By the superstitious in his own day, Leonardo was accounted a magician, and to a more discriminating posterity his achievements still border on the magical. Vasari speaks of him as the originator of the “fourth or modern manner.” It is characteristic of Vasari, with his studio point of view, to speak of the transformation wrought by Leonardo as a change in “manner.” The change was in fact far more fundamental than Vasari imagined, affecting the very sub-stance of art and transforming its ideals.
But the term modern is more appropriate, and in spite of the lapse of the years, it still records our impression. This ability to make a continued impression of modernness is one of the best tests of greatness. Emerson is said to have loaned a copy of Plato to an old farmer and to have asked later his opinion of him. “Fine,” was the reply. “He has got some of my ideas.” Thus the truly great mind always seems, in a way, modern. We recognize in its outfit certain items familiar to us, and taking them to be our peculiar property, we think, “He has got some of our ideas.” It does not always occur to us that our ideas, so far as they are of serious consequence, did not originate with us, but are a part of the permanent things. The ideals of every age are local versions of eternal principles. He who gives us these principles with emphasis upon the local version, is provincial ; he who gives them to us with emphasis upon the principles is universal, or, as each age will say, looking at it from the standpoint of its own provincialism, he is “modern.”
This is what we mean when we say that such men as Botticelli and Ghirlandajo were Florentines, while Leonardo and Michelangelo were world artists. Botticelli was a true poet, and his grasp upon the principles of art a very genuine one, but he was not able to present these principles in their universal and permanent aspect. He goes to the ends of the earth to find his theme, yet he paints the Birth of Venus in a way which none but a Florentine could understand or enjoy. Leonardo, on the contrary, knowing that the eternal things are with us always, seeks no classical theme, but takes the one nearest to hand, yet so presents it that a Greek or an Englishman would claim him for his own. This, then, is the significance of the age which we have now reached, and of the great personalities who are its representatives. It was the age in which men separated the eternal from the transitory and local, the age in which art ceased to be Florentine and became world art. Characteristically, the little minds of a later time record the event with the complacent statement that now was ushered in the “modern manner.”
Leonardo, born outside of Florence and out of wedlock, none the less enjoyed the advantages of life in the favored city and of full membership in a high class Florentine family. His father, a noble by birth and a lawyer of high standing, married and removed to Florence soon after his son’s birth, taking the son with him and giving him every advantage in the way of education. No moment could have been more favorable for the development of the boy’s remarkable powers. Florence, long guided by the far-seeing policy of the Medici, was now approaching her zenith under the leadership of the ablest of that remarkable family. Their long continued patronage of art and letters had been as discriminating as it was munificent, and had now filled Florence with great men, not only in art, but in philosophy, in letters, in statecraft, in every department of speculative and applied science, while over them all was the incomparable Lorenzo, their master by inherent right, astutely guiding and organizing their activities. If the age had a weakness, it lay in the very multiplicity of the opportunities thus presented, and the bewildering fascination of the inducements thus suddenly offered to the inquiring mind. The domain of knowledge had been extended with such unparalleled rapidity that there had scarcely been time to note that it now transcended the powers of a single mind. It required the sacrifice of a Leonardo to make the world realize that the era of specialization had dawned.
There was the farther limitation which is apt to characterize periods of rapid development. These magnificent conditions were local and unstable. The fullness of time had come, but it had come only in spots. Florence was not the world, and could not, in the long run, hold its own against it. It was the case of Athens over again, a phenomenal perfection within a very small area, surrounded by a comparatively brutal and unsympathetic world. Civilization had reared its structure to a dizzy height on a comparatively narrow base, and collapse was inevitable. The only civilization that can endure must be a civilization approximately as broad as the world. The vicissitudes of Leonardo’s career were to prove how unstable was the social order and how untrustworthy the political organization which depended for its maintenance upon the splendid diplomacy of one mind, a mind which in the course of nature could not be sure of a successor. It was a period when no city or principality could be sure of its territory or its tribute. Wars, petty but destructive and demoralizing, interrupted industry and wasted the resources which private and princely patrons destined to “the things that are more excellent.” Of the hundreds of vast projects which the genius of the time was so fertile in conceiving, only one was carried through to completion, saved from shipwreck by the lightning rapidity with which its sponsor sailed, storm driven, past the destruction which yawned on every side. It was an age that planned everything, and that completed, the Sistine Ceiling.
Leonardo’s temperament was one which exaggerated the defects of his age. Infinitely restless and innovating, he would have planned much and finished little under the most favorable conditions. As it was, the versatility of his nature worked in evil alliance with the accidents of the time. In periods of peace and prosperity, when powerful patrons urged him to carry out his noblest projects, he was following wandering fires, pursuing inquiries of the profoundest import, but remote from the work in hand, and promising little in the way of immediate result. And when at last the much wandering mind returned to its task, and sought with all its characteristic impetuosity the opportunity so long neglected, war had come, his patron had vanished, and opportunity had gone forever.
