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The Mysteries of Leonardo

Notes on a Strange World

Massimo Polidoro

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 37.5, September/October 2013

Leonardo da Vinci not only epitomizes genius and creativity, but he is also one of the most sought-after sources of mysteries, both real and invented. Probably the most famous example of this is The Da Vinci Code’s many legends linked to this inventor, but there are many other examples, as we shall see.

Leonardo the Heretic

According to some authors of historical fiction, Leonardo was a heretic. Evidence of this is supposedly hidden in his painting The Last Supper, where it is said that the Master himself expressed his belief that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene. The woman is to be identified with the Apostle showing feminine traits and sitting to the right of Jesus. Further evidence in support of the genius’s heresy would be the lack of the chalice with the wine on the table, symbol of the Eucharist, and the presence of a disembodied hand holding a menacing knife.

What are the facts? In reality, for The Last Supper, the magnificent mural painting adorning the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milano, Italy, Leonardo took his inspiration from the Gospel of John, where there is no mention either of the chalice with the wine or of the Eucharist. In addition, the hand with the knife belongs to Peter (as demonstrated by the preparatory drawings by Leonardo preserved at the Windsor Royal Library) and refers to an episode in the Gospel, where Peter cuts the ear of the servant of the High Priest. Finally, the delicate appearance of John belongs to the iconography of the time, where the younger apostle, Jesus’s favorite, was always represented as a teenager with long hair and gentle features.

Leonardo and his Virgin of the Rocks painting.Leonardo and his Virgin of the Rocks painting.

Esoteric Symbols Everywhere

Although maybe not a heretic, and certainly not a devout Catholic, it is possible that Leonardo may have been in contact with ideas that, at his time, were considered heretical, such as neo-Platonic and Gnostic ones. The latter, for example, included belief in Sophia, the mother goddess who created the world, which Leonardo might have wanted to represent with Leda, a lost painting. In some remaining copies of the painting, the great mother is seen as a “cosmic egg,” from which other eggs give rise to humans. The Gnostics also believed that there were two forms of Jesus, one carnal, who died on the cross, and one that was only spirit. Another famous painting by Leonardo, the Virgin of the Rocks, shows two children similar to one another: perhaps the one commonly referred to as John the Baptist was actually Jesus’s double and his identity was disguised in order to get it accepted by the religious clients. Unlikely, but no one can tell for sure today.

Another question then concerns Leonardo’s propensity to often portray St. John the Baptist. Some people wondered if this attachment to the saint did not conceal something else, maybe the adherence to the cult of St. John, the same one held by the Knights of the Order of Malta. However, these are assumptions that art historians are still questioning.

Was Leonardo a Member of the Priory of Sion?

The entire Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (note the absurdity of calling the Master not by his name, Leonardo, but by the name of the town where he was born, Vinci, apparently believing it to be his surname) revolves around the mysterious and ancient sect of the “Priory of Sion,” keeper of secrets and founded by the ever-present order of the Templars. It is said that among its members there were luminaries such as Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and of course Leonardo. In reality, the sect was invented out of whole cloth by Frenchman Pierre Plantard in 1956. Plantard took the name “Priory of Sion” from a hill above Annemasse, where he planned to install a retreat house. As for the list of the “initiated,” Plantard copied it from the list of alleged “Imperators,” that is, the supreme heads, of the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, founded in 1915 in the United States by another creator of fantasies, Harvey Spencer Lewis, with whom Plantard was in contact. Anti-Semitic, anti-Masonic, and a member of the French right, Plantard orchestrated this plot in order to create a historical line, likely to prove his own descent from the Merovingian as an heir to a dynasty lost in the mists of history, giving him wide room to maneuver and a huge advantage over many orders of competing Grand Masters and maybe leading him to a leading political role. It didn’t work.

Leonardo Author of the Shroud of Turin?

According to Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, the Shroud of Turin was the work of Leonardo. Writer Victoria Hazel interprets a passage in the Codex Atlanticus as a “confession” on the part of its author: “When I painted Domene God an infant, you put me in prison: now, if I do him big, you will make me worse things.” Not only that, according to Lillian Schwartz, the face of the Shroud fits with the self-portrait of Leonardo and would therefore be an experiment in pre-photographic techniques devised by the genius of Vinci.

In fact, the historical sources (the first written reference to the Shroud is a memorial in 1389), as well as the scientific radiocarbon dating, show that the Shroud was prepared in a period of time included between 1260 and 1390. It is therefore likely to be a work of art, but very unlikely that it was painted by Leonardo, since it was already around at least for a century before he was born.

Mirror Writing

Leonardo possessed an unusual mirror writing technique; that is, he wrote going from right to left and often started to write on the last sheet, and then reached the first. This peculiarity has often been interpreted as an attempt put in place by Leonardo to keep his work secret and incomprehensible to most people. Those who considered him a heretic had even come to call it the “writings of the devil” because of this characteristic. In fact, it was his spontaneous way of writing. Neurologists have shown that his was a habit acquired in childhood, natural for lefties that were not corrected, as Leonardo was. He wrote also with “normal” calligraphy, but with less ease and especially in demonstrative occasions, such as for some topographic maps. Not surprisingly, Leonardo did dictate to others his letters of introduction.

Who Is Actually the Mona Lisa?

The identity of the woman depicted in the most famous portrait in the world has long been debated. Some authors have suggested, citing evidence not always credible, that the woman was a Sforza, perhaps Catherine, or her mother, Caterina Buti del Vacca, or even her half-sister Bianca. In addition, there are those who think that the Mona Lisa is nothing less than a self-portrait of Leonardo, as shown by a superposition of the two faces to the computer. In fact, it is quite certain that the woman portrayed is Lisa Gherardini, that is, “Monna” (short for “Madonna” or as we would say today “Lady”). Lisa, wife of Francesco del Giocondo (hence “Gioconda,” as the painting is also called). Rather more difficult to exactly establish, however, is the location in the background. The bridge on the right is reminiscent of one in Buriano, near Arezzo, but it is more likely that this is an idealized landscape dreamed up by Leonardo.

The Lost Remains of Leonardo

Finally, one last mystery: What happened to the remains of Leonardo? His tomb no longer exists and no one knows where his bones lie now. At his death he was buried in the Church of Saint-Florentin in Amboise, France. But in 1802, due to the erosion of time and revolutionary vandalism, the ruins of the chapel were destroyed, and the gravestones and tombstones were used to restore the castle. Children used to play with the abandoned bones, so a gardener picked them up and buried them. In 1863, the poet Arsène Houssaye discovered an intact skeleton, with a bent arm and a very broad skull. Not far from that spot he also unearthed fragments of a slab half deleted with the following readable letters: EO DUS VINC. It is perhaps Latin for Leonardus Vincius? These bones ended up in the castle of Amboise, where they still are and where it is stated that they “supposedly” belong to Leonardo.

But, like many other questions sur­rounding the incredible life of the Renaissance marvel, this one will probably remain forever unanswered as well.

Massimo Polidoro

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Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at