The fourth Sunday in Advent, 2015: a Leonardo da Vinci cartoon, c.1508


On eight sheets of paper, this is a drawing of St. Mary, St. Anne, Jesus and his cousin John. It is in charcoal and black and white chalk by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519, Italian.   It appears never  to have been translated into a painting.  Its date is believed to be between 1499 and 1508. It belongs to the National Gallery, London. 

Mary is said to be the figure most represented in Western Art until early modern times.

 This representation has stayed in my memory and in detail for years.

 The cartoon is large: 4 and 1/2 feet by 3 and 1/2 feet.  (My  mismemory has pushed it upwards to taller than a man).  It is (still?) placed in its own tall, narrow room.  A small cushioned ledge against the wall right in front: you can sit down and lean back.

I have remembered not only the details of this drawing but also its atmospherics; the muted, brown-gray-blue light which this drawing emanates; the unobtrusiveness of the figures in the cartoon: no bright or even old gold here; white chalk highlights used without qualm to draw the eye in the absence of bright colours. The solid, impenetrable rectangle of the bodies of everyone but St. John. St. John on the margins, slight and vulnerable as seers are. 

 I recall the lowered voices in the presence of the cartoon; the slight anxiety which came when I opened the door to leave the room; the heaviness of that door which may not have been heavy at all; the quality of the light as I left the National Gallery that day: unusually bright for London; the young people sitting on the steps of the museum like ants standing up;  very light whirligig  grey-black traffic in Trafalgar Square.

This tableau of the time shortly after Jesus’ birth is one of the few which represents faith to me:  the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 

Most paintings of the Virgin I find empty of faith but full of piety and feminine submission and female and angelic beauty, of course.  More, that is, about social conventions than about faith.

Here is an ordinary family: mother, grandmother, baby and a small cousin. At rest.

These figures are in relationship with each other in the context of their faith.  They may be blood kin but the confidence  of their setting here relates to their faith in something.  This family has been or is about to be doing and saying charged and unconventional things.

But would you know it from this?  The substance of things not seen is holding together this cartoon and its eight separate pieces of paper.

St. Anne, a support to her daughter in every way, points upwards, (unfinished drawing of her large hand).  She has accepted the divine premise of her daughter’s adventure despite its dangerous unconventionality. Mary is in the alert, contented, flush-bodied repose of first motherhood.  Except that she has gone through an extraordinary experience without being shattered. She herself is supporting the gesture of her babe-in-arms.  Jesus, before the age when babies can talk or raise their heads unaided, has recognized his cousin and is blessing him.

 St. John is already in knowing if boyish attendance.  I particularly like the intimate precognition of the children because children know all kinds of things which they afterwards are induced to forget. These two, of course, forgot nothing and went forward to their fates.

(No man in the picture: no comment.)

Here are ordinary people – women and children alone – unafraid, unassuming and unconventional anchored in the substance of things hoped for. 

And a drawing whose masterly attributes point, in muted light, in a hushed room, in the midst of this whirligig world to the evidence not seen but which the artist and his subjects and the millions of the faithful knew and know was  and is there.


DSC09999-1_edited-1 ******************


Deesis 1, 1950, oil on wood; Ellsworth Kelly, 1923-2015, American. 

Deesis is the name given to the grouping of Christ, in majesty, flanked on the left of the frame by St. Mary and on the right by St. John.  Primarily found in Eastern Orthodox paintings.  Christ carries a book in his left hand.  The two are in supplication for humanity and the grouping is sometimes associated with Judgement Day.

There is a brown-red underneath the black of the lines which the artist has left, tellingly, exposed as that line, running centrally through the Christ, approaches the earth.  Almost too much to contemplate.

This work, while it has long been displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, remained until his death in 2015 in the artist’s possession.

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