The fact which it is important to bear in mind throughout our inquiry is that Leonardo was not primarily an artist, but a scientist. This was his own judgment, and one which inquiry confirms. Most of his life was spent in scientific investigations, the results of which in the shape of voluminous notes, are in large part still preserved to us. During his last years his concern seems to have been, not for the many art projects which he had left unfinished or unbegun, but for these notes which it was his dream to work up into a systematic treatise as his contribution to the world. In the memorandum which he addressed to Duke Sforza, his great patron, commending himself to his service, he dwells at much length on his accomplishments in the field of applied science, touching but lightly on his attainments as an artist, and even here, primarily in the field of sculpture, because of a projected monument which the Duke was known to have under consideration. That Leonardo is remembered not as a scientist but as an artist, is in accordance with a seemingly universal rule. Whenever an individual, a community, or a people, has achieved distinction in war, in government, in science, in commerce, one or more, and at the same time in art, posterity has remembered the art and has forgotten or minimized the other achievements. Athens was the greatest commercial power of the ancient world, but we remember only Homer and Plato and Phidias. Goethe thought that he would be chiefly remembered for his contribution to the science of optics, but the world forgets that he ever concerned himself with science. The value of science to humanity is incalculable, but it is significant that in longer perspective, where values are more justly estimated, it is art that the world delights to honor. The theft of Leonardo’s notebooks would scarce have won headlines in a paper, but the loss of the Mona Lisa startles and grieves the world.
Leonardo regarded himself as an engineer, and the chief activities of his life were in this field. His attention was devoted largely to hydraulics, in connection with great projects of his various patrons, for the building of canals and kindred undertakings, none of which were destined to be carried out. He was scarcely less active, however, in military engineering, though a hater of war, while he ventured even into such untried fields as electricity and aeronautics. In this great field of applied science his mind was phenomenally, but sometimes trivially active. His inventions include such familiar devices as the wheelbarrow and the camera obscura, the preliminary to modern photography, but the caprices of royal patrons diverted these great activities into trivial channels, the devising of mechanical toys of amazing cleverness for the diversion of the court and the humoring of a people not wholly supple to their ruler’s will.
But it was not alone applied science which interested him. He seems to have reveled in the most abstruse studies, in astronomy, physics, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy. To an ignorant world these mysterious pursuits brought upon him the suspicion of magic and the practice of occult arts, a species of charlatanry for which he had the most absolute contempt. He was utterly a scientist in temper, not in the least a fakir or a dreamer about occult powers. His powers of observation seem to have been as eager and as tireless as those of Darwin, but around him, behind, before, on either side, yawned an abyss of ignorance and superstition so wide that the incomplete results of these observations could only be overwhelmed and lost. Science had yet long to wait for her convenient season.
It is as a scientist that Leonardo enters the field of art. He seems never to have executed any work of art for its own sake. Each was an experiment in some new problem of art. So far as these problems were immediately relevant to art, problems such as composition, grouping, light and shade, his contribution to art was fairly direct and worthy of his wonderful powers. But remoter problems interested him, problems of the chemistry and physics of art, and that increasingly until at last all interest in art as such seems to have been lost. This is profoundly to be regretted, for Leonardo’s power of psychic analysis was the profoundest and his artistic imagination the most exquisite that the Renaissance ever knew. Only twice, however, were these extraordinary powers unreservedly devoted to the cause of art. Of the two works thus produced, one has perished utterly, and the other is but the shadow of its original self.
A still farther sacrifice art was called upon to make to the cause of science in the work of Leonardo. In his continual experiments with new mediums and processes, it happened that each one of his pictures was painted in a medium that was untried. Some of these experiments were complete failures, resulting in the entire destruction of the work. Such was the Battle of Anghiari, the colossal work intended for the Town Hall of Florence. For some unknown reason the artist was interested at the time in the phenomena of color and heat, as illustrated in the familiar example of invisible ink which is made legible by heat. The picture was executed in the appropriate medium upon the wall of the great Council Chamber, and then heat applied to bring out the color. Unfortunately, Leonardo had not considered the difficulty of applying the heat evenly over so large a surface, and the picture was patchy and quite unpresentable as a result. If Leonardo ever contemplated repeating the work in some more suitable medium, the project was not carried out, and so one of the most remarkable of his contributions to art was lost to us, save for a copy of a copy of a small portion, by Rubens, a man too much of an artist himself to follow faithfully the work of another man.
