More Than Meets the Eye
Wit plus intellect: What better combination to create an artistic web of mystery? Add that to Leonardo's passion for humor and secrecy, and you've got the makings of code-riddled art full of hidden meanings. And what are the answers to Leonardo's puzzles, you ask? The riddles buried in his works range from object placement, to more outlandish claims of secret coded messages. The question is, how many of these codes are really there, and how many are the fictionalized inventions of overzealous art critics? You be the judge.
Puns in Painting
Leonardo seems to have loved puns, and many of his paintings include backgrounds or other elements that are puns on the name of the person who was being painted. One of his earliest known paintings, Ginevra de'Benci, is a portrait of a young woman that was probably painted to celebrate her marriage. The woman is posed in front of a large juniper plant, which was a symbol of chastity and therefore appropriate fare for a marriage portrait. Yet Leonardo has sneakily included another reference here: the word for juniper in Italian is ginevra, so the placing of a juniper plant in the painting is also a pun on the young lady's name.
Another of Leonardo's early paintings, Lady with the Ermine, contains a similar pun. The woman in the painting is thought to be Cecilia Gallerani, a mistress of Leonardo's patron at the time, Duke Sforza of Milan. The ermine that the young lady holds was a symbol of Sforza's court and appeared on his coat of arms. Thus it was a logical choice to appear in the painting. In addition, the Greek name for ermine is galee, which makes the animal's inclusion another clever pun on the young lady's name.
In another one of these instances, Leonardo designed a huge forest scene on the walls and ceiling of a room in Sforza's castle. This room, dubbed the Salla delle Asse (Tower Room), is thought to have been painted mostly by his students, based on Leonardo's design. In addition to the various symbols of Sforza's family, including intertwining branches to symbolize his marriage, the inclusion of numerous willow trees is actually an allusion to Leonardo's hometown of Vinci, which has “willow” as one of its meanings.
As you can probably tell, symbolism was common in Leonardo's works. Some objects, such as a carnation or a lamb, may seem a bit random until you know the underlying religious significance.
For instance, Leonardo's early work Madonna with the Carnation shows Mary holding a carnation out for the infant Jesus. The inclusion of a flower might seem odd, but since the carnation was actually a symbol of the Passion, its inclusion makes perfect sense. Another similar Madonna and child painting, Madonna with the Cat, shows the mother and child holding a cat. The inclusion of the cat comes from a story that a cat gave birth at the same moment that Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Another painting, Madonna of the Yarnwinder, has the infant Jesus holding a yarnwinder or spindle. The winder is shaped like a cross, however, symbolizing the Passion of Christ and his upcoming crucifixion. Perhaps most obviously, the infant in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne is embracing a lamb, a symbol of himself as the “Lamb of God.”
A later painting that is thought to be Leonardo's work is Salvator Mundi, a painting of Christ (“savior of the world”). The painting includes an eight-pointed star that symbolizes his upcoming resurrection, and a ruby to signify his martyrdom and passion. Other Christian symbolism in the painting includes the globe itself, which was likely originally an orb; it could have been designed to bring to mind Christ's famous declaration, “I am the light of the world.”
Leonardo's most famous work, the Mona Lisa, is full of symbolism. The veil that the woman wears could symbolize widowhood. It could also symbolize chastity, which would have been appropriate for a married woman. The winding path shown in the background behind her could be the so-called path of virtue (from a myth about Hercules), and if so would indicate that Lisa was most likely a wife, not a mistress. It has also been suggested that the Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait of Leonardo as a woman.
Leonardo's interest in codes and hidden messages has caused people to scrutinize his works, especially the Mona Lisa, for any sign of hidden meaning. For instance, Lisa's dress has a neckline with numerous small detailed loops, which have been searched for any signs of hidden meaning, to no avail.
Historians have also searched the sheet music held in Portrait of a Musician for hidden puzzles, but without success. Did da Vinci deliberately design secret meanings into his paintings, or are modern historians (and popular novelists!) chasing a question that has no answer?