Just the facts on religion.

The Da Vinci Code on Leonardo da Vinci

The great artist Leonardo da Vinci is the namesake of the novel The Da Vinci Code and his art and beliefs are central to the story. Was Leonardo really a homosexual? A heretic? Did he hide symbols in his paintings and notebooks? This article explores the fascinating life and art of Leonardo in the context of claims found in The Da Vinci Code.

Overview of Leonardo da Vinci in The Da Vinci Code and Reality

In The Da Vinci Code, Leonardo da Vinci was a flamboyant homosexual and goddess worshipper who exumed corpses, studied alchemy and elixirs of immortality, invented horrific war and torture instruments, and fulfilled hundreds of Vatican commissions in which he hid pagan symbols. (Ch. 8)

In reality, Leonardo was probably a homosexual (but not "flamboyant" - that would have gotten him killed) and no great fan of the Church, and he did invent some violent machines (because they made money).

But Leonardo fulfilled only one Vatican commission and there is no evidence for heretical beliefs, pagan symbols in his art, exhumation of corpses (though he did probably dissect them) or alchemy. Many of these accusations date from an account in 1550 by Giorgio Vasari. The book was revised 18 years later with all the accusations removed, but the original description of Leonardo remains influential to the present day.

Historical Evidence and Sources

The earliest major source for information on the life of Leonardo da Vinci is Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550). It has proven unreliable, but influential. Vasari’s initial report on Leonardo included thecharge that his "cast of mind was so heretical that he did not adhere to any religion," leading to much speculation about Leonardo, especially with regard to alchemy and secret societies.

However, in the second edition of his text (1568), Vasari deleted the above sentences, due either to his own reassessment of Leonardo’s art and life or his realization that these reports were based more on gossip than on fact.

Further damage to Leonardo’s reputation came from Sigmund Freud, whose 1910 analysis defined the artist as a "thoroughly abnormal mind."

What the Experts Say about Leonardo da Vinci's Life and Religion

In an article for Beliefnet on Leonardo's faith and art, religious art scholar Diane Apostolos-Cappadona writes;

[Despite Vasari's modified account], these accusations stuck, and Leonardo was characterized as "Faust’s Italian brother," among other epithets.

Adding to these suspicions is the fact that Leonardo frequently wrote backwards—his famed mirror writing—as an attempt to hide his inventions, discoveries, and “secrets.” This "accusation" omits the fact that the artist was left-handed, and writing backwards was a common trait among left-handed people....

So what do we actually know about Leonardo da Vinci's beliefs? We know he was born to an unmarried couple, Caterina and Ser Piero da Vinci, whose family took in the new child. Documentation exists for Leonardo’s acceptance into his father’s family and his baptism in the presence of 10 witnesses. The young Leonardo showed early and proficient skills in art and mathematics. He entered into apprenticeship in the studio of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, and the rest, as they say, is art history.

Kenneth Clark, an art historian, advises that while not "a religious-minded man," Leonardo "seems to associate himself with the precursors of the Reformation." Leonardo objected to the commercial exploitation of relics, religious art, and pious items, saying, "I see Christ once more being sold and crucified and his saints martyred." In his notebooks and letters, he protested the sale of indulgences, liturgical and ceremonial pomp, obligatory confessions, and the cult of the saints. He assailed the clergy—at all levels—for their lack of morality, values, and education. As a scientist, he questioned the contemporary reality of miracles performed by priests and monks.

In his paintings, Leonardo expressed what might be termed his "reformist" ideas. He removed haloes; dispensed with the inclusion of gold, azure, and other expensive colors; avoided elaborate costumes for Mary and the (arch)angels; and presented visual meditations on the meaning of Jesus as the Christ and of Mary as mother. He found proof for the existence and omnipotence of God in nature—light, color, botany, the human body—and in creativity.

Further Reading