Was Leonardo a Christian?

The beliefs of the man who painted some of the most famous Christian images are shrouded in mystery. Alex Keller coaxes Leonardo da Vinci’s thoughts out of some little-known personal writings.

‘Leonardo formed in his mind a conception so heretical as not to approach any religion whatsoever ... perhaps he esteemed being a philosopher much more than being a Christian.’
Vasari, 1560

In the account of Leonardo’s life in the first edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Italian Artists (1550) this sentence follows a brief description of da Vinci’s enthusiasm for ‘le cose naturali’ – what nowadays we might call his scientific researches. Mysteriously Vasari omitted these words from the second edition of 1568, although he kept the rest of the passage. Many admirers of Leonardo (1452-1519) find the passage hard to swallow: could the artist responsible for some of the best known images of Christian art not have been a Christian himself? Could the same hand which so beautifully depicted the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ and the ‘Virgin and  Child with Saint Anne’ have been a sceptic? Some have therefore maintained that the suggestion that Leonardo preferred to be a philosopher than a Christian (as was also said of his contemporary Machiavelli) must have been malicious gossip, which Vasari removed when he realized how false it was.

Even in his own day Leonardo was something of a mythical figure, a man of such genius that he could never be properly understood. Through the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this myth centred on his paintings. Only later did the generation of the Industrial Revolution discover in Leonardo a great mechanic and inventor as well as an experimental student of nature, who brought the artist’s keen eye to observe the little details of living things – including human anatomy – and the artist’s skill in exposition to describe what words could not.

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