Scarcely less disastrous was the experiment of painting the Last Supper upon plaster in tempera, a variable medium hitherto used by the Italians for painting on wood. The greater clearness of color thus secured tempted Leonardo, who was never satisfied with the dull tones of fresco, and so another supreme creation, this time his masterpiece, was nearly sacrificed to prove that tempera will not endure on plaster. Finally, all his paintings have changed color. This is due in part to chemical reactions slowly taking place in his untried mediums, and in part to the use of a dark background which has slowly worked its way through to the surface. This is a not uncommon phenomenon, more particularly in the oil painting of a later day, but nowhere so regrettable as in the work of Leonardo.
Before turning to the study of his art as such, it is well to note one personal characteristic which is ever present and complicates all his activities, namely his fondness for the weird, the enigmatical and the grotesque. This peculiarity was manifested in the most ordinary affairs of life. He was left-handed, but instead of using his left hand in the ordinary right-handed manner, he reversed the characters, writing from right to left, so that we must now use a mirror to read his writing. In his art the same tendency is everywhere manifest. One of the keenest of observers and perfectly able to recognize the fundamental and estimate it at its true value, he is fascinated with the exceptional, the odd, the startling, the grotesque. This holds both for man and for nature. When he attempts a serious work, he is enough of an artist to know that this fondness for the grotesque and the strange must be sternly subordinated, but let him drop into art of lighter vein, let him even turn from the central theme of his picture to its accessories, and this passion for the weird immediately manifests itself. The serious works from Leonardo’s hand are few, but he has left us a long series of sketches which include the most remarkable caricatures in the world. Tradition tells how as a young man he used to stand in the market place entertaining the peasants with humorous stories and antics of every description until they writhed in contortions of laughter, only that he might observe their uncouth faces in these nameless distortions. Certainly his caricatures suggest some such research. But more significant is the appearance of this tendency in the background of his serious works. Examples are the far-famed Mona Lisa (C 10), and above all, the beautiful Virgin of the Rocks (C 12), where the background is the extreme of eccentricity. We shall see later that in the analysis and representation of character itself, even of a serious type, this fondness for the unusual, the baffling, the fugitive, still manifests itself. It is impossible to characterize this personal eccentricity otherwise than as a weakness, though there is reason to believe that in one case at least it has been popularly accounted an excellence and reckoned a chief ground of his fame.
Turning now to that phase of Leonardo’s manifold activity which chiefly concerns us, we have to consider in what his contribution to art consisted. He seems but to have touched art lightly in passing, yet by common consent his was a transforming touch, the most influential of any in the history of art save that of Michelangelo, and distinctly the most whole-some. Art learned from him not only to speak a new language, but to think larger thoughts, and was transformed in its innermost being.
Leonardo’s teacher in art was Verocchio, a man of moderate achievements as an artist, save for his one great work in Venice which had not yet been executed. Practicing both the arts of painting and sculpture, his feeling was wholly for the latter, his conception of painting like that of the younger Michelangelo being merely pseudo sculpture, that is, studies in form rather than in color, with almost no conception that any use could be made of lights and shadows except to model figures. His painting is best known by a single inferior picture, the Baptism of Christ, whose fame rests solely on the fact that during his absence, he allowed the young Leonardo to work upon it, and observing on his return, the beautiful angel at the left from Leonardo’s hand, he is said to have declared that he would never paint again. This promise, if made, was undoubtedly broken, but the story pithily records the impression produced by the work of the young artist in comparison with that of his master whose art he was so soon to make obsolete. The angel in question is undoubtedly by Leonardo. When we compare these child-like figures and their infinite naturalness and charm, with the stately functionaries which the older art had employed to perform this traditional service for the Christ, we have a hint of the revolution that is impending.
It must be remembered, however, that Verocchio’s chief work was as a sculptor, and that his instruction was given in this art as well as in painting. Nor is there any reason to doubt that Leonardo’s aptitude for sculpture was as great as for the sister art. It is probable that like Michelangelo he was especially endowed for this art which seems to have dominated the Florentine imagination from the first, and which is perhaps especially suited to the interpretation of human character and feeling. It is significant that both of these supreme artists who close the history of the Italian Renaissance, were trained in both sculpture and painting, that both were privileged to carry to completion one supreme work of painting, and that both were prevented from carrying out an even greater work in sculpture on which they had set their hearts. It is possible, though we cannot prove, that Leonardo like Michelangelo, not only regarded the opportunity thus lost as his greatest, but esteemed more highly the sculptor’s art. It is not probable, however, that Leonardo, whose versatility was more eager and his sympathies in art more catholic than those of Michelangelo, ever consciously disparaged painting. His devotion to this as to every art was sincere and ardent. For us, however, there is this great difference between the two men. We have Michelangelo’s sculpture, fragmentary though it be, while that of Leonardo has utterly perished. Among Leonardo’s sketches we cannot trace with certainty even a hint of the great monument of Sforza, the completed model of which was barbarously mutilated by the foreign conquerors of Milan and finally broken up. The art of the world has suffered few losses more serious than this.
