What Made Leonardo the Oz?

Possibly the hottest ticket in New York is not for a new show on Broadway. It is for an exhibit of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, whom the New York Times calls "the Great Oz of European art." The exhibit is called "Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman" and features 118 drawings by da Vinci, the largest such collection in the United States. The works are on loan from institutions such as the Vatican, the Louvre in Paris, and the Uffizi in Florence. The exhibit, in the words of the New York Times, provides museum-goers with "an organic picture of the history of one man's polymathic life." The term polymathic refers to da Vinci's wide range of interests: anatomy, geometry, map-making, architecture, and science. All of these are on display in the drawings. But there is another equally important subject on display, one whose significance seems to elude critics and commentators: that is, his Christianity. Many of the drawings have Christian themes and imagery. There is a drawing of St. Peter and another one titled Adoration of the Magi. There are several drawing of the Madonna and Child, and the one painting in the exhibition is St. Jerome in the Wilderness. Da Vinci's personal life remains a mystery. But that has not stopped people from speculating on everything from his sexual orientation to, as the Met does, the impact of his being left-handed. Yet you will find next-to-nothing in the exhibit on what role, if any, da Vinci's religion may have played in his artistic vision. This omission is far from unusual. Christianity's role in the development of Western art is rarely, if ever, mentioned by art elites. This is especially maddening since, as Bryan Appleyard of the London Times has written, "Western art was Christian, is Christian, and, for the foreseeable future, can only be Christian." The messages and images contained within the Gospels, he writes, "determined the way we think [and] the way we create." Neil McGregor, director of Britain's National Gallery, agrees. "All Western art flows from Christianity . . . It is the fundamental element of Western culture." This relationship is most obvious in works with explicitly Christian themes. Yet even here the connection is rarely made by critics. This reluctance to acknowledge the Christian content of Western art is not new. For most of the past century, art critics, who were secular in orientation, "[re-wrote] art history as the development of pictorial method," what Appleyard calls the "heresy of formalism." And this heresy is still with us. There is another, more modern, distortion. Appleyard notes that, in contemporary culture, "the celebration of any other creed is seen as acceptable, but when it comes to Christianity, celebration is seen as quasi-colonial, if not racist." The result is that Christianity's cultural contributions are ignored, even air-brushed out of history -- even when it is ridiculous to do so. But none of this changes the fact of the contributions made by Christianity to art. And Christians have to learn about them and help others appreciate these contributions -- contributions that helped make Western society so great. For further reading and information: Learn more about the exhibit "Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman." Listen to an NPR broadcast about the exhibit. Carmen C. Bambach, ed., Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman (Yale University Press, 2003). Holland Cotter, "Leonardo: The Eye, the Hand, the Art," New York Times, 24 January 2003 (free registration required). Ingrid D. Rowland, "The Eyes of Leonardo," The New York Review of Books, 10 April 2003. The BreakPoint "Christians in the Arts" kit includes two books to equip artists, and those interested in the arts, with ideas and inspiration for influencing the culture: It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God (Square Halo Books, 2000) by Ed Bustard (editor) and others, and Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (InterVarsity, 2001) by Steve Turner.


Chuck Colson


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