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From The Book

A Painting of Mary Magdalene, Now Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci:
A Commentary on this Book’s Cover Image

Of the many new insights about Mary Magdalene this book has uncovered, one of the more interesting concerns our cover image: a Renaissance era painting of Mary Magdalene, which was recently shown in public in Italy for the first time in more than 50 years. Previously, art historians had always attributed this painting to a minor Renaissance master, Gianpietrino, who was known to have been a student of Leonardo da Vinci. It had always been supposed that Leonardo might have supervised the painting.

But then Carlo Pedretti, perhaps the greatest living Leonardo scholar—a man who has devoted almost his entire life to Leonardo scholarship—announced, after considerable deliberation, “I am inclined to believe it is much more than a supervision of the student by the master.” Eventually, this stunning, voluptuous portrait of Mary Magdalene would be displayed in an exhibition in Ancona, Italy in October 2005, with the new presumption that it was, indeed, a Leonardo.

If this Mary Magdalene is a Leonardo, it would be the only time that Leonardo painted Mary Magdalene—unless one accepts the “Da Vinci Code thesis” that Mary Magdalene is depicted at the right hand of Jesus in Leonardo’s Last Supper. Most professional art historians and Leonardo scholars reject the idea of a didactic, coded message by Leonardo in the Last Supper about Mary Magdalene as the bride of Christ and as the metaphoric holy grail. When asked about the feminine-looking character next to Jesus, traditional scholars are usually quick to point out that Italian Renaissance painters frequently depicted the youthful John, the Beloved, as the only one of the apostles without a beard and as looking very feminine and even sometimes asleep. This was supposedly done in order to accentuate his youthfulness.

Carlo Pedretti is one of the very few art historians who gives any credence at all to how feminine the Last Supper character looks. During the initial worldwide curiosity about The Da Vinci Code in 2003-4, Pedretti gave many interviews where he left the door farther ajar than any other serious art historian as to the possibility that the figure in the Last Supper could be a woman. He never said or suggested it was Mary Magdalene. But in reflecting a certain amount of ambiguity about the gender of the person seated at the right hand of Jesus, he spoke volumes.

If our cover image is, indeed, a Leonardo, then, not surprisingly, this great creative genius has painted a Mary Magdalene like no other. His Mary Magdalene is earthy, sensual, bare-breasted and explicitly erotic—but without shame, without repentance, without guilt. She is as beautifully painted and as mysterious as the Mona Lisa, but unlike the Mona Lisa, she communicates directly, openly, without mystery.

If I wanted to write a novel of the imagination about this painting, I would start with the presumption that, since Leonardo knew and understood so much about the future, (after all, he designed flying machines, submarines, and motor cars and had early insights into complexity and chaos theory), he also knew something about the ancient past. And what this quintessential Renaissance humanist guessed about the past was that human beings were mortal not divine, and that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ordinary human beings, perhaps man and wife. Further, he might have guessed that emphasizing an attractive woman’s sensuality—without the strictures of biblical morality, sin, guilt, and penitence—might be the right way to paint the beautiful female half of an archetypal male and female holistic union. This Mary Magdalene is stunning for her humanity and humanism, which is not at all surprising considering that Leonardo is probably the greatest humanist of the last millennium.

The mystery of Leonardo, the conspiracy he belonged to, the secret he knew had nothing to do with the so-called Priory of Sion or any such nonsense. Instead, Leonardo’s great secret—his heresy—might have been as simple as understanding that to be human is to be holy, that to give, live, and celebrate life is humanity’s highest calling, and that in that process, women have a very special and therefore very sacred role to play.