.” From Pater’s tone it sounds like he’s projecting his own cloaked and unseemly personal deviations onto John’s sweet visage, but at least we all agree that even hermaphrodites have got to sin to be saved.

Trumping the Mona Lisa: Leonardo painted Mona Lisa, Virgin of the Rocks, and Virgin and Child With St. Anne among realistic, natural landscapes balanced by light and shade.  St. John is a complete three sixty, emerging seductively from blackness and drawing us in with immediacy and intimacy to his curious, mesmerizing smile. Leonardo’s bold chiaroscuro creates an absence of definite space around John which, if you’ve ever seen a fire burning in the dark, you know has quite an unsettling effect. The lonely, unknown darkness surrounding John reminds us of the ascetic isolation and spirituality that sets him apart from humanity, while the painting’s warm light illuminates a smile that invites us into John’s solitary, spiritual world. A smile every bit as beguiling as you-know-who’s.

There are also 3 Leonardo da Vinci drawings at the Louvre. More on those when and if the spirit moves me. Neither Mona Lisa nor Dan Brown were harmed in the blogging of this post.

Tell me your Mona Lisa tales! Have you been waylaid by the little temptress at the Louvre, walking right on by these other da Vinci treasures? Or did you stop and smell the other roses? Do tell!

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10 Comments »

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