In painting we have first to note briefly certain changes of manner, which like all formal changes are of secondary importance, but which in this case have been so far reaching in their results as to require more than the usual notice. First of all, we owe to him a new conception of the composition or arrangement of a picture. Hitherto there had been a tendency to arrange figures in line, that being obviously the best way to make each appear to advantage. As a result, the heads formed more or less of a row, running horizontally through the picture. Such pictures fit best in square or oblong frames, and Giotto and the other painters who were free to divide large walls to suit themselves, usually adopted the horizontal rectangle as the form in which a number of persons could stand most comfortably. The reader of these pages will recall numerous examples of this kind of picture from the painting of Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Lippo, Ghirlandajo, and others. Aside from its convenience, this form of picture is especially suited to story-telling, the successive incidents being arranged in sequence. We can appreciate at once how difficult Masaccio would have found it to represent the three episodes of his story of the Tribute Money, if his space had been high and narrow, instead of broad and low, as he with the whole wall at his disposal, was free to make it.
But it is difficult to make a strong impression with such a picture. The older painters seem more or less to have realized this without quite knowing why. It seemed necessary to represent, or at least to suggest, the various episodes of their story in some such way, and the diffuseness and scattering which resulted seems to have been accepted as one of the limitations of painting. There are practically no condensed or highly unified pictures up to Leonardo’s time.
Leonardo seems to have been the first to appreciate that things which are to make their impression upon the eye, must be things which can be seen all at once. They must have a center of interest which the eye can locate at once, without a particle of doubt, in the easiest and most effective spot, and all else must be subordinate to this center and must contribute to its importance. This leads to several momentous conclusions. First of all, there must be no more story-telling in painting, at least none that involves a series of episodes, for such pictures cannot be strongly unified for presentation to the eye. They must always be seen piece-meal, and so are straggling and weak. Our interest in stories is so strong that we sometimes overlook the fact that they are unsuitable for painting, but sooner or later every art must choose those subjects that it can represent best, if it is to develop its full possibilities. Leonardo represents no subject which requires a series of episodes.
The subject thus simplified, Leonardo seeks the most condensed and unified grouping possible. Not a line of heads ; that is too diffuse. The eye runs along such a line without dwelling anywhere. We must have a center of interest, and that in the best possible place. And since for some reason we always see the upper half of things better than the lower half, the center of interest must be in the upper part of the picture. To an artist who recognizes the human being as the supreme theme in art, the center of interest would naturally be a single head, placed somewhat above the rest. Such an arrangement occurs in the early picture of the Virgin of the Rocks (C 12) now in the Louvre, Paris.
But Leonardo still is not satisfied. The figures here are too widely separated, and the eye does not feel the full force of all at a glance. He desires a more compact group. Such a group we have in the famous cartoon of the Diploma Gallery (C 11) London. It is difficult to refrain from commenting on the wondrous beauty of these faces, the exquisite naturalness of their posture and of the children who play about their knees, a vision of loveliness and of unfettered spirit such as Christian art up to this time had never suggested. But we are concerned for the moment with other things. The artist, experimenting here as always, is trying to work out a new kind of group. It is probably for this reason that he introduces the figures of Saint Anne to give the additional material, so to speak, which his group requires. The two women sit side by side with their heads very close together. The children, playing below, furnish the subordinate figures, and give the broader base which a group thus compactly formed, requires to give the desired impression of physical stability. A group thus formed becomes somewhat pyramidal in form, distinctly a new plan in Italian art, but one always followed afterward. Up to Leonardo’s time the horizontal line is the almost universal composition. After his time it is almost as universally the triangle, while his contemporaries, like Perugino, show a curious tendency to blend the two.
The cartoon was never executed as a painting. We do not know why, but we may surmise that he found it unsatisfactory. The two heads at the apex, however close together, divide the interest which here especially must be completely unified. The little Saint John, too, is quite to one side, and the result is that there is a deep hollow or notch on the right side of the group quite marring its symmetry. And now, looking closer, we see that Leonardo seems to have felt this defect, for we detect a large hand, with upward pointing finger, sketched in here to fill the gap. The suggestion of this hand is not at all pleasant. It can only have a symbolical meaning which jars sadly with the spirit of intimacy and quiet happiness which pervades the scene. The conclusion is quite irresistible that Leonardo formed his group at first with exquisite spontaneity, too ‘careless, perhaps, of the resulting irregularity, and that becoming conscious of this irregularity, he sketches in the hand and observes the effect. It is far from satisfactory. It is large and obtrusive, and the, suggestion is alien in spirit. What with the double apex and the unfilled notch, the piece seems hopeless. The imagination in which dwelt such figures as these without number, would hardly feel, as we do, the pity of sacrificing such a beginning. When the convenient season should come, that “ineffable left hand” had but to raise the magic wand, and these lovely forms would come forth at his bidding. Alas that he should have waited so often for the more convenient season.
