On the 500 year anniversary of Leonardo’s death, we are drawn to re-imagine the scene in the chateau of Amboise where he died in 1519, recumbent on the small bed in the room above the river, with the French king Francois looking on despairingly. The death of Leonardo, like the passing of other great, iconic personalities, resonates through time. Pausing in the bedroom of Amboise, you cannot help but ask yourself the question: How could such a genius at last become extinct?
Leonardo da Vinci was a major player in the evolution of human understanding. Few men incarnated such a strong, early connection between art and science as he did, and yet Leonardo painted relatively little. Much of his time was spent on invention and discovery. And as with everything he set his mind to, Leonardo was the kind of man who left no stone unturned. He was obsessive to such a point that he was almost unemployable. He gained a reputation as a procrastinator, but in reality he was probably more of a perfectionist. Either he did a thing his way, or he didn’t do it at all. His painting of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness was left unfinished. The Adoration of the Magi was abandoned. His fresco of The Last Supper was applied almost as an experiment, and the fresco started crumbling soon after it had dried.
This uncompromising, apparently capricious streak did nothing to help Leonardo’s finances. Poverty dogged him for much of his life, pushing him into the clutches of men like the Duke of Milan, and Cesare Borgia, both of them demanding, difficult and dangerous men. He swam against the current of his day when he attempted to understand the order of the world empirically, rather than in creationist terms, and his work was not always sacred enough for the standards of his time. He was almost excommunicated at one point for carrying out dissections on human corpses, and that would have meant even fewer commissions. But despite all these apparent obstacles to success, Leonardo created what is largely considered as the most enduring masterpiece of all time, the portrait of a woman known as Mona (Madonna) Lisa.
Giorgio Vasari, who wrote about the lives of the great Renaissance men about fifty years after Leonardo’s death, says he remembered seeing Leonardo working on a painting of a woman with an interesting background. The subject, as we now know from letters recently discovered that reveal the identity of the sitter, was Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco di Zanobi del Giocondo. And so the portrait of La Gioconda was born. In Italian, the name means laughing or playful one. It is a good play on words, even if it does not express all the complexity of the Mona Lisa face. Vasari saw this complexity – he noted how, ‘in the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse’, a comment that foreshadows future observations, namely that the eyes of la Gioconda follow you, or that her smile is an enigma — one moment you see it, the next it disappears.
Vasari had his small part to play in seeding the mystery of the Mona Lisa, but Leonardo fuelled the myth himself because he kept the portrait closely guarded at his side for years, and refused to deliver it to the man who had commissioned it as a wedding portrait, Francesco del Giocondo. Wherever he went, Leonardo loaded the painting onto his cart and trundled it off with the rest of his luggage. By the time the painting arrived in France in 1516 it was quite well travelled. By then, Leonardo had worked on it for almost twenty years, layering his paint on in fine applications until the portrait gradually acquired the depth it still has today, in spite of its age. But there were other things that contributed to the mystery of the Mona Lisa as well as her non-delivery, and one of them was connected to a sort of Leonardo fallacy, which was reinforced by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code.
In The Da Vinci Code Leonardo is said to have been a member of the Sanhedrin: an order connected to the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians. The trail from the Rosicrucians leads back to the pre Christian era, and the tenets of Hermetic belief.
The beliefs of these orders are inherently secretive, and in reality owe their origins to the ancient Mystery Schools and Gnosticism. The Knights Templar were originally formed as guardians of the Holy Grail: the cup that was said the have been used by Jesus during the Last Supper. In The Da Vinci Code it was the nature of the Holy Grail that caused the sensation: person not cup. The grail was therefore symbol rather than object. The link to Leonardo resided, for Dan Brown, in the theory that Leonardo’s work was rich in symbolism, or to use a Dan Brownism, that there existed a ‘Da Vinci code’.
