‘The painting is brand new’, is how Paris’s Louvre Museum describes the restored Leonardo Da Vinci’s 500+-year-old masterpiece, Saint Jean-Baptiste – Saint John the Baptist. Painted around 1517, the 69 cm x 57 cm (27.16 in x 22.44 in) oil on walnut-wood Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece, has been undergoing years of ‘behind the […]



Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Saint John the Baptist'. The painting was taken in the Louvre by Marilyn Z. Tomlins before its 2016 restoration.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Saint John the Baptist’. The painting was taken in the Louvre by Marilyn Z. Tomlins before its 2016 restoration.

‘The painting is brand new’, is how Paris’s Louvre Museum describes the restored Leonardo Da Vinci’s 500+-year-old masterpiece, Saint Jean-Baptiste – Saint John the Baptist.

Painted around 1517, the 69 cm x 57 cm (27.16 in x 22.44 in) oil on walnut-wood Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece, has been undergoing years of ‘behind the scenes’ studies by a team of international art experts and then finally a ten-month restoration.

And since Wednesday, November 9 this year (2016) the painting is back for viewing and admiration in the Louvre Museum’s main hall – la grande gallerie.

We all know, and some of us have had the chance to view, Leonardo’s La Joconde – the Mona Lisa –  but to me, and from the first time I’ve stood in front of it, I’ve thought that Leonardo’s Saint Jean-Baptiste – Saint John the Baptist – is more beautiful. It is indeed my favourite painting – favourite not only among those in the Louvre but all paintings I’ve had the good fortune to view – and every time I am in the Louvre that young man’s smile draws me in. His eyes look straight into mine …

The painting restored at France’s C2RMF – Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France – required the stripping of around 15 layers of varnishing and paint from past restorations. The work was carried out under the supervision of Régina Moreira, who had previously carried out the restoration of another masterpiece on view in the Louvre, the 142 cm x 142 cm (56 in x 56 in) oil on canvas Bethsabée – Bathsheba at her Bath – by Rembrandt.

Now, according to the Louvre, on the painting, Saint John the Baptist’s curly hair is clearly visible, and his torso and arms and the animal skin around his waist are lighter and also more visible.

You may well now ask who the young man was who had sat for Leonardo Da Vinci when he was painting Saint John the Baptist. Just as you may well have asked who the woman was who had sat for Leonardo Da Vinci when he was painting the Mona Lisa.

Woman? Man?

The Mona Lisa (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The Mona Lisa (photo taken in Louvre by Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The belief among many art experts and historians is that Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was not a woman – but a man.

That is, a young man in drag and his name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Orena, nicknamed Salai (Little Devil) by Leonardo, his lover.

In 2011 a team of scientists and historians of Italy’s National Committee for Culture and Heritage claimed that the woman on Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ was, in fact, a man. The head of the team, Signor Silvano Vincenti, claimed that studies of the painting had revealed that there was a letter under each of the woman’s eyes. The letters are an L and an S: the L for Leonardo and the S for Salai.

I wrote about it here,  so do read it please because you will then know who exactly Salai was and his homosexual relationship with Leonardo.

There is indeed a remarkable resemblance between the woman on the Mona Lisa painting and the young man on the Saint John the Baptist painting. In fact, to me, the two were the same person.

Mona Lisa and Saint John the Baptist: same face?

Mona Lisa and Saint John the Baptist: same face?

The Louvre was not happy about what Signor Vincenti had come up with. According to them two examinations of the Mona Lisa in 2004 and 2009 had not revealed any letters under the woman’s eyes, the woman having been Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a rich Florence silk merchant.

Salai was also the model for Leonardo’s Bacchus which is also in the Louvre.

Leonardo's 'Bacchus'

Leonardo’s ‘Bacchus’

 And it is believed also for the Incarnate Angel (Angelo Incarnato).

Look at the very effeminate angel, yet she/he has a large erection. And undoubtedly a generous bosom.

Leonardo's The Incarnate Angel

Leonardo’s The Incarnate Angel

Therefore, was Sanai a hermaphrodite?

Or,did he suffer from eonism?  In  other words, was he a cross-dresser and this attracted Leonardo to him? Or did Leonardo himself suffer from eonism? There are art experts who claim that the Mona Lisa painting was, in fact, a self-protrait.

A montage on the Web for the Mona Lisa and Leonard. (not my work)

A montage on the Web for the Mona Lisa and Leonard. (not my work)

Historians agree that Leonardo showed no interest in women and even wrote that heterosexual intercourse disgusted him. He never married, choosing the company of beautiful young men. There was Salai of course. In 1476 Leonardo was twice charged with sodomy, but the charge was later dismissed as want of witnesses.

(Eonism was named after Frenchman Charles-Genevieve-Louis-August-André Tomothée d’Eon, known as the Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810) who lived for more than 30 years as a woman. After his death, doctors examined his body and said that he indeed possessed perfectly-formed male genitalia. You will be able to read more about him and eonism also on this link as given above already.)

The Chevalier d'Eon as a woman.

The Chevalier d’Eon as a woman.

Here follows what the late Lord Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), expert on the life and works of Leonarda Da Vinci, wrote in his 1939 book ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’ about the Saint John the Baptist painting.

The late Lord Kenneth Clark

The late Lord Kenneth Clark

I quote from the book:

 … In the same years 1514-15 I would place Leonardo’s last surviving picture, the Louvre ‘St John’. It is usually said, on no evidence, to have been painted in France, but if this were the case we could hardly account for the numerous contemporary Italian copies. No doubt Leonardo had been working on the subject for years and the actual date of its execution as a picture can never be established. The ‘St John’ is the least popular of Leonardo’s works. Critics have found it so little to their taste that they have called it the work of assistants. This is certainly false. The ‘St John’ is a baffling work, but every inch of it smells of Leonardo. Even if we dislike it we must admit its power to trouble the memory, both as image and design. The initial cause of our uneasiness is iconographic. We are aware, from the little reed cross which he holds, that this extraordinary creature is intended to represent St John, and our whole sense of propriety is outraged. Every critic has laboriously pointed out that this is not a satisfactory presentation of the Baptist, and we must try to answer the question why Leonardo, who attached so much importance to the interpretation of a subject, has created an image almost blasphemously unlike the fiery ascetic of the Gospels. To a certain extent, the answer is to be found in the origin of the design. At the end of his second Florentine period, Leonardo became interested in the subject of an angel. There is a rough sketch of it on a drawing in Windsor dateable C. 1505, and we know that he finished the picture, for Vasari describes it as being in the cabinet of the Grand Duke Cosimo — ‘a head of an angel raising its arm in the air so that it is foreshortened from the shoulder to the elbow, the other arm being laid on the breast, showing the hand.’ A figure corresponding to this description has come down to us in several paintings which are clearly replicas of a Leonardesque original. We can see that this angel was very like the St John in general conception, but with the one important difference, that the St John’s right arm is bent across his breast so that his hand points upwards over his left shoulder. The angel’s arm is seen in foreshortening, the hand and index finger pointing upwards; and from this gesture we see that he is an Angel of the Annunciation. Leonardo, with an audacity which is almost disturbing, has shown us the Announcing Angel from the point of vision of Our Lady. We can imagine what complex ideas Leonardo might have wished to express in this strange conception; for the Annunciation can be made to imply that union of flesh and spirit, human and divine, which he wished above all to express. Just as the forces of nature, subject to material analysis up to a point, became suddenly incomprehensible, so the Angel of the Annunciation, though taking human shape, was the agent of a mystery; and mystery to Leonardo was a shadow, a smile and a finger pointing into darkness.

As an Angel, then, this figure is understandable; and if it shocks us, that is largely because we have taken for granted the pagan notion that an angel must be a type of fair-haired physical beauty, fragile or lusty as the taste of the period shall demand. It is less easy to understand how this image could be converted, with a single change of gesture, into a St John, and I must confess that some years ago, when art was supposed to consist in the arrangement of forms, I believed that Leonardo made this alteration for purely formal motives:  that he bent the arm across the figure in order to achieve a denser and more continuous volume. It is true that the St John looks much more solid than the Angel, but we can be sure that Leonardo would not have varied the pose solely for that reason. Between the two figures there is more than a formal connection. They are, in fact, the two messengers announcing the birth of Christ. The Angel points upwards to God; St John points over his shoulder —‘there is one that cometh after me’.  Even this difference does not quite dispose of our difficulties, because the type and expression which can be understood in an Angel may seem to us inconsistent in a St John. And here we must assume that Leonardo had formed of St John a curiously personal conception which we must interpret as best we can. Of several possible interpretations I offer the following which is at least in keeping with Leonardo’s spirit. St John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Truth and the Light. And what is the inevitable precursor of truth? A question. Leonardo’s St John is the eternal question mark, the enigma of creation. He thus becomes Leonardo’s familiar —the spirit which stands at his shoulder and propounds unanswerable riddles. He has the smile of a sphinx, and the power of an obsessive shape. I have pointed out how this gesture — which itself has the rising rhythm of an interrogative — appears throughout Leonardo’s work. Here it is quintessential. The design has the finality of a hard-won form rendered in an intractable material. Leonardo, who could give life to every pose and glance, has subdued his gifts as if he were working in obsidian.

The Louvre ‘St John’ being the most idiosyncratic of Leonardo’s works, was also the most influential; and part of our distaste for it is due to the large number of pupil’s copies which it recalls: for to most people the Milanese school is like the Cheshire cat — only the smile remains. Of these monotonously smiling figures I will mention only one, because it occurs in all early literature as an original Leonardo. This is the so-called ‘Bacchus’ in the Louvre which, reversing the role of Heine’s pagan gods, is really a converted St John the Baptist. As such he is described by Cassiano del Pozzo, who saw him at Fontainebleau in i6z; he adds, ‘it is a most delicate work but does not please because it does not arouse feelings of devotion.’ Presumably for this reason some painter was told to add a crown of vine leaves and change the cross into a thyrsis: and in the 1695 inventory 

is crossed out and 

written instead. These alterations no doubt involved complete repainting, and were probably accompanied by a transference from panel to canvas; as a result the ‘Bacchus’ makes a poor impression and has been rejected from the canon of Leonardo’s work by all serious scholars. But the original design was due to Leonardo and has been preserved in a highly finished red chalk study in the Museum of the Sacro Monte at Varese, which, in spite of retouching seems to me an authentic drawing of about the period 1510 -12. It shows St John completely nude, with a clear, articulate, muscular body, in contrast to the smooth fleshy limbs of the Louvre Bacchus. Whether Leonardo himself did a painting from this drawing we shall never know. Probably he left the execution to Cesare da Sesto, who was working closely with him at this date, and whose style is still perceptible in the Louvre picture.

The Louvre (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The Louvre (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)


 The Louvre is preparing  a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition, but we would have to wait a while still: It is planned for the year 2019. The last Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre was in 1952.

I will end by saying: man or woman, what does it matter, Leonardo Da Vinci was a great artist.





Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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