Leonardo da Vinci
Born as an illegitimate child in 1452 in a small town within the province of Florence, Leonardo Da Vinci would, by the end of his life, come to be known as the quintessential “Renaissance man”—that is, an educated individual who excelled at a variety of intellectual fields, ranging from painting, music, and drawing to physics, mathematics, cartography, and invention. While Da Vinci is remembered most prominently today for world-famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, it was his prolific work as a draftsman and meticulous drawer that characterized the endless creativity and inventive prowess of his mind. He filled numerous journals with study sketches that served either to lay the groundwork for a larger painting or to mark the blueprints for inventions and contraptions that amazed the world with their ingenuity.
The Vitruvian Man (c. 1490)
Perhaps Da Vinci’s most recognizable drawing, the Vitruvian Man is so-named because its study of human corporeal proportions is based on the work of the Roman architect Vitruvius—who held that the physical figure of man served as the foundational vessel by which one could interpret the order and proportions of natural and architectural structures. Da Vinci’s study came at a time when Renaissance intellectuals were becoming increasingly fascinated with the complexities of the human body, especially as a lens through which to view and understand the natural and supernatural world. Under what is often referred to as the macrocosm-microcosm paradigm, many Renaissance thinkers believed that the systematic order of the earth mirrored the systematic order of the heavens. Thus, by probing deeply into the internal intricacies of the human corpus, one could conceivably better understand the workings of God’s creation and thereby better understand God himself.
In the drawing itself, Da Vinci makes extensive use of symmetry and proportions, noting in the text below the image a series of proportions that characterize the typical human body, such as one’s wingspan being equal to one’s height and the distance between one’s knee and foot being equal to one fourth of one’s height. Da Vinci’s inventive use of lines, squares, and circles conveys his sensitivity to the proportions of the body and also how it can tell us about the structural beauty of natural and architectural structures as well. Perhaps this served as a precursor to many of the inventions that he would draw in the future.
The Annunciation (1472-1475)
This painting was one of Da Vinci’s earliest major works, composed during the time when he was apprenticed in the studio of the Florentine artist Verrocchio. It depicts one of the most pivotal scenes in the Bible, during which the archangel Gabriel delivers a message to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God without having yet known a man. Such motifs were rather popular throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods of painting. The composition is quite large in terms of horizontal length, as if to emphasize the respectful distance kept between the angel and the Virgin. This, along with the white lily that Gabriel is holding, perhaps conveys the significance of Mary’s purity.
Moreover, it is worth noting that Mary had been reading before Gabriel’s arrival. Often, such iconography of the Virgin with a Book points to the Biblical notion of God being manifested as the Word. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the phrase “the Word became Flesh” is used to describe the Incarnation of Christ from spirit into the body of a man. Perhaps Da Vinci harbored a similar aim in his art, to strive to render his paintings and drawings as flesh by embodying the beauty of the human experience.
Virgin of the Rocks
(Louvre version on left, 1483-1486) (London National Gallery on right, 1495-1508)
Da Vinci painted two versions of this work, with the shared motif of the Virgin Mary with the infant John the Baptist and the infant Jesus. The faces of the people in this painting are prime examples of Da Vinci’s technique of sfumato, or the blurring of lines such that delineations on one’s body appear not sharp and distinct but rather cloudy and muddled. This is the style for which the Mona Lisa would also be highly praised as a work painted by a master.
(The Last Supper, 1494-1499, sketches from notebook above)
This painting, one of Da Vinci’s most recognizable, portrays Jesus and his disciples during the Last Supper before his crucifixion. The painting makes extensive use of light and dark contrast, as well as lines converging onto the center, in order to highlight Jesus as the central figure in the foreground of this work. There is a great amount of activity found in the other people in the painting as well, however. Da Vinci spent a great deal of time on each disciple, as evidenced by the many sketches he included with each of the disciples identified by name. The expressions on each of their faces convey a particular expression, with Judas acting aloof and surprised and with John appearing to swoon in an almost feminine manner, for instance.
I chose to research da Vinci because his versatility and extensive accomplishments in fields of all kinds demonstrates the spirit of the Renaissance into which he was born. The incorporation of all kinds of scientific and artistic knowledge into mediums of visual art make for a combination of creativity that proves to be peerless even to this day.
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Shlain, Leonard. Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius. Guilford,
CT: Lyons Press, 2014 Print.
Suh, H. Anna. Leonardo’s Notebooks: Writing and Art of the Great Master. New York: