Leonardo and the Universal Man:

An evangelical perspective on Renaissance art

by David C. Brand


            During our recent trip to Europe our son scheduled us for a tour of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting of The Last Supper inside the monastery church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. I was so impressed with the geometric proportion, the sense of depth, and the symmetry of this Renaissance masterpiece. Our guide gave a spellbinding interpretation pointing out the characteristics of each disciple portrayed in the instant following Christ's words, "One of you is going to betray me" (John 13:21). Peter was whispering in the ear of John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23) inquiring of whom Jesus spoke. In his right hand he had grasped a knife from the table as if he was ready to go after the wicked betrayer once he was identified. Judas, the actual betrayer, had his back turned toward the light while reaching for a morsel of food. James and John, the sons of Zebedee were seated at the left and right hand of Jesus, respectively. Apparently, the Italian painter could not conceive of a mother's request being denied by the Lord Jesus (Matt. 20:20-28). Certainly in Italy it would not have been so!

        The disciples were pictured in groups of three, a total of six on each side of the Master, contributing to the symmetry. Several were gesturing with their hands, like good Italians who could not communicate in a lesser fashion. Youth and age were conveyed as appropriate. The guide pointed out that Thomas's upraised index finger emphasized the question he was posing to the Master, "Just one?" As I was exiting the exhibit area, my mind was questioning the validity of this interpretation of Thomas's upraised finger. In the first place, there is no biblical support for such a question on Thomas's part. The closest thing to it would be the question asked by all the disciples, "Lord, is it I?" (Matt. 26:22 KJV).  But that question would hardly be conveyed by an upraised index finger.  

        Second, there is another Renaissance work that sheds some light on the issue. (Though I am by no means an art critic, I did have a college history course entitled Renaissance and Reformation in which a major project was to be able to identify the major Renaissance works for a final exam.)  I recalled a famous painting which depicted Plato walking beside Aristotle. Plato had one finger pointing heavenward emphasizing the universal, whereas Aristotle had the fingers of one hand pointing downward representing particulars. The painting contrasted the philosophies of the two ancient Greek scholars.  

        To be sure, the Renaissance represented a blending of the Christian and the classical.  Indeed the church had communicated its message via the Greek thought forms from the days of the early apologists like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen--and this despite the famous protest of Tertullian himself: "What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?  What between the Academy and the Church?"  Clement of Alexandria, a contemporary of the late second-century Tertullian, stated that "philosophy educated the Greek world as the law did the Hebrews to bring them to Christ."  Was it not possible that Leonardo had incorporated a bit of Greek philosophy into his religious work? (Certainly his work consciously embodied the Platonic aesthetic style.) Was it not possible and even likely that the Italian artist's intention was to give the viewer a glimpse of Thomas's ultimate affirmation of Truth? 

        Thomas, the rationalist and skeptic would not be present that first day of the week when Christ rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples in the upper room?  Having heard the report, Thomas blurted out his skepticism: "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it" (John 20:25).  Afterward when Jesus appeared again and invited Thomas to do exactly that, Thomas fell to his knees and cried out, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28)  Had Leonardo captured that confessional moment in a Platonic gesture with an upraised finger as if to say, "Jesus, you are indeed the universal Man, the embodiment of Universal Truth--the only one who can give meaning to art and to life itself--the One upon whom all existence is predicated!"

      If such a "reading-back" approach be regarded as in any way anomalous to Leonardo's style, consider that he used exactly that approach when he put a knife in Peter's hand. Peter's militant character would not be revealed until the time of Christ's arrest which occurred after the last supper. On the occasion of Jesus' arrest Peter would take his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest's servant (John 18:10). Leonardo had brilliantly conveyed Peter's militancy in The Last Supper painting. Why then should it be regarded as incongruous with Leonardo's style to display Thomas's victory over his skepticism in the same painting? The guide said she had never heard that interpretation but that she would look into it. An Asian-American lady standing nearby said that she agreed with me , and that the painting depicting Plato and Aristotle in the manner I had described was Raphael's School of Athens.

        A bit of research since my visit to the Santa Maria monastery church has not completely corroborated my thesis. The main problem with it is that Leonardo's Last Supper painting was done between 1495 and 1498, whereas Raphael's School of Athens was painted in the period between 1510 and 1511-more than a decade later. A critical issue that needs to be addressed is whether Raphael's depiction of the finger gestures was historically, and not merely symbolically, accurate. That is to say, can it be documented that Plato and Aristotle really employed those very finger gestures to illustrate their well-documented philosophical differences?  But even given the fact that Raphael's work came more than a decade later, and allowing that the hand gestures were not historically accurate, the saturation of the Renaissance world with Greek classical study could itself allow for a connection between the two paintings with respect to the meaning of the finger gestures.  The very fact that Raphael's two central figures employed these gestures might well suggest some common understanding with respect to their symbolic meaning among those who would view the paintings during that high Renaissance period. 

        Leonardo did indeed embrace neo-Platonism and sought to express the universal in his art. In the 15th century Greek study flourished in Florence. Whereas Thomas Aquinas had propagated the Aristotelian philosophy of inductive reasoning (from particular facts to general conclusions) in Roman Catholic Europe, the philosophical landscape in northern Italy, at least, was being altered. As the result of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Greek scholars fled Constantinople and made their way west. Among them was one Marsiglio Ficino who settled in Florence and introduced neo-Platonism to Lorenzo the Magnificent, the famous Florentine patron of the arts, who in turn imparted the philosophy to Michelangelo. Indeed a "Platonic" academy was established in Florence with such scholars as Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Lorenzo most probably patronized Leonardo's art, as he had Michelangelo's.

        A closer examination of Raphael's School of Athens reveals Plato standing in the center pointing his right index finger to the heavens while holding in the other hand a copy of his Timaeus, a treatise on the origin of the world. Aristotle walks beside him with the fingers of his right hand extended forward in a horizontal gesture and with a copy of his Ethics in the other hand. There is one feature of Raphael's famous Vatican painting, however, that should not escape our attention. Plato has the facial likeness of Leonardo da Vinci!  (Compare Leonardo's Self-Portrait to a close-up of Raphael's Plato . The younger Raphael was definitely influenced by the older Leonardo. Was Raphael simply paying tribute to the stature of this Renaissance genius? Or was he further suggesting that Leonardo had accomplished in art the universal that so characterized Plato's idealistic philosophy? Did Leonardo's Thomas point the way to the Truth?

        It was, after all, to Thomas in particular that Jesus, after the last supper with his disciples and prior to his arrest, would declare, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). John would proclaim Jesus as the Logos [Greek for "Word"] (John 1:1). The Logos was fundamental to the Greek philosophers-whether Plato or Aristotle. To them the Logos meant Reason, and Reason was ultimate. It was through the Logos--Reason itself, that the world came into existence, according to the Greeks. The apostle John would announce concerning the Logos, "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:3). The apostle Paul would echo the refrain:

    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible or invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him (Col. 1:15-17).

        In Plato's Republic the philosopher was King. The Philosopher-King was Plato's answer to the political weakness of Athenian democracy where chaos reigned and the society succumbed militarily to one more centrally organized. The apostle, acknowledging that "Greeks look for wisdom," declared that the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, regarded as foolishness to the Greeks, "has become for us wisdom from God-that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:22-23, 30).  The paradox of Jesus' Incarnation and Redemption that made him "foolishness" to Greeks was that  he defied their art forms.  The apostle Paul described the mystery of the Incarnation in the following terms:

            Who, being in very nature (lit. "being in the form of") God,
                did not count equality with God something to be grasped,
                but made himself nothing,
                taking the very nature of a servant,
                being made in human likeness.
            And being found in appearance as a man,
                he humbled himself
                and became obedient to death--
                even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8). 

This was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah:

        He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
            nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
        He was despised and rejected by men,
            a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering
        Like one from who men hide their faces,
            he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:2-3).

Yet in Jesus' role as the suffering servant the eternal wisdom of God was revealed .  Jesus himself had proclaimed to the unbelieving Jewish nation that One greater than Solomon had come (Matt. 12:42).  Through the "foolishness" of the cross, God's Kingdom has been established.  Peter, on the day of Pentecost, announced that fact to the Jewish nation,

    Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).

         Speaking on Mars Hill in Athens to the academic Greek crowd who spent all their time engaging in philosophical dialogue, the apostle Paul announced that God "has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:31). To find the universal man, one must look further than Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, however symmetrical and proportionally perfect the art. Nor is the universal man depicted in Michelangelo's statue of David, however geometrically perfect as a physical human specimen. In Leonardo's Last Supper painting, Thomas points the way. 

        The author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews was pointing to the universal man as the solution for the universal human dilemma when he penned the following words:

    It is not to angels that God has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

            "What is man that you are mindful of him,
                the son of man that you care for him"
            You made him a little lower than the angels,
                you crowned him with glory and honor
                and put everything under his feet"

In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:5-9).

        Francis Schaeffer insisted in his famous analysis of the rise and decline of western culture, How Should We Then Live?, that Leonardo failed to express the universal in his art and became despondent in his latter years unable to escape the humanism that characterized so much of the Renaissance.  Schaeffer reasoned that if man were made the measure of all things in artistic endeavor, the artist would inevitably be frustrated since man as mere man, and as a fallen creature, was simply one of the particulars, by Aristotle's definition.  America's greatest philosopher would later express the same concern:

If the Deity is to be looked upon as within that system of beings which properly terminates our benevolence, or belonging to that whole, certainly he is to be regarded as the head of the system, and the chief part of it: if it be proper to call him a part, who is infinitely more than all the rest, and in comparison of whom, and without whom, all the rest are nothing, either as to beauty or existence (Jonathan Edwards, Nature of True Virtue).

        Schaeffer, like the apostle Paul, believed that the Greek philosopher Epimenides had spoken the truth when he stated: "For in him [God] we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).  Leonardo's Vitruvian Man is a study in geometry.  By way of Aristotelian proofs, man's marvelous frame, as Leonardo has depicted it, does indeed point to a Master Designer.  It does not, however, directly touch upon man's spiritual/moral aspect.  For all of its external  beauty and artistic form, it conveys neither the tragic realism of man's fallenness, nor the glory of his redemption; hence it cannot be said to express the universal.  But did Francis Schaeffer overlook Thomas's upraised finger in the mural that stands in the monastery church of Santa Maria delle Grazie?  Or did the multi-gifted Leonardo stumble over his own neo-Platonic testimony to Jesus' Lordship, conveyed, whether consciously or unwittingly, through Thomas's upraised index finger?  His understudy, Raffaello Sanzio, would make the symbolism explicit in the School of Athens.  

       Ironically, a mere six years after Raphael had completed his School of Athens painting in the Vatican, Martin Luther would nail his own 95 theses to the Wittenberg castle door challenging the system of indulgences designed to raise funds for the construction of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome.  The German Reformer would find great strength and consolation in "the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5) as he faced the reaction of the entire Roman hierarchy, and the Renaissance would give way to the Reformation:

            Did we in our own strength confide,
                our striving would be losing.
            Were not the right man on our side,
                the man of God's own choosing.
            Dost ask who that may be?
                Christ Jesus, it is he,
            Lord Sabaoth his name,
                from age to age the same,
            and He must win the battle 
            (From the hymn: A Mighty Fortress).

    Luther heard the religious sales pitch of those who peddled indulgences on behalf of the Roman papacy: "When a coin in the coffer rings, one soul from purgatory springs."  The purity of the gospel itself was at stake.  For Luther, the beauty of holiness as embodied in the gospel of salvation by faith alone was too high a price to pay for the Renaissance project of St. Peter's cathedral, though its chief architect and artist be Michelangelo.  Like his Master, Luther would defy the art form and bear disgrace "outside the camp" (Hebrews 13:13).             

    Excommunication from the Roman Church was not too high a price to pay in order to reform the church, to restore the beauty of the church's holiness much as Leonardo's Last Supper masterpiece would have to undergo restoration.  The image of God being renewed in Luther's own heart and in the hearts of others was a beauty, not only that defined the church, but that far exceeded anything Michelangelo would accomplish in St. Peter's Cathedral.  

            Let goods and kindred go,
                this mortal life also;
            the body they may kill:
                God's truth abideth still;
                his kingdom is forever (A Mighty Fortress).