In the same years--1514-15--I would place Leonardo's last surviving picture, the Louvre St John. It is usually said, on no evidence, to have: been painted in France, but if this were the case we could hardly account for the numerous contemporary Italian copies. No doubt Leonardo had been working on the subject for years and the actual date of its execution as a picture can never be established.
The St John is the least popular of Leonardo's works. Critics have found it so little to their taste that they have called it the work of assistants. This is certainly false. The St John is a baffling work, but every inch of it smells of Leonardo. Even if we dislike it we must admit its power to trouble the memory, both as image and design. The chief cause of our uneasiness is iconographic. We are aware, from the little reed cross which he holds, that this extraordinary creature is intended to represent St John, and our whole sense of propriety is outraged.
Every critic has laboriously pointed out that this is not a conventional presentation of the Baptist, and we must try to answer the question why Leonardo, who attached so much importance to the interpretation of a subject, has created an image almost blasphemously unlike the fiery ascetic of the Gospels. To a certain extent, the answer is to be found in the origin of the design. At the end of his last Florentine period, Leonardo became interested in the subject of an angel. We know that he finished the picture and Vasari describes it as being in the cabinet of the Grand Duke Cosimo--"a head of an angel raising its arm in the air so that it is foreshortened from the shoulder to the elbow, the other arm being laid on the breast, showing the hand".
A design corresponding to this description has come down to us in several replicas, from which we can reconstruct Leonardo's original. We can see that this angel was very like the St John in general conception, but with the one important difference, that the St John's right arm is bent across his breast so that his hand points back on his right shoulder. The angel's arm is seen in violent foreshortening, the hand and index finger pointing upwards; and from this gesture we see that he is an Angel of the Annunciation.
Leonardo, with an audacity which is almost disturbing, has shown us the Announcing Angel from the point of vision of Our Lady. We can imagine what strange ideas Leonardo might draw from this extraordinary conception; for the Annunciation can be made to imply that union of flesh and spirit, human and divine, which he wished above all to express. Just as the forces of nature, subject to material analysis up to a point, became suddenly incomprehensible, so the Angel of the Annunciation, though taking human shape, was the agent of a mystery; and mystery to Leonardo was a shadow, a smile and a finger pointing into darkness.
As an Angel then this figure is understandable, and if it shocks us that is largely because we have taken for granted the pagan notion that an angel must be a type of fair-haired physical beauty, fragile or lusty as the taste of the period shall demand. It is less easy to understand how this image could be converted, with a single change of gesture, into a St John, and I must confess that some years ago when art was supposed to consist in the arrangement of forms, I believed that Leonardo made this alteration for purely formal motives: that he bent the arm across the figure in order to achieve a denser and more continuous volume. It is true that as a plastic sequence the St John is much superior to the Angel, but we can be sure that Leonardo would not have varied the pose solely for that reason. Between the two figures there is far more than a formal connection. They are, in fact, the two messengers announcing the birth of Christ. The Angel points upwards to God; St John points back over his shoulder--" there is one that cometh after me".
Even this difference does not quite dispose of our difficulties, because the type and expression which can be understood in an Angel may seem to us inconsistent in a St John. And here we must assume that Leonardo had formed of St John a curiously personal conception which we must interpret as best we can. Of several possible interpretations I offer the following which is at least in keeping with Leonardo's spirit. St John the Baptist was the forerunner, the necessary forerunner of the Truth and the Light. And what is the inevitable precursor of truth?
A question. Leonardo's St John is the eternal question mark, the enigma of creation. He thus becomes Leonardo's familiar--the spirit which stands at his shoulder and propounds unanswerable riddles. He has the smile of a sphinx, and the power of an obsessive shape. I have pointed out how this gesture--which itself has the rising rhythm of an interrogative--appears throughout Leonardo's work. Here it is quintessential. The design has the finality of a hard-won form rendered in an intractable material. Leonardo who could give life to every pose and glance, has subdued his gifts as if he were working in flenite. A generation which admires Picasso should be able to understand the St John.
But although knowledge and prolonged contemplation may increase our respect for the St John, it remains an unsatisfactory work. Like so much of modern art we feel that it was done to relieve the painter of certain troublesome theories and obsessions. And although it has affinities with Picasso there remains a serious obstacle to contemporary appreciation of the St John: its darkness. We still demand that a picture shall be a bright spot on the wall, a decoration as well as a message; and Leonardo's St John makes no concession to the wall whatsoever. For this reason a more useful term of comparison is the work of Rembrandt. And here we see that Leonardo's theories of painting involved him in an impossibility.
Rembrandt's chiaroscuro was conceived in terms of colour; and by the power and richness of his colour sense he persuades us to accept a kind of painting which is naturally unattractive to us. Moreover he was heir to a style which permitted a colouristic approach--the broken touch, the overlapping or evaded contour. This style Rembrandt developed still further, so that in his last work he achieves his effects of lighting by methods which are the exact opposite to those of Leonardo. Instead of defining his knowledge of the form, he translates the data of sight directly into strokes of the brush. But Leonardo's approach is still formal in spite of his passion for shadow, and using the critical terminology of Wölfflin, we may say that the St John is a malerisch subject still painted in a taktilisch spirit and technique.
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