One more attempt (C 16) shows the direction of his endeavor. This time the Saint Anne is again required, but to secure the more compact group, the single apex, and the desired form, the Virgin mother sits in Saint Anne’s lap and leans over to the child who plays with the lamb. The idea is a little startling and not above criticism. The group is far less spontaneous and the figures less beautiful in attitude or face than in the earlier work, but it is precisely this straining of the theme which tells us what Leonardo was striving for. Like most of his works, this picture is an experiment, valued less for itself than for the principle it illustrates.
As a final study in this scheme of composition, but in a far more complex application, let us note the Battle of Anghiari (C 2I), perhaps the most terrific manifestation of energy and passion which art has thus far produced. In this writhing mass of men, horses and accoutrements, it is not difficult to trace a complex application of the same principle which we have been considering. The spontaneity is terrific, but rocks and spears and beasts and men all unconsciously unite in one of those hidden symmetries which our artist was teaching art to seek. This scene, too, helps us to understand why Leonardo sought the close and compact group instead of the open one with which he began. Imagine these horsemen separated by a little space, however savagely rushing upon one another, and we instantly feel how we have weakened the group. Compactness means intensity, a necessity of dramatic art.
It is interesting to notice how promptly Leonardo reacted upon Florentine art. It was Fra Bartolommeo, a serious but feebly artistic soul, who was privileged to formulate this principle of the new art into that lifeless rule of thumb which the craftsman in art so dearly loves. In his monumental drawing in the Uffizi in Florence, we have triangles galore. First, there is the Madonna and Child, conveniently supplemented in outline by the edge of a book. This gives our first triangle. Above the Madonna towers Saint Anne, suggestive coincidence, who in collaboration with figures around and beneath, forms another triangle, whose lines are echoed by the legs of the cherubs below. Starting now with the mask at the very top, and utilizing the figures of the prominent angels on either side, we descend to the heads of the powerful figures to right and left, and we have another triangle, larger and more intangible than the rest, but obviously intended. It is triangle within triangle, after the fashion that the pail makers would call a “nest.” It need hardly be pointed out how little this resembles the spontaneous grouping of Leonardo of which it is none the less a conscious imitation. Andrea del Sarto, a less serious but more facile painter, again shows this influence. In his early painting, the Visit of the Magi, we have the old composition, nonchalant and happy-go-lucky, but pleasingly easy. In his Madonna of the Sack, however, we at once notice the influence of Leonardo, exerted, however, through the person of Fra Bartolommeo. The Madonna holds the Child in the identical attitude noted in the last, and even triangulates herself with the aid of Joseph’s book, a repetition which, in our own age, would be accounted plagiarism. Joseph and his bag form a second triangle required by the long lunette. It is both less formal and less dignified than the work of Fra Bartolommeo, but both are echoes of Leonardo.
By far the happiest result of Leonardo’s new system, however, is to be found in the work of Raphael, whose best known and finest Madonnas are ideal examples of the new principle. Such are the Sistine Madonna (C 196) in Dresden, the Madonna del Prato (C 158) in Vienna, the Cardellino (C 151) in Florence, and la Belle Jardinière (C 156) in Paris, the last three executed immediately under the influence of the great master, and the artist’s most perfect creations.
Other innovations in the painter’s manner are even more important, but too subtle for our profitable analysis. Such, in particular, was his new conception of light and shade. Earlier art had thought of its task as the representation of objects, that is, a study in forms. For this purpose, forms .must be indicated in outline and then “modeled” with lights and shadows, and colored for their fuller expression. Composition was merely a problem of arranging the objects, usually persons, thus represented. Line, light and shade, and color were thus merely means to the representation of forms which were the true subject of art. This is a most prosaic conception of painting, though it had to suffice for some very poetic souls, like Botticelli. It quite corresponds to the naïve conception of music which makes it merely a kind of melodious talk and lays all emphasis on hearing the words. And now, just as music, in its farther develop-ment, lays increasing stress upon the purely sensuous elements of tone, melody and harmony, subordinating words, and finally in its highest forms, dropping words altogether, so drawing and painting slowly became conscious of the fact that these purely sensuous elements of line, light and shade, and color, are themselves the substance of the art, and the representation of forms is quite a subordinate thing. The lights and shadows that fill a space are quite as important in art as those that show the shapes of persons and things, often much more so. In our own experience the lights and shadows by which we are surrounded have more influence over our spiritual moods than have the people about us. The same is true of color and line, quite independently of any shape or thing which they define. The peculiar thing about all these merely sensuous elements, both in nature and art, is that we do not think about them very much. We merely feel them. We are greatly influenced by sound, especially when rhythmical and melodious, but it is only when it takes the form of words that we speak of it as having a “meaning.” We are equally susceptible to light and shade, but it is only when these lights and shadows suggest things or objects to us that we stop and think about them and attribute meaning to them.
