In Other Words
Leonardo’s Holy Child
At the Louvre Museum in Paris, a crowd of tourists always seems to be clustered in front of the Mona
Lisa. Many are attracted by the painting’s fame, but others are there to experience its enigma. The artist who produced what is perhaps the best-known painting in the world was not a prolific painter. A major artist who was also an important scientist, Leonardo da Vinci straddled the line between discovery and failure. His designs for flying machines and a parachute were astonishingly prescient, but it is no big surprise that his machines did not fly — the technology did not exist to support his vision. Leonardo’s passion, however, was to study and find new ways of representing nature. In his essay “The Inventions of Nature,” Martin Kemp writes: “Leonardo endeavored to find a formula for the ratio of wing-span to weight in birds which could be used to calculate the size of wing necessary to sustain a man. He was encouraged by the fact that, whereas small birds and bats are equipped with relatively long wings, the larger birds such as pelicans and eagles do not apparently need wings of a directly proportional size.” As one who sought prototypes in nature, did Leonardo lean on other prototypes?
The artist has not left behind many finished paintings, but he has left us a treasure trove of drawings — studies, sketches, and notebooks — some of which also yield clues to his creative process. Santa Fe art dealer Fred R. Kline devotes the first half of Leonardo’s
Holy Child to his discovery of a Leonardo drawing, perhaps the first such discovery in a century. Kline has made a career of looking for lost art. Over a decade and a half ago, he saw a drawing of an infant in a Christie’s catalog. He felt strongly that the artist it was attributed to — Annibale Carracci — was not its actual author. Moved by the sensitivity of the drawing, he decided to purchase it. Christie’s estimate was low, $1,500 to $2,000. Kline faxed in his bid and was thrilled when it was accepted.
Some aspects of Kline’s story are riveting. His discovery of the drawing’s provenance hangs on such small details — a mole by the right eyebrow, a slight hook at the end of the nose — that it gets you to appreciate how closely you must look at a drawing or a painting in order to intelligibly read it. The same attention to detail could have benefited Kline’s writing: It is surprising an editor didn’t at least cut down on his overuse of caps, italics, and exclamation points.
Some of Kline’s patient sleuthing, and the ways in which he cross-references what he calls the “Holy Child” drawing with the infant St. John the Baptist in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, among other paintings, could lead to fresh insights about the artist’s creative process. Kline suggests that the drawing was Leonardo’s prototype for later paintings in which he depicted the infant Jesus. Finally, Kline asserts that the “Holy Child” could have been a prototype for the portrait of a baby in the satirical Leda and her Children, a painting attributed to a man who is believed to have been Leonardo’s studio assistant, Giampietrino, but a work that Kline believes Leonardo had a hand in creating.
What comes through in this story is the genuine bond Kline feels with the drawing, which also articulates a personal tale of loss for him. As a young man, he and the woman he would marry two decades later lost their child to a miscarriage. Though they rarely spoke of it, the tragedy was ever-present for the couple. For Kline, the drawing visually honors that child.
The idea of the “Holy Child” drawing as a prototype for Leonardo’s later paintings of infants is mesmerizing, but it remains for future scholars to weigh Kline’s theory. What is clearly known is that Leonardo used birds as prototypes for his flying machines. Like the American ornithologist and artist John James Audubon, Leonardo also had a childhood experience involving a bird — in this case, a kite — that made an indelible impression on him. Later, in his notebooks, he made many drawings of birds, and especially of their wings.
Among Leonardo’s many contributions to art was his use of three-dimensionality in paintings. While Audubon revolutionized the drawings of birds by suggesting movement in the way he drew them, a few hundred years earlier, biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote that Leonardo gave “movement and breath” to his human subjects. In Leonardo da Vinci: The Genius
in Milan, which screened recently as part of the CCA’s Exhibition on Screen series, Milanese art historian Maria Teresa Fiorio tells us: “Painting from nature, using characters from nature, from life, was one of the fundamental principles of Leonardo’s art.” If scholars confirm Kline’s theory, it is a further testament to Leonardo’s power that a single unattributed drawing of an infant could speak across time and shout out his authorship. — Priyanka Kumar