What Leonardo’s depiction of Virgin Mary and Jesus tells us about his religious beliefs

On the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, Italian academic Francesco Caglioti’s recent claim that a sculpture held at a London museum bears close similarities with the work of the Renaissance genius has opened up a fresh discussion.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has been cautious and said: “A potential attribution to Leonardo da Vinci was first proposed in 1899, so Professor Caglioti’s study opens up the discussion of its authorship afresh.”

It is a charming and jovial image of “The Virgin with the Laughing Child,” in which the young Mary appears to be enjoying the magic of motherhood with her son resting comfortably on her lap. Baby Jesus has a joyous expression as he entwines his right hand with his mother’s left.

Whatever the final outcome on this finding, as a scholar of religious art, I would suggest that, beyond the immediate charm of his art creations, Leonardo invites viewers into a religious message.

Leonardo’s Virgin and laughing child expresses both church teachings and what it means to be a human.

Leonardo: Religion and his art

Leonardo was one of the greatest artists in history. However, very little is known about his early life and even less so about his religious one.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. The Metropolitan Museum. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953
What is known is that he was baptized as an infant in the presence of 10 witnesses and that at the end of his life he asked for a priest to hear his last confession and administer the Last Rites. He was given a Catholic funeral and buried in consecrated ground.

Art historian Luke Syson has argued that Leonardo had solid knowledge of religious symbolism and contemporary Catholic teachings, which he combined with a humanistic approach to his art’s subjects.

An example is how Leonardo transformed the traditional image of “The Last Supper” into a more human-centered drama.

The traditional emphasis of the Last Supper is on the institution of the Eucharist. It forms the scriptural basis for Communion, in which bread is seen to be a symbol for Jesus’ body and wine as a symbol for his blood.

Leonardo, instead, emphasized the announcement of the betrayal by one of the disciples.

He had a large collection of religious books in his personal library and is known to have made regular references in his notebooks to religious ideas.

Leonardo’s drawings as evidence

In fact, much of what is known about Leonardo has been found through the visual evidence of his drawings, paintings and notebooks. And they reveal another side to him.

Leonardo’s sketches. National Gallery of Art
Beyond being an artist, Leonardo’s creativity expanded into the study of science, human anatomy and military armaments.

The pages of his numerous notebooks are filled with anatomical drawings such as his studies of the fetus and the eye. His study of human anatomy was not simply through live models but more significantly through participation in autopsies. His drawings are used today as illustrations in medical textbooks.

Yet, at the same time, his notebooks are also filled with sketches and drawings of religious figures. His art reflected his meditations on the Bible and his knowledge of Christian symbolism. These were an important basis for “The Last Supper” and his paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks.

Picturing the Bible

Leonardo reinterpreted traditional Christian iconography.