Now things are in art what words are in music. We may treat them quite artistically if we will not be too literal, if we will throw their lights and shadows, their lines and their colors into cadence, and above all, build about them an accompaniment of these same sensuous things. But the indispensable condition of this is that we should think about the laws of musical composition and not about the mere meaning. And finally, when we have the laws of musical composition clearly in mind, it at last becomes clear to us that we can have songs without words, great painting without people or things, or with these so subordinated that the mind will take no note of them. It is into the organization of these impersonal and sensuous elements, notably light and shade, for the purposes of art, that Leonardo consciously enters as explorer. Into the mysteries of this occult science we will not attempt to penetrate beyond recognizing the existence of the problem. Suffice it to say that in Leonardo’s work as in all great painting since his time, lights and shadows are considered by themselves, whether they represent objects or not, and are studied with reference to composition, much as sound, whether articulate or not, is built into music. There are few who analyze these compositions; there are still fewer who do not feel them.
But in this study of the impersonal in art, Leonardo did not disparage the old themes or the old study of personality. On the contrary, he surpassed all others, before and since, in the subtlety of his analysis of human character. It is characteristic of the universality of Leonardo’s genius, that while he was lifting the impersonal and sensuous elements of painting into a cult, he was at the same moment penetrating more deeply than any had done before, into the mysteries of personality.
Leonardo revolutionized the conception of the Madonna in art. Until his day the theme is essentially ecclesiastical. The Madonna sits on a throne, and the throne is in the church. She holds the child facing outward, as a queen regent might hold the infant king. Saints, one or more, stand guard on either side. All face outward toward the worshiping audience, whose presence is inevitably pre-supposed. So far as faces betray significant feeling, that feeling is serious, and tinged with the pathos of vague apprehension. In a few great examples this theme rises to a high level of spiritual suggestion, as in some of the finer works of John Bellini. For the most part it is the formalism rather than the spiritual suggestion which is impressive. Such is Raphael’s Madonna Ansidei.
Leonardo changes both the essence and the manner of the theme. The Madonna comes down from her throne, the company scatters and the saints are dismissed. With only her mother or an angel for company and the two children for playmates, they leave the church and wander far from the haunts of men, among green fields and in shady nooks. They fling to the winds all formality and care. Spontaneity, liberty, and relaxation of body and mind take the place of formalism and restraint. They seem to feel the relief, for now, noteworthy change, the Madonna smiles. She has never smiled before. It is the most fugitive and subtle of smiles, a radiance revealing serenity and quiet joy within. Notice the Angel’s face in the Virgin of the Rocks, above all, the wonderful London cartoon. How much of spiritual happiness is here told by how little! How much more than would have been told by more! To this freer and happier mood all action, especially that of the children, insensibly adjusts itself. Not less the exquisite attitudes of the figures which in the case of the cartoon are part and parcel of the all-pervading serenity. Most striking of all, perhaps, is the transformation of the child, hitherto too often a theological caricature, an unbeautiful compromise between the guileless emptiness of childhood and the infinite fullness of the divine. Note the child in the Virgin of the Rocks. Transfigured nature, but nature in all the unspoiled beauty of dimpled babyhood.
Let us recall for a moment the significance of this change. We have smiles instead of pathos, happiness instead of fore-boding, baby charm instead of symbolic mannikin, green fields instead of throne and church, nature instead of dogma. The old art had represented in the Madonna the symbol, and in rare cases, the spirit of Christianity, in the form and face of a woman. The new theme is the beauty of the eternally feminine, of mother love and childish glee. It is the consummation of the nature movement begun by Masaccio and erratically carried on by Fra Lippo, the realization of the ideal of humanism by one who cared not to call himself by that name.
But we shall misunderstand Leonardo if we picture him to our minds as in revolt against religion, however devoted to nature. We have still to consider the great masterpiece which tells us that he came not to destroy but to fulfill. It was in the year 1494, when the artist was at the height of his powers, that he began the great picture of the Last Supper (C 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This picture of the sacred supper was the usual subject chosen to decorate the dining room of a monastery, and was executed in this case apparently under the joint auspices of the brotherhood and of the great duke, Sforza, the patron whose munificence had first tempted Leonardo from Florence, and on whose political and social necessities his talents were to be so largely squandered. Only for the brief two years spent on this work did outward circumstances and inner purpose combine to promote the highest ends of art. The unfortunate experiment of tempera has been referred to. The destruction which began so speedily to overtake the great work was little arrested by the ill-judged efforts with paint and varnish to preserve its flaking surface. Not until 1908 did the most remarkable effort at restoration which history records finally stay the advancing destruction.
