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Cusanus, Leonardo and the Last Supper (1)

Daniel D'Agostino

Nicholas of Cusa was a Cardinal, mathematician, and humanist during the 15th century, making him a contemporary of Alberti.  In 1440, Cusanus’s work On Learned Ignorance asserted his belief that mathematics could be used metaphorically to describe God.  Learned ignorance was the notion that man is ignorant because he cannot fully comprehend God due to His omnipotent and omniscient nature, but learned because man knows that he cannot fully comprehend God.  In essence, man understands the concept of God, but does not understand how God works.  Mathematics provided the model that Cusanus used to explain God because Cusanus regarded mathematics as absolute truth.  He believed that math could be used to explain God because its laws were “fixed and certain”, but also nonphysical and “abstract”, both of which are characteristics of God(Cusa 101).  Cusanus began his model with the infinite straight line because the straight line was the easiest geometrical form to grasp.  Cusanus then widened his argument to include the infinite triangle, with equal angles and infinite sides, and the infinite circle, which is so large that the circumference is equal to the diameter.  Although Cusanus’s proofs were somewhat ridiculous, the symbolism his model provided was more sensible.  Even though man has no concept of infinity, he understands the idea of an infinitely straight line.  Cusanus claimed that man understood God in the same way.  Leonardo da Vinci eventually incorporated some of the ideas of Cusanus into his painting of the Last Supper.

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna and Child with Cat, ca. 1478There are many striking similarities between Alberti’s and Leonardo’s views on painting.  For example, they both begin their treatises with definitions of the points, lines, and planes that generate geometric perspective.  In addition, both men agreed that a good painting should “move the beholder in the same way as the protagonist of the painting is moved”(Leonardo 220).  A good artist should have the ability to paint his figures in such a way that their expressions and movements convey their exact emotions, and that these movements should illicit an appropriate response from the viewer.  Leonardo and Alberti also differed in the sense that Leonardo was more empirical in his approach, gaining many of his notions about painting from experience as an artist, while Alberti was more theoretical in his approach because he was not a practicing artist.  There existed a tension between naturalism and beauty.  While Alberti believed that much of a painting’s beauty was derived from the creativeness and uniqueness of its istoria, Leonardo found painting to be beautiful when it imitated nature.

Leonardo’s many interests aided his artistic abilities to make his paintings highly naturalistic.  Leonardo’s interest in anatomy allowed him to paint figures with amazingly accurate details in their forms and proportions.  In his drawing of Virgin and Child with a Cat, Leonardo demonstrates his fascination with movement.  He claimed that a painter should “attend first to the movements appropriate to the mental attitudes of the creatures rather than to the beauty and quality of their limbs”(Leonardo 222.    Leonardo da Vinci, Benois Madonna, ca. 1479In his drawings, Leonardo rendered the multiple positions of his figures in an attempt to capture their physical andVerrocchio, Madonna and Child, ca. 1472 emotional interactions.  The drawings were also an opportunity for Leonardo to begin planning the composition of the painting and determine how his figures would fit.  The importance of movement is prevalent in Leonardo’s Benois Madonna because his figures move in such a way that the Christ Child appears curious and playful and the Virgin appears motherly and nurturing.  When compared to Verrocchio’s Madonna and Child, Leonardo’s is more realistic because his Virgin and Christ Child interact in a more believable “mother-son” manner, while Verrocchio’s figures are still and exhibit no interaction.  Leonardo’s great observational skills provided him with a sense of physics.  Leonardo explained how during a battle, smoke and dust “mingled” with the air so that the further figures in the distance appeared, “the less visible they will be and the less difference there will be in their lights and shadows”(Leonardo 228-229).  He also noted that the weight of the smoke and dust particles, which meant that figures nearest to the ground would be the least visible.  Leonardo described how the rising dust behind a galloping horse creates the sense of motion because “the cloud of dust that is furthest away from the horse should be the least visible”(Leonardo 229).  Such observations addressed the concept of aerial perspective and accounted for Leonardo’s use of sfumato (or smokiness).

Leonardo’s Last Supper breaks from tradition in several ways.  One of the most obvious differences between Leonardo’s depiction of the Last Supper and the depictions of previous artists, such as Castagno and Ghirlandaio, is that Leonardo does not separate Judas from Christ and the other Apostles by seating him on the opposite side of the table.  Instead, Judas is identifiable because he is the only character who is slightly turned with his back to the table.  As a result of Judas’s placement on the same side of the table as Christ and the obvious confusion felt by the Apostles, the viewer’s immediate response is to ask, “Am I betraying Christ”  This reflects both Leonardo’s and Alberti’s belief that a good painting should move the viewer to express the same emotions as those felt by the figures within the painting.  However, the confusion felt by the Apostles and the viewer is contrasted by the apparent calmness of Christ.  Christ is calm because he knows which apostle has betrayed him, reminding the viewer that Christ is God.

.Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1495-8

In addition, the Apostles in Leonardo’s painting show more movement and interaction with each other in order to represent their emotional state.  Several of the Apostles point to Christ or themselves out of confusion.  The Apostles are gathered into four groups of three, where they seem to say to each other, “It’s not I who has betrayed Christ, is it you?”  As can be seen by the various looks of shock, confusion, distraught, etc., no two Apostles have the exact same response, which is a testament to Leonardo’s belief in naturalism.  The gesticulations towards the center of the painting draws the viewers eyes upon Christ, where Christ is set apart, occupying space in the center.  The confusion at the table leads the viewer to believe that Christ has not yet announced who has betrayed Him; whereas, in Castagno’s Last Supper, Christ appears to be handing the Eucharist to Judas.Andrea del Castagno, Last Supper, 1447Domenico Ghirlandaio, Last Supper 1480

Leonardo’s Last Supper also references the ideas of Cusa.  In theory, the vanishing point of a painting is infinitely far away, thus forming an infinitely straight line into the horizon.  In the Last Supper, the vanishing point is located behind Christ’s head, symbolizing Christ’s divinity. In addition, the fact that Christ’s body is in the shape of an equilateral triangle allows the viewer to associate Christ’s body with the infinite triangle discussed by Cusa while symbolizing the Holy Trinity. By pointing toward the Eucharist, Christ is suggesting “this is” his body.  The viewer is shown that the Eucharist is the infinite body.  St. James makes the sign of the cross in amazement of the miracle of transubstantiation.  Through transubstantiation the viewer is reminded of the final judgment and that the Eucharist is a foretaste of Heaven. 

            All of these methods, while keeping to Leonardo’s belief in naturalism, are carefully selected to demonstrate to the viewer how Christ is the visual center of the painting, the narrative center of the painting, and that he is divine and infinite.


Works Cited

Cusanus, Nicholas. On Learned Ignorance. Ed. H. Lawrence Bond. Nicholas of Cusa: Selected    Spiritual Writings. SHAred Resources Catalog.  9 February 2009.        100-120.

Leonardo. Ed. Martin Kemp. On Painting. SHAred Resources Catalog.  9 February 2009.         52-58, 130-153, 220-233.



Cusanus, Leonardo and the Last Supper (2)

Alphonse John Dell'Isola

Both Leonardo Da Vinci and Nicholas of Cusa were definitive Renaissance men who exhibited greater interest in a more empirical approach to art and academia.  Leonardo, while often agreeing with Alberti in terms of theory on painting, styled his works far more naturalistic than anyone before him or any of his contemporaries.  Nicholas, while not a painter, had many theories in mathematics, philosophy, and logic that concurred with Leonardo’s own hypotheses.  Each of them was a poster-child for many changes occurring during the Renaissance in every subject imaginable.

Leonardo began his life in 1452 as the illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci, who brought him to live in Florence.  It was here in Florence where Leonardo began his education in the humanities by working at Verrocchio’s workshop.  This was considered by many to the epicenter of art and learning at the time.  In Verrocchio’s workshop, he developed the skills that would make him one of the biggest artists of the High Renaissance (1490-1520), along with Michelangelo and Rafael.   

