Leonardo Da Vinci's Religious Beliefs

by Brett Levine

Leonardo da Vinci, born and raised in Italy, is widely regarded to have been a Catholic, the predominant religion of 15th Century Italy. Given the renewed interest in da Vinci due to popular works such as "The Da Vinci Code," scholars, religious theorists, the clergy and the general public are carefully considering this question again.

Leonardo's Early Paintings

The Catholic Church in Rome was the location of a great deal of upheaval during the 15th and 16th Centuries. During da Vinci's lifetime -- from 1452 to 1519 -- there were 10 different popes. Da Vinci's relationship to Catholicism involved a careful balance between his scientific preoccupations and the intensity with which he explored the ideas surrounding religious beliefs. The Italian historian and scholar Vasari observed that da Vinci "had been a heretic, and more a philosopher than a Christian." At least outwardly, da Vinci's passion for and exploration of Christianity through Catholicism was evident through his paintings, including "The Annunciation," begun in 1472 at the age of 20, and the first version of "The Virgin of the Rocks," undertaken in 1483 when the artist was 31.

The Last Supper

In 1495, da Vinci began "The Last Supper," a painting regarded as one of his two most significant works. It was painted on the wall of the Dominican Convent Della Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Completed over a period of three years, "The Last Supper" captures the moment just after Christ tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. Physically, the work began to decay almost as soon as it was completed due to the method da Vinci chose to use to apply the paint, although the work's deterioration did little to quell its ongoing interpretation. One of its most thorough analyses includes a close reading of the minute functions of the hands and feet of the painting's subjects, highlighting how da Vinci used the subtlety of gestures to reinforce the meanings and interpretations of the New Testament Scriptures.

Content and Context

The emphasis on religious content appears to reinforce da Vinci's commitment to and belief in the fundamental tenets of Catholicism, despite Vasari's assertions to the contrary. Apart from "The Annunciation," two versions of "The Virgin of the Rocks" and "The Last Supper," da Vinci also created "The Madonna Litta" in 1491, "Salvator Mundi," ("Savior of the World") in 1500 and "Saint John in the Wilderness," completed between 1510 and 1515. During the same period, however, da Vinci also painted the "Mona Lisa," arguably the most famous portrait in the world, as well as more than 4,000 pages of handwritten manuscripts on a range of subjects including architecture, anatomy, zoology and geography. Giorgio Vasari also commented on da Vinci's scientific pursuits, remarking that he mastered any subject he turned his attention to, and that he perhaps would have been a scientist if his interests had not been so varied.

Religion or Science

Understanding da Vinci's commitment to Catholicism is far more complex than simply determining that he was born in Italy and Catholicism was the predominant religion of the time. His commitment to scientific investigation led him to doubt certain stories found in the Bible, such as the great flood, asserting that if there had been such a flood, there would have been nowhere for the water to recede. Clearly da Vinci was analytical, skeptical, investigative and astute. One might argue that his religious paintings were driven by the system of patronage in Italy that literally paid him to do such work, such as his 16-year service to Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan. This not only provided him with the opportunity to paint, but to construct engineering and architectural projects as well. Religion was key to da Vinci's art, a component of his belief system, and the foundation of some of his most famous works. But whether da Vinci observed or practiced the fundamental principles of Catholicism is a religious debate that continues to this day.

About the Author

Brett Levine is a writer with more than 17 years of experience writing for a range of national and international publications. His articles have appeared in "Art Papers," "B-Metro," "Alabama" magazine, "Object," "Urbis" and "RealTime." He holds a Master of Arts in arts administration.

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