The student will best appreciate this remarkable work by keeping by him for occasional comparison the Last Supper by Ghirlandajo in San Marco, Florence, also that of Andrea del Sarto in San Salvi, Florence. The spiritless formalism of the one and the nonchalant unconventionality of the other are both perfectly characteristic, and absolutely in contrast with the work of Leonardo.
Christ and the twelve are ranged at the rear and the ends of a long table whose service side is toward us. Windows which frame one of the most beautiful landscapes in Italian art, open behind and furnish a luminous background for the figure of the Christ. The scene is that following immediately upon the fateful words, “Verily, verily, I say unto you that one of you shall betray me.” Like a bolt from the blue these words of the sorely burdened Master have fallen upon the devoted band whose fear has been of everything save their own faithlessness. It is a supremely dramatic theme, this moment of sore trouble over the things which are of the spirit.
The theme was obviously little suited to the new scheme of picture building already considered. If the table were turned endwise, the Christ would necessarily sit at the farther end, the intimate incidents would be subordinated, and the nearer disciples must either ignore him or turn their backs on the spectator. Something like this we have in the very unsatisfactory works of Ferrari and Rubens. Or turning the table sidewise, the figures make a long row, the deadly monotony of which Ghirlandajo illustrates. It is none the less this danger which Leonardo chose to confront. It is important to ilote by what means he has overcome these difficulties.
To avoid the impression of monotony and the long diffuse line, he has formed of the twelve disciples four groups of three each, and each group he has fashioned according to his new principle, into the compact pyramidal form which we have noted. Along with great variety, they all conform fairly to the favored pattern, and have also an inner unity of action and feeling which enhances their individual character. Thus, from left to right, the first group all gaze stupefied and speechless at the Master ; in the second, Peter whispers to John, while Judas listens anxiously; in the third, all address Jesus with a common impulse; while the fourth group put their heads together in excited discussion. In accordance with his uniform practice he takes care that each group shall be a spiritual as well as a physical unity.
The breaking up of the monotonous line was comparatively easy, but it will occur to everyone that in building these separate groups he was sacrificing his main unity. There was the utmost danger that his picture would break to pieces, each part suggesting thoughts of its own, but giving us no supreme thought worthy of the great theme. To counteract this danger, it is necessary that each group should make it perfectly plain to us that its thought and interest, all that it stands for, spiritually, is merged in the great personality which must needs be all in all. We have already learned how this may be done. Let us note Leonardo’s application of the well known means.
The group at the right end consists of three men who are excitedly discussing the announcement. The one at the end, looking at his interlocutor, shrugs his shoulders and spreads out his palms in the familiar unconscious gesture by which we protest innocence or helplessness. He is conspicuously talking to and looking at someone else than Jesus. Yet in that moment, the open hands and long fingers stretch out toward him. This trifling line of least resistance is none the less suggestive to the mind. It is a sensuous line, an eye path merely. The man opposite speaks excitedly but points behind him in the same direction. This is not merely an eye path along which our attention moves. It is that and more, for now we feel sure that the speaker is consciously pointing at Jesus, which means that his own attention or thought is also moving that way. So, by mental suggestion, our own thought is carried along with it. This is a much more potent suggestion than the other and quite different in kind. Here, then, we have a self-centered group who make it perfectly clear that that which engages their attention and explains their action has to do with the figures in the center.
Passing now to the other end, we have three persons who are not absorbed in their own words, but gaze intently at Jesus. They do not point ; they look. This is mental suggestion in its most obvious form, and when the gaze is intense, it is the form which is most potent. We have no doubt as to where this group is in spirit.
The group at the left center is, like that at the right end, self occupied, the anxious listening of Judas being as much a bond as the eager whispering of Peter. Their spiritual gravitation is again made perfectly apparent by the forward leaning and pointing of their spokesman.
But interest centers in the wonderful group of the right center who address themselves individually to Jesus with emotions so contrasted and so intense as to sunder them completely, were it not that all are but manifestations of their perfect devotion to him. To the left is Thomas whom we ungraciously remember in his doubts and forget in his devotion. It was he who; when Jesus prophesied his own death, said, “Let us also go up, that we may die with him.” Loyal, yet distrustful of himself, he lifts a finger to secure attention, and asks in trembling earnestness : “Is it I, Lord ?” Not so the magnificent James, that “Son of Thunder,” who invoked fire from heaven to consume the unfriendly village. Recoiling with the hot indignation of outraged devotion, he seems to demand instant retraction : “Impossible ! Is insult then the reward of devotion ?” Beyond him, Philip rises, his hands upon his heart, and leaning over with a look of infinite tenderness, seems to say, “Lord, thou knowest not how we love Thee.” How searching is this glance of the great seer into the thoughts and intents of these hearts! Like an electric shock has come the fateful announcement, and in an instant the depressed and silent company has broken into little knots, close huddled around their several storm centers of emotion, but all drawn as by a magnet’s unseen power toward that one sitting alone, whose isolation no mortal may share, but whose spell none may resist.
