The Musee du Louvre announced this year that it would clean those murky layers of varnish that cloud Leonardo Da Vinci's "St. John the Baptist." It’s about time. The work has been in the collection since the French Revolution. More importantly, not only is this painting the last one the Old Master made, but it’s also one he made just for himself. Why he cherished it is unknown, but it’s easy to spot what distinguishes it from other artists’ renditions of St. John. Instead of the usual ascetic, emaciated old man set in an arid wilderness subsisting on locusts, Leonardo’s figure emerges out of shadows as young and sensuous with a faun-like face framed by soft curls and beaming a Mona Lisa smile as he points heavenward with his index finger.
Giving the finger to Da Vinci's "St. John"
Also unlike other Christian #Art, Leonardo didn’t use halos or supernatural effects, and his holy figures look right at viewers, as if to bring them into the scene. Clearly he wanted us to feel what he felt. Which is why it was unexpected to see Katherine Brooks, the senior arts and culture editor of the Huffington Post, include the Leonardo painting in her snarky feature titled “Twenty three Paintings From Art History That Accurately Reflect Your Current Mood,” and writing below a reprint of the painting, “Just guess what this gesture means. John is not messing around today.”
An art expert perverts art appreciation
Characterizing St. John’s body language in Leonardo’s painting as giving the finger can warp appreciation of this and other artists’ paintings on the subject with the same gesture. The 16th century artist Parmagianino’s “Vision of Saint Jerome” comes to mind. Painted about a decade after Leonardo finished his, it describes St. John the same way down to face, figure and finger. Putting aside Brooks’ irreverence for a moment, her disregard for Leonardo astounds. Consider what Vasari, the historian who knew him, said: that he seldom finishes his paintings, and one of the reasons was that when it came to religious pictures, he fretted that he couldn’t give them the divine spirit they required. For that reason, he left the head of Christ unfinished for a commission from the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. As the artist wrote in his notebook, painting is related to God. It’s obvious he was “not messing around” as Brooks joked when he envisioned St. John.
Making sport of spirituality is a bad idea
Brooks’ jokes worked better when she used famous paintings that have nothing to do with religion. For her take on Félix Vallotton’s hulking and decidedly menacing-looking “Portrait of Gertrude Stein,” she wrote: