Leonardo’s Hidden Faces

The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson complained after a visit to the Louvre that he had seen the same face six or seven times in paintings by Leonardo, an observation academics ignore. (See Leonardo’s Faces.) Scholars are aware, though, that Leonardo drew a limited number of facial types repetitively, especially of old men with beak noses and prominent chins. There are many examples of such caricatures by Leonardo and his followers. He also, through visual illusion, formed a face into the oldest extant landscape drawing.1 Michelangelo did something similar on a much larger scale when he organized figures in the Last Judgment into a visual illusion of his poetic hero, Dante Alighieri, with Christ in the center of Dante’s brain.2 The idea that there is a divine spark in the artist’s mind, whether Christ, God or the Virgin, is a very common theme in Western art. How could it not be when both Leonardo and Michelangelo made such use of it? What else, though, did Leonardo do along these lines, still unknown to art historians? You’ll be surprised. 

In the center of Leonardo's large unfinished painting of the Adoration of the Magi there is an old man with a caricature of a face staring at the Virgin and Child. Similar or identical features can be found on figures all over the composition. This is significant because in studies for the painting the arm, thigh and neckline of the Virgin resemble the same old man.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Leonardo, Adoration of the Magi (1480), detail. Uffizi, Florence

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Compare the Virgin's figure (far left) to a separate caricature of the same facial type (center). A diagram of the "face" is at right. The Virgin's head appears out of where the old man's eye would be suggesting that the Virgin is in his (and thus Leonardo's) mind. It also means - in a visual pun - that just as Christ is the Virgin's Immaculate Conception, the painting is Leonardo's.

Leonardo excluded the illusion from the final work but, as mentioned, used the same face on figures watching her.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Leonardo, Study for the Adoration (detail)
Center: Leonardo, Old Man Seated in profile to the right (detail inverted)
Right: Diagram of Study for the Adoration indicating the Old Man's head

Click image to enlarge.

In a study for The Last Supper, fifteen years later, something similar happens. The bent arm of Christ forms the Old Man's "nose" with  an "eye" situated beneath Christ's head, doubling as Christ's collar. Indistinct lines suggest his "chin". Here too, Leonardo claims that divinity is inside his mind (and ours) and is not some remote, independent entity in the sky.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Leonardo, Study for The Last Supper (c.1495), detail
Center: Leonardo, Old Man, detail inverted
Right: Diagram of Study for The Last Supper indicating the Old Man's head.

Click image to enlarge.

Thus, in both these studies for major masterpieces Leonardo rejects the dogma of the established Church in favor of an understanding of divinity that is internal. This is not only in keeping with the mysticism of the early Church fathers and Neoplatonists but is in tune with comments from Leonardo's own notebooks too. On a more basic level, don't forget that, whatever conventional art historians may say, visual illusions are the "puns" of art. Artists have practiced them for centuries. Besides, if writers can use puns to extend their meaning, why can't artists for the same purpose?

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 14 Jan 2011. © 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.