Leonardo, like Leon Batista Alberti, wrote an instructional book called On Painting. They shared many of the same principles that grew to great importance in the Renaissance, but also differed in a few ways as well.  These differences probably can be traced back to the fact that Alberti, while a true Renaissance man, was not a painter like Leonardo was.  As a result, some of Alberti’s lessons may work well in theory, but are not as practical as some of Leonardo’s. 

However, their texts are in agreement for the most part.  They both heavily emphasize the significance of proper scientific perspective in painting to make it look as much as a simulation of reality as possible.  Each of their texts also mentions certain tools for achieving this proper perspective, such as the all-important visual pyramid.  Another way in which these texts are in agreement is over the placement of the center point, which should be at eye level in order for the viewer to feel he is in the work.  For Leonardo, this came out of a strong interest in physics and optics as he expressed in On Painting.  Besides matters of perspective, there was the emphasis that Leonardo and Alberti placed on the narrative element to paintings.  For Alberti, this came out of his idea that painting is equally venerable as and highly similar to music and poetry.  Leonardo, who certainly was no one-trick pony, also strongly linked painting to the liberal arts.  In both texts, suggested movement and posture in paintings are valued highly as a means of conveying this narrative to the viewer. 

While on many levels these two polymaths concur, there are still several differences.  Mainly, Leonardo stresses the importance of the human anatomy in his text.  As research, Leonardo often studied cadavers to understand what muscles flex during certain movements and how what goes on inside affects how we see it on the outside.  Alberti did not have this same concern or passion for being as anatomically correct as Leonardo. 

Leonardo and some of Alberti’s ideals from each of their On Painting texts can be seen in Leonardo’s works.  In his Benois Madonna, his depiction of the Christ child and Madonna is much more realistic than other paintings.  The Christ child looks much more like actual babies do; he is chubby and bald and hardly looks divine.  The pose is very natural; it looks more like a candid photograph of Mary and Jesus than an icon.  Both the Madonna and her child are painted as very normal people, for if the halo was not there this could easily be a painting of any mother and child.  The way neither of them is making eye contact with the viewer also evidences Leonardo and Alberti’s belief that paintings are a continuation of reality.  However, since this painting is so up close, it is not a great exhibition of Leonardo’s mastery of perspective. 

Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1495-8

Leonardo’s Last Supper, however, does display his deep understanding and expertise of scientific perspective and the visual pyramid, as well as paintings as a narrative.  Leonardo even made the ceiling the “checkered floor” from perspective.  If one looks at the tapestries on the walls in the background, they are perfectly proportioned to match the way it would look in reality.  The entire room follows the parameters of visual perspective flawlessly to the last detail. One can also observe Leonardo’s dexterity of perspective by studying the figures in Last Supper.  The arms and other body parts are foreshortened so well one cannot detect any awkwardness in the way figures are portrayed.  As a narrative, Leonardo appears to be suggesting many possible stories with only one body part.  The best example of this is Jesus’ right hand, which seems to imply several possible things: Judgment day by the way on hand is turned up and the other down, the first communion by his reaching for the bread, and the pointing out of Judas as the traitor by appearing to be giving the “sop” to Judas, as well as numerous others.  Another way the narrative symbolism comes through is with the apostle Thomas, whose finger is pointed; this suggests the moment later on in the New Testament where Thomas sticks his finger in Christ’s wounds.  It seems every person and movement in this painting symbolizes some other parable, which exemplifies Leonardo’s nearly unmatchable skill.

Andrea del Castagno, Last Supper, 1447Domenico Ghirlandaio, Last Supper 1480In the tension between naturalism and beauty in paintings, Leonardo typically errs on the naturalist side.  Throughout his On Painting and in his paintings, this becomes especially apparent.  As shown earlier, his Benois Madonna demonstrates this in many ways, from the pose to how anatomically correct the figures are.  This is also shown through the very natural lighting that stays consistent throughout the painting.  Leonardo favoring naturalism becomes apparent in his Last Supper as well.  Castagno and Ghirlandaio both painted versions of the Last Supper, but in many ways they were entirely unnatural, especially when compared to Leonardo’s.  Leonardo paints a more realistic scene both visually and mentally; the figures look very natural and their reactions match the situation.  In Castagno and Ghirlandaio, the Apostles barely seem to be reacting to Jesus telling them he was going to die.  Judas is not placed on the other side as is traditionally done, but instead sitting with everyone else.  This makes him harder to distinguish, but this is a sacrifice Leonardo is willing to make for naturalism’s sake. 

While many painters had the ability to utilize scientific perspective (though almost never as well as Leonardo), Leonardo broke tradition not only by wanting to give his painting a more naturalistic aura, but also by using different techniques.  He created innovative ways to both make his paintings more naturalistic, but also to do something new.  One of these ways was by pioneering the use of sfumato, which gave his paintings both more depth and a “smoky” look to it.  When comparing Benois Madonna to other paintings, one can see the greater contrast present in his work.  This shows his particularly adept use of light and shadow.  These aspects of his work demonstrate Leonardo’s innovation in the field of painting.

Verrocchio, Madonna and Child, ca. 1472Leonardo da Vinci, Benois Madonna, ca. 1479When one puts Leonardo’s Benois Madonna next to Verrocchio’s Madonna and Child, one can truly see what made Leonardo such an innovative and amazing painter.  While Verrocchio’s Christ child has a face that looks much older than any baby’s would and a full head of hair, Leonardo’s Christ child is bald, chubby, and looks his age.  Verrocchio’s Mary and baby Jesus seem to be posing and are very somber, whereas Leonardo depicts the Christ child behaving like a baby by being infatuated by a flower and Mary acting like a mother- what the flower is to Jesus, Jesus is to Mary.  There is also an air of happiness surrounding Leonardo’s painting.  Also, the colors in Leonardo’s painting are more contrasting as a result of a more obvious light source.

As mentioned earlier, Leonardo and Nicholas of Cusa were both Renaissance men who shared similar empirical beliefs.  Nicholas of Cusa was a Cardinal in the Catholic Church who innovated in many ways in the fields of logic, mathematics, and philosophy.  He had the idea of the infinite triangle to represent the trinity, as well as the immeasurableness of God.  This was part of his theory from his idea of “Learned Ignorance”, where one becomes wiser and more understanding by recognizing there are things one can simply never understand.  One of these things we will never comprehend is the Lord, as well as other never-ending concepts such as infinity in math.  Nicholas was particularly fond of math because of its ability to reach absolute answers, something not attainable in almost any other subject.  In painting, this idea of the infinite becomes important with the introduction of scientific perspective, which creates something never –ending: the vanishing point.  To Nicholas, the circle is the most perfect form: self-sufficient, one-sided, totally regular, and infinite.  Most of Nicholas’ ideas were derived from the Philosophy of Aristotle and Plato.

Leonardo’s similar empirical beliefs are obvious in the Last Supper.  The shape Jesus takes with his arms outstretched clearly resembles a triangle, and with the vanishing point of the painting right on his head this suggests the idea of an infinite triangle.  Also, as they loved to do in the Renaissance, the Apostles are split into four clear groups of three, with all of them interconnected.  Also, Christ is in the very center of the painting, not off-center like many other representations such as those by Ghirlandaio and Castagno.  Leonardo’s may be more naturalistic as well, but it also employs techniques to draw attention to Jesus other than putting him at the center, such as how all of the Apostles' hands seem to form arrows pointing towards Jesus.

Overall, Leonardo focused more on painting with a more empirical and naturalistic approach.  This is apparent when comparing his Last Supper to that of Castagno and Ghirlandaio’s, as well as his Benois Madonna to Verrocchio’s Madonna and Child, or his On Painting to Alberti’s.  Both Leonardo and Nicholas of Cusa revolutionized not only ways of painting, but also methods of logic and thinking.



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