Leonardo’s Faces

The widespread misconception that Leonardo's portraits are depictions of real people can only be grasped when one recognizes that even his depictions of biblical figures are not what they seem. Take, for instance, his portrayal of St. Anne and John the Baptist in two different paintings which have hung in the same room for decades. Their faces are identical. Even taking into account the possibility that St. Anne might have been St. John's grand-mother, Leonardo has modeled their faces identically, not as though they are related but as though they are the same person at a similar time. He has taken great trouble to align their noses to the side of their identical smiles in exactly the same way. And, although one has eyes open and the other closed, the bridge of their nose is identical, the parting of their hair the same and their chins indistinguishable. Even the lighting on their faces is identical. Yet Leonardo also took pains to disguise the similarities from the casual viewer by rotating their faces in different directions and inverting one in the other direction.

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Leonardo's St. Anne. (1510-13Oil on wood. Louvre, Paris
R: Leonardo's St. John the Baptist. (1508-13) Oil on wood. Louvre, Paris

Click image to enlarge.

Leonardo’s exact purpose needs further research but the fact that no art historian has ever noted these similarities is crucial to recognizing that the current art historical paradigm is broken. Not even Martin Kemp who claims to be so intimately familiar with all Leonardo's images could see the similarity. Academics cannot see the same face because they, believing that artists copy nature or illustrate stories, cannot imagine that the two figures have the same face. Only someone aware that every painter paints himself can see the similarity without help, which is why Ralph Waldo Emerson, a great poet like Leonardo, was able to do so a century ago. He wrote home after a visit to the Louvre:

“Leonardo da Vinci has more pictures here than in any other gallery & I like them well despite of the identity of the features which peep out of men & women. I have seen the same face in his pictures I think six or seven times.”1

It is time for art historians to look and think again. Their model is bust.


1. Cited in a New York Times review on Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, ed. Adam Gopnik (The Library of America) 2004.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 20 Apr 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.