It is in the unfathomable suggestion of this face that .we note the artist’s supreme triumph. Fra Angelico gives us the seraphic ecstasy of the celestial Christ ; Masaccio gives us the manliness that braved the Pharisees and drove the money changers from the Temple; each has given us one characteristic. But no other has given us a comprehension of his many-sided character. The face is indeed acquainted with grief, yet there is neither faltering nor defiance. We have but to lift ever so little the shadows of this dark hour to find the calm, gentle eyes quick with sympathy for a child, or the strong mouth shut with firm determination against hypocrisy and greed. It is easy to suggest one characteristic at a time; it is only here that we find in full expression or fugitive suggestion the varied and contrasted qualities which the great drama requires and the heart of the follower craves.
It is difficult to pass from the contemplation of this work, so easily first among the achievements of Christian art, to any other, even from the hand of Leonardo himself. Yet popular favor has divided the honors between the Last Supper and Mona Lisa (C Io), while daring robbery has, in these last days, given to the latter a factitious interest. Probably no picture in the world is so much lauded or so little understood, lauded, perhaps, in part because not under-stood. The picture, painted after the Last Supper, shows the same powers of analysis, possibly in an even higher degree. Of its marvellous color, praised by Vasari, we shall never be able to judge. The changes in color above referred to are here most indubitable. Its exquisite finish, its infinitely sensitive delineation, and its psychic subtlety few will be found to doubt. Its haunting, baffling, yet evanescent and fugitive smile is famous. The story is familiar that Leonardo kept music playing in a distant apartment in the days and months of his exacting task, that he might hold fast or call back the subtle expression which had fascinated him. He has held it fast to fascinate mankind forever. Yet the Mona Lisa, concede what we will to the artist’s transcendent powers, is not to be mentioned in the same breath with the Last Supper. The powers are the same, but in the one case they are used to puzzle, and in the other to inspire. Leonardo’s fondness for the weird and the enigmatical appears here in subtlest form as the master passion of this sphinx-like enchantress. She is the highest possible embodiment in art of a type not unknown in life. She is not beautiful, but she is fascinating. It is impossible to exaggerate the delicacy of her hands, the perfect poise of her figure, or the suggestiveness of her smile. There are the widest divergencies of opinion as to her meaning, but there are none who doubt her power. She is the riddle that has provoked a thousand guesses, but that none can let alone. But when we have conceded the utmost to the painter’s skill and to the picture’s fascination, the impression of the Mona Lisa remains a doubtful one. She is mystifying rather than satisfying. We own her power, but we do not love her. She is not the highest, even if the most marvellous of Leonardo’s creations.
The art of Leonardo which in the Mona Lisa had passed into unfathomable mystery, was destined soon to pass into oblivion. A brief stay in Rome secured him another commission, again to be sacrificed to his insatiable interest in experiment. The last years of his life were spent at the French court, where the brilliant Francis I regarded him with especial favor, prizing him, as the old man would himself have chosen, more as a scientist and sage than as an artist. In the vast range of his thought he had seemed to make no enduring conquests. Yet in art at least his influence was decisive. With all the progress that art had made up to Leonardo’s time, it was still full of compromises and half measures. The artists knew that their paintings were to appeal to the eye, yet they had never learned to plan their pictures solely with reference to the laws of vision. They knew that the plain prose of life must have rhythm and accompaniment if it was to be transformed into the music of art, but they had no conception of the power of these sensuous elements, still less did they realize that art must build its whole structure with mere colors and lights and shadows as such, quite without reference to the objects which they were called upon to express. Above all, in the world of ideas, where art with all its necessities of color and shadow music must find its great opportunity, they were still de-pendent upon externals and symbols. The Madonna might be beautiful and spiritually suggestive, but she must still have her throne, her saints, her accustomed symbols.
Leonardo gave to Christian art its final and complete enfranchisement. In the new painting, the law of vision is substituted for the law of tradition and the church. Light and shadow still outline the objects of our thought, but they acquire a mystery and a meaning quite their own. Above all, in the interpretation of the familiar Christian themes, the last vestige of symbolism disappears to make way for a deeper meaning. We recognize the Madonna, not by the throne and the worshiping saints, but by the mother love and the quiet radiance in the face which tells of the peace in her heart. Not by an aureole of special pattern do we know the Lord, but by the great sorrow of a mighty heart. All is Christian still, but all is more than Christian. Dogma is not rejected, but swallowed up in the larger facts of life. Not a fetich or a talisman, but the great tragedy of a world in travail until now, does Leonardo behold in the Passion of the Lord.