In the popular imagination, the name Leonardo da Vinci conjures many things. In traditional textbooks, he epitomizes the concept of the “Renaissance man,” capable of knowing and doing everything. Another view has it that he was a prototypical engineer and scientist—inventor of tanks, helicopters, self-perpetuating machines, and urban infrastructure—and thus the forerunner of much of what we deem essential in our supposedly secular, technology-driven world. Art historians generally describe him as the key figure in a new phase in European painting, attuned to the portrayal of psychology and the subjectivity of sight, all while exercising an unparalleled naturalism. But, despite these things, there has always been another image of Leonardo, one that associated him with hidden things, esoteric knowledge beyond common perceptions. In Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), Leonardo figures as a guardian of a forbidden secret, keeping alive the dangerous knowledge that Christ married Mary Magdalene and had a child by her. In the context of Brown’s thriller, Leonardo is a knower of the unknown, a keeper of truths that must remain encrypted by means of his famous mirror writing. Because Leonardo’s secret could potentially overturn orthodox Christian beliefs, his perpetuation of it paradoxically meshes with his reputation as a harbinger of the modern world. Like a Nostradamus, he anticipates history, hiding the keys to understanding things that are beyond the grasp of his contemporaries and a challenge for more enlightened ages.
In light of the scholarship on Leonardo, the association of the artist with religious arcana appears strange and extravagant. And in large part it should: after all, Leonardo was forever claiming that he trusted only the evidence of the senses. But I think it is nevertheless worth bearing in mind that Brown’s fictional Leonardo did not appear out of nowhere. In certain ways, Leonardo set the stage for the novelist. In his notebooks, Leonardo writes as a person driven to uncover the deeper reality of nature for others. It is moreover obvious that he intended his paintings to reveal in themselves all the veiled mechanisms of the physical world, so that they might be published once and for all for the benefit of fellow truth-seekers.
Like any serious thinker, Leonardo’s ideas changed over the course of his lifetime. His early pronouncements about the rightness of established scientific theories gradually gave way to more tentative and ambiguous statements in his later writings. Some of his late paintings suggest the imminent revelation of hidden things but also simultaneously withhold any fuller manifestation of them. In the St. John the Baptist (ca. 1513–16), for example, the saint addresses us with his eyes, pointing to himself, while indicating the light source beyond the edges of the image. Here the Baptist foresees the coming of the “Light” mentioned in John’s Gospel, i.e., Christ, who remains hidden from the viewer. Leonardo’s saint thus intimates a sacred mystery, God’s taking on flesh to become man, while also denying us any real glimpse of him. By aligning the outsides of the painting with higher truth, this visual image paradoxically claims to enable experiences beyond the limits of sight.
It remains that, whatever the special character of Leonardo’s theology (whether he was an unorthodox Christian, a proto-deist, a pantheist, an agnostic, or something else entirely), his thinking and work process parallel those of a more conventional truth-seeking theist. If one reads Leonardo’s notebooks on, say, the appearance of tree leaves and branches, one might be struck by his pedantry. The bored reader can wonder how Leonardo, who left so many other things unfinished, had the energy to pursue such seemingly mundane phenomena. Yet, Leonardo presumably pursued these observations in hopes that they might offer some cumulative insight, that a cosmic law was ready to reveal itself through the very process of intensive looking. Like a pious contemplative reciting a string of prayers by rote or recalling consecutive moments from a holy life in the mind’s eye, Leonardo systematically parsed the world’s visual phenomenon in hopes of the grace of higher illumination.
The mention of such an arch-empiricist as Leonardo at the head of a collection of essays about mysticism and art may be unexpected. Yet, this very unexpectedness calls our attention to the many ways art has frequently worked, and how artists have often included in their briefs much more than the formalist or political endeavors that we nowadays associate with them. Many of the essays that follow seek to show through Western examples—medieval, early modern, and modern—how some artists might conceive of themselves differently precisely because of religious concerns, how they might make more of the viewer’s experience of a work because of their spiritual ambitions (a similar collection could be formed from a global perspective). Perhaps not all artists are mystics, but the choice of art as one’s medium is nevertheless a sort of mystical confession. This is because, in designating visual materials to express things in the place of words, most if not all artists attempt to speak of things that can’t be otherwise articulated. If one definition of mystical experience is finding a way around mundane experience to engage something deemed higher than or absent from the confines of everyday life, then the artist works as a mystic does. At the same time, we ourselves, as spectators of art, are complicit in the bargain, for we willingly take artists’ propositions seriously. Our disposition to look at images, old and new, as matters of interpretation or expression, and our occasional readiness to intervene in their substance show how successful the unspoken proposition of the artist as mystic has been, and how important our ill-defined belief in art’s higher purpose remains today.