Before we all get out our decoders, the difference between a code and a symbol is worth thinking about. A code is a piece of information, which has been deliberately hidden and needs to be deciphered. A symbol, on the other hand, is a representation of something else, which can be understood through a process of association and identification. It would be more accurate to say that Leonardo’s art contains symbols rather than codes.
It could also be said that the painting of the Mona Lisa owes its fame and enduring quality to the symbolism embedded within it. We see a woman sitting on a balcony against the backdrop of a view, smiling. On the surface of it, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about that. So, why all the mystery?
Perhaps the mystery lays not so much in the woman herself as in the associations she provided. From Leonardo’s perspective, these associations form the fabric of the painting. They are the link between Lisa and her background, Leonardo’s particular connection between science and art.
By the time he painted the portrait of Mona Lisa, Leonardo had understood how the eye works, and peripheral vision in particular. He had also understood that the brain receives the images we see upside down, and that it corrects these images. In short, he sensed that what we see is not exactly the whole picture. Sight must be processed; the old rules of linear perspective, which had marked the art of pre-Renaissance Italy so strongly, were incorrect. The three dimensional image that we see is recreated essentially in the brain, not in the eye.
How likely would it have been that Leonardo brought all his discoveries to bear in one painting, and that the painting in question was Lisa’s portrait? Quite likely. The eyes appear to move, to look in all directions at one time. The smile is ambiguous, dependent on who is looking and where they are looking at any one time. But it could also depend on how they are using their peripheral vision.
The power of peripheral vision is like a juggling act. The juggler can only keep going if he uses peripheral vision. The moment he focuses on one ball, instead of all the balls at once, the spell is broken and the balls fall. Apply this to Leonardo’s portrait, and the same process is at work. We focus on the smile and it vanishes. We focus on the face and it reappears. We focus on the eyes, and the smile vanishes again. We step back and focus on nothing at all, and the smile is there again. When Leonardo painted Lisa, was he giving us peripheral vision in a portrait? Does he force us to use our peripheral vision when we look into his painting?
The idea that Leonardo has painted the secret of sight in Mona Lisa is an entrancing one, but there is more to his painting than one ambiguous expression. There is also the background.
It would have been common practice at the time in portrait painting for the artist to use a simple background of drapes or flowers, but Leonardo preferred something a little more spectacular. Was Lisa del Giocondo aware of the mountainous, primeval landscape being conjured at her back when the portrait was being painted? But since Leonardo had no intention of delivering it anyway, did it really matter? Rivers were being formed and mountains were being made behind Mona Lisa’s back. What did Leonardo intend by it?
To understand the background, we need to view Leonardo and his painting as one complete whole. Someone who is curious about the natural world, as Leonardo was, will be curious in his work, and this curiosity has given the painting its air of almost supernatural mystery. The slow work of time is depicted in the background, and in the layers of the painting — layer after layer over a period of years. Now, five hundred of those years have passed, and we continue to wonder how he did it. Now that, is genius.
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The Greek and Roman God of Time was Cronus. The Ancient Romans saw the wandering stars or planets as gods, although apparently only five planets were known to them at the time: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Nevertheless, Uranus, which was discovered and named only in 18th century when telescopes became powerful enough for the job, still mysteriously appears in the cosmological myths as the Father of the Sky.
The God Cronus was identified with Saturn, hence the Roman harvest feast of Saturnalia, and he gave us the word chronology, which relates to the order of Time. Entropy informs us that Time only goes one way, and that it can’t be halted, but like many of the Greek and Roman gods, Cronus incarnated human aspirations, and one of those aspirations was the wish to gain power over Time — perhaps to even stop it altogether.
The task of stopping Time was taken up by Cronus. First, he looked towards his Father, Uranus.
If he could prevent his father from bringing forth children, the cycle of birth and rebirth would be stopped. So he castrated his father (understandably, one of the Greek’s most heinous acts), and sat back, satisfied that he was the sole descendant but forgetting that Gaia, the ancestral mother, would continue to give birth. When she did, Cronus imprisoned her children in Tartarus, the abyss of perpetual darkness. No light meant no sun, and no sun meant no time, so Cronus thought he’d cracked it. But he had overlooked the reality of his own existence, and his own potential progeny.
With his head now firmly buried in the sand, Cronus took a wife, Rhea, and founded a new Kingdom. Things went well, at first, until Rhea decided that she too wanted children. Foiled by nature, Cronus watched in horror as Rhea gave birth to the future. Desperate, he took away her children and devoured them. Only the third remained alive. His name was Zeus, and Rhea was determined he would live.
She hid him from the clutches of his father, suspended him, as legend goes, between the earth and sky, where Cronus would not see him. When Zeus grew to manhood, he knew that order had to be restored. He challenged his father, Cronus, forcing him to regurgitate the past. He was, effectively, setting the clock back in order, and all that Cronus had devoured was restored, including Rhea’s other children.
All this marked a new era in the universe, and the gods that followed Cronus were the gods of humankind. They were the Children of Zeus: Hermes, Apollo, Athena and the Muses, and they signified our acceptance of Time, and the start of civilisation.
Cronus was, in the end, a bit of a rebel. But he was also in some way a victim. He embodied the ravages of Time, and the destructive power that it wields. We are all the victims of our past: each of us devoured by the older generation or perhaps, a past mistake. Cronus walked the Earth a while in the robes of Father Time, appearing every New Year’s Eve before the clock struck twelve.
But when the chimes had sounded, he would slip discretely out, returning as a child. Thus are the clocks of Time kept orderly. One way only, says Old Father Time, and we are bound by nature to respect him. Dutifully we raise our glasses up when the chimes of twelve have sounded, and we’ll drink a toast to Cronus — to his folly and our fate.
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Terminus, the Roman god of milestones, must have seemed a fairly useful god. He was the god of boundary markers, and he appears as a human head and bust on top of a column of stone: a deity in manly form emerging from the marker between two people’s land. He was concerned with divisions of territory, and upsetting him in Roman times would have incurred severe punishment — often death. Boundary disputes between neighbours thus once had divine connotations, which made the disputes simpler to resolve in early Roman society. Later, the law of the land took over and Terminus became a redundant god. But what he represented was a means of controlling our most basic driving force: our territorial instinct. We share this instinct with every creature on the planet.
Birds sing to enforce it; mammals fight over it. In humans this instinct has evolved into complex social forms, one of which is politics. Today we use politics to assert our territorial instinct. We find it hard to stop ourselves from jealously guarding our boundaries because instinctively we feel safer doing so. We no longer have Terminus to help us and so we make war instead, or invent a political party that will take over his role. Terminus may have been a good solution to an age-old problem. Should he be resurrected?
The trouble with gods like Terminus, is that they reveal something very profound and flawed about the nature of gods in general and by extension the nature of religion. Useful as he may have been, Terminus was a construct, a vehicle for our instincts. He did not survive as a god because his divine power was undermined by the same instinct he was meant to serve.
The god of boundary markers goes back a long way, and was probably a Roman god even before Rome was built. His shrine lay under the most important Roman temple on Capitol Hill. When Rome the city was founded, Terminus was charged with its protection. He was the one who would mark out the boundaries of the Roman Empire that was to come, laying down his post markers over almost a third of the known world.
This was all pretty impressive, but ultimately, in the end, it was mostly abusive. As Rome’s expansion gave way to greed and corruption, Terminus’ status became, by association, equally corrupted. He was bound to stand for Rome’s greed, its violence and in the end — since evil consumes itself, its demise.
What lessons may we draw from Terminus’ legacy? Although he has faded into antiquity, the issue of boundaries continues to plague us. Today Terminus has become a terminal point, mostly connected with travel. He silently marks the crossover point between two places or multiple countries at the terminal of an airport. On a positive note, even as an adjective, terminal does not mean the end of one thing any more than it signifies the beginning of another. We often forget that the boundary marker is a construct, in the same way that Terminus was a construct.
Should we see his legacy in this light? In a world where people are forced to flee their land because of war and trouble, sharing our own land and space has become the challenge of our time. If Terminus shows us anything, it is the danger of the marker, the warning of the construct of a god.
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When the Vikings crossed the northern seas to England, they took their gods with them. Thor, the warrior god of thunder, slayer of giants, would have been an inspiration to the Viking warriors huddled in their longboats. The warriors came in search of plunder and glory, driven by the same instinct that made the giants of Norse mythology such a threat to the order of the world, which the gods had imposed. But even the gods themselves resembled the people they were working to protect. Thor, a red headed, hammer wielding, herculean personality, was fearless to the core — the very personification of the old Germanic warrior.
Gods are a mirror on the culture that creates them. Gods like Thor may well have been modelled on mortal beings that existed long ago, or they may simply have been the stereotypes of their day. Whatever their origins, they are all the bearers of messages from the past.
The messages come to us as stories, and every culture has its own. There may be similarities between the stories, but it is mostly their uniqueness that divides us and distinguishes us. The stories of our gods make heroes of our countrymen and demons of our enemies, and yet, in the end, all of them have one major objective in common: to make sense of the world, to understand its origin and its purpose, and to help us come to terms with our departure from it, as we bow out like the characters in a narrative once our part in the story has to end.
The world as we know it today has become familiar with the idea of one god only, but this is a relatively recent development in the overriding story of peoples and their gods. There were once many gods, and every culture had its own. Not every culture today is a one god culture; multiple deity cultures spread the burden of human expectation instead of heaping it on one; conversely, one god is supposedly more powerful than many, with all the benefits and dangers its domination must bring. The question, how did we pass from a multi god culture to a single god, or monotheist culture, is hard to answer.
I will try to suggest one during this series of posts, working on the assumption that every god, like every story, has its context, and that the context will inform us. Stories, as any writer will tell you, all arise out of a need. A story is ultimately told because it underpins that need, the need to explain or to make sense of something. Exploits and a plot will form the substance of the story, but behind these exploits the meaning of the story is the thing that gave it purpose in the first place. So what about Thor? How does he fit into the broader context of his culture, and how are we meant to understand him?
Viking culture was a warrior culture mostly dominated by men, and in fact most of the Germanic gods are male. Thor was one of Odin’s children, and Odin was the founding god of Norse mythology, the one who created the world from the body of Ymir, a destructive and terrible giant. As Odin’s progeny, Thor’s mission was to slay those giants that posed a threat to the order the gods tried to impose on the chaos of Ymir. Cosmology is at the heart of these Northern European stories, as it is at the heart of many of the stories that underpin the gods of other cultures.
Reading these creation myths, you have to wonder how these ancient peoples could have even envisaged the world and its beginnings, let alone invent the stories to explain it — stories which, although figurative, sometimes bear a striking resemblance to scientific fact.
Thor’s chosen weapon for his mission was the hammer, which betrayed the presence of the god whenever thunder rolled. The battles he fought were in essence a battle for the soul of humankind, in much the same way as the Christ of Christian mythology sacrificed himself as a saviour of the people. Violent though it was, Thor’s mission was a mission of protection, a fight against evil in the name of good Odin. To implore the aid of Thor on Earth, sacrifices were made, especially in times of shortages or famine, when the lives of Thor’s people were under threat from nature. Did the Viking god respond? In a roundabout sort of way, it could be said he did. As a people, the Vikings were ruthlessly successful. But when they raided other shores to ensure their own survival as a people, the moral cost was high.
Thousands died horribly at the hands of these invaders. Thor may have slaughtered wayward giants, but the mortal warriors that carried his hammer into battle did so for the plunder, any thoughts of good and evil being mostly disregarded. Thus the stories of the people do not always follow the narratives of their gods. Context, however, often comes to the rescue. As the battles made men into heroes, honour took the place of cruelty. Thor would have done well to note the warning: one day, if he did not keep a handle on his hammer, men might even take the places of the gods.
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