It may seem odd to characterize the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci as subversive, and for several significant reasons. On one level, Da Vinci is generally regarded as the premier classicist of Renaissance art, consistently rendering figures and scenes of a Biblical character in ways reverent and perfectly in keeping with orthodox Christian sensibilities, of his own time and afterward. On another, the artist’s painstaking attention to detail and technique never challenges convention; rather, it elevates the standards of classicism itself. Nonetheless, I personally detect a kind of rebellion in Da Vinci, and one demonstrated by the craftsmanship that so perfectly captures life and human experience. Through brilliance of representation, he essentially defies the overt meanings of his work. In The Virgin of the Rocks, I perceive Da Vinci’s unusual insistence on the truth of human life as eclipsing even the Catholic ideologies providing his subject matter, as well as the dominant urge of his day to exalt the Church.
That Da Vinci followed the precepts of his time is undeniable. In plain terms, he was a working artist dependent upon commissions, and such commissions relied upon the power and sanction of the Catholic Church. This was not faith in the modern sense, but a force of inestimable political, social, and economic influence. If power balances shifted dramatically in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the pope was nonetheless a prince of immense standing, and his presence in Rome ensured that Italy was consistently under the sway of Catholic dominance in all arenas of life (Stockstad, Cothren #). Then, there is no refuting that Da Vinci exemplifies the tenets of High Renaissance Art; it may be argued, in fact, that no artist of the era so consistently developed the craftsmanship defining the movement. Brilliant technique is everywhere in The Virgin of the Rocks. Chiaroscuro, the juxtaposition of light and dark to convey depth and dimension (Stockstad, Cothren #), virtually dominates the scene, just as Da Vinci’s legendary fidelity to accurately representing human face and form commands attention. This is without doubt a stunning depiction of Mary, Jesus, the infant John the Baptist, and an angel in a tableau true to Catholic orthodoxy.
What I perceive as “subversive,” however, lies in the heightened realism of the Renaissance art Da Vinci himself developed. More exactly, and as the absence of identifying halos reinforces, the most impactful quality of the characters is to me their innate humanity. As extraordinary as the characters and the scene are, in terms of the baby Jesus blessing the infant John, there is a quality of the ordinary. Da Vinci’s Mary is lovely and serene, but that is all; she is here more a young mother overseeing children than the mother of God so often depicted as rapturous. This is a Mary profoundly at peace, but one also confident. Then, Da Vinci’s genius is evident in the faces and postures of the infants. His John is certainly a baby, yet the artist manages to present how the face of a very young child would appear in life when focused on a desire. Even more compelling, and equally “human,” is the striking blending of the mature and the childlike in Jesus; He is offering a blessing, yet there is a sense in his upheld hand of hesitancy, as though the action and responsibility are new to him. The divine is fully honored in the scene, yet Da Vinci’s ability to create dimensional human life infuses it with so much humanity, the nature of divinity itself is called into question. That, at least, is the mysterious and potentially “subversive” impression I receive.
It is usual to think of Da Vinci as representing the pinnacle of achievement in High Renaissance Art, and this is by no means an unsubstantiated view. Both his exquisite craftsmanship and adherence to the aesthetic demands of his day combine to confer this assessment, and it cannot be questioned that he produced work true to the spirit and dominating Catholic influences of his day. Nonetheless, art at this level inevitably transcends even the most emphatically defined – and divine – subject matter. The artist so capable of perfectly representing human life essentially sets this element above all else in the work, and this conveys to me an intriguing and somewhat “non-Catholic” aspect to it. My impression of Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks is that his commitment to the truth of human life goes beyond the Catholic ideologies providing the subject matter, as well as the prevailing impetus of his day to exalt the Church.