Many readers of the best selling – yet not so magisterially written! – Da Vinci Code got intrigued by the figure of Leonardo da Vinci and would love to know all they can about this true Renaissance man. Truth is that even a superficial view of Leonardo’s works and ideas would bear results nothing short of amazing.

Many liberal-minded researchers have credited Leonardo with everything, from creating the Shroud of Turin, to being a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. Also for this reason, it becomes difficult to separate what we really know of Leonardo from the ever-growing legend regarding him.

Regardless of your opinion on Dan Brown’s novel, or your belief in the conspiracies described in it, there is always more to reveal when looking at the life and artwork of Leonardo.

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. Ph. wikimedia/Viatour Luc

Leonardo da Vinci: Homosexuality

Sources left us plenty to suggest that Leonardo was gay: we know he was anonymously charged with sodomy with an apprentice of Verrocchio. These charges were dropped on two occasions, but doubts surrounding his sexuality remained, as demonstrated by the fact he was under the strict control of the Ufficiali di Notte – Florence’s Night Officers – until he left the city.

There is even more evidence within Leonardo’s surviving codices and sketch-books, in the form of erotic drawings. Leonardo’s young apprentice Salaino or Salai, known as “little devil,” is the subject of several of these erotic drawings and may be partly responsible for the mysteries surrounding Leonardo’s sexuality.

The fact that no record of Leonardo having a relationship with a woman has ever surfaced only strengthens the argument. However, there is also a theory that Leonardo was actually celibate and may have died a virgin. This conclusion is based upon several writings in which Leonardo alludes to sex being a waste of his time and talent. Unless a new source of information on Leonardo comes to light, his sexual persuasions will continue to be debated.

Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa’s Smile

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
La Gioconda, Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci

Before the arrival of the Da Vinci Code, it was mostly the curious smile of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa to stir the souls  and debates of art historians. Although Giorgio Vasari, the father of Art History, gave an explanation for the smile, people never stopped wanting to know more. Vasari claimed that, while Leonardo was painting the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, he would entertain Mona Lisa by hiring “singers, musicians or jesters to keep her full of merriment and chase away the melancholy that painters usually give to portraits”. If this anecdote is true, then perhaps the smile of Mona Lisa was an attempt on her part to stifle a laugh.

However the smile might be hiding more than just a moment in time, considering that fact that La Gioconda (another name for the Mona Lisa), looks strikingly similar to other works by Leonardo.

The facial features of the Mona Lisa resemble other works by Leonardo such as his Virgin and Child with St. Anne, and John the Baptist. Theories abound as to why the females in Leonardo’s paintings look so similar to each other. One of the best known, first suggested by Doctor Lillian Schwartz, is also one of the most controversial and explains that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait. Leonardo in drag could explain this similarity, but another person close to the artist could also have been used as inspiration. Sigmund Freud attempted to explain the smile as a manifestation of Leonardo’s Oedipus Complex. This view has spawned a theory that Mona Lisa represents Leonardo’s birth mother, who raised him only briefly before the illegitimate child was taken into his father’s household.

Besides a similar facial appearance to several other paintings by Leonardo, there is the fact that the Master kept the Mona Lisa and later bequeathed it to his apprentice Salai. Leonardo also kept his John the Baptist, which besides looking very similar to the Mona Lisa, is painted in an androgynous fashion, complete with the “fine curly hair” of Salai, as described by Vasari. Taking this into account, it is entirely possible that Leonardo used his attractive young apprentice as the model for many of his works. If theories about Leonardo’s homosexuality are correct, then the Mona Lisa could have been an homage to his long-time friend and lover. However this is only conjecture as Mona Lisa’s lips are both literally and figuratively sealed.

Is there a Da Vinci Code?

If you mean like in the premise of Dan Brown’s book, then no, there is no Da Vinci Code.

Leonardo may or may not have been involved in the occult, but he was not a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. This organization, whose name closely resembles the short-lived Medieval Ordre du Sion, was a hoax and included Leonardo da Vinci on their illustrious, yet fictional list of Grand Masters. The original theory, later discovered to be fake, was brought to light by the bestselling book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail and has little, if anything, to do with Leonardo. By combining this “theory” with other controversial beliefs about Leonardo, Dan Brown created a recipe for success that orthodox researchers and art historians have been trying to correct ever since.

Leonardo’s Last Supper is held as the ultimate proof of some kind of code in his works. The person sitting at the place of honor, at the right hand of Jesus, looks like a woman, who is taken by Dan Brown and others as symbolizing Mary Magdalene. However, what is usually neglected is the fact that Christian art has traditionally shown the Apostle John in this manner: Leonardo was not the first to show Saint John with feminine characteristics. From Medieval paintings to gothic sculpture, Europe is filled with examples of a feminine Saint John that pre-date Leonardo’s work by centuries.

However it would be foolish to think that Leonardo was much of a mundane and straightforward individual, as there are some very puzzling aspects in his works that may allude to some sort of code. One of these mysteries is known as the “John Gesture” and is best shown in his androgynous John the Baptist, considered Leonardo’s last painting. This gesture, in which a character is shown with an index finger pointing upwards, can also be seen in the Last Supper as well as the background of Leonardo’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi. What this gesture means has been debated for centuries, but it may actually shed light on Leonardo’s religious views.

A currently popular theory suggests that the John Gesture symbolizes Leonardo’s belief in Johannism or Mandaeism; both are Gnostic/Dualistic sects that believe that John the Baptist, not Jesus was the true Messiah. Although some have used the theory to further their own version of the Da Vinci Code, Leonardo’s personal belief in Johannism or Mandaeism does not mean he had any connections with secret societies. Also, if Leonardo was a Johannite, it goes against one of the mysteries surrounding his Last Supper, as Johannite doctrine does not believe that Jesus married Mary Magdalene.

Considering his legendary sense of humor, often at the expense of the clergy, it would not come as a surprise then, had Leonardo practiced a heretical faith, it may have been hidden in plain view in his works. The nuns of Milan’s Santa Maria della Grazie could have been completely unaware that the John Gesture figures prominently in the Last Supper. Even the subject of this famous painting, the moment where Jesus proclaims one of his Apostles will betray him, could be seen as symbolic of Johannite views of Catholicism betraying the real message.

However, much of this symbolism could have been for his eyes alone as Leonardo kept his painting of John the Baptist, and many of his commissions such as the Adoration of the Magi were left unfinished. These two controversial paintings as well as many others never found place in a church or convent; it seems that if Leonardo was trying to convey a message, or to secretly communicate with fellow believers, he would have made sure to finish more of his paintings. After all, messages and codes are useless if they are not seen by those who would understand them.

For more legends about the Last Supper, read our article: The Last Supper.

In life, part of Leonardo’s mystique was that he kept the public guessing and that trait has only magnified with time. Whatever Leonardo’s real intentions were, they will never be known for certain, which is probably how he wanted it. In more than one way, the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa is that of Leonardo, his mischievous smirk reaching out through the ages to tell us “you’re not even close.”

By Justin Demetri

Read also:

Leonardo da Vinci, the artist (if you are curious about his life)

Fables by Leonardo da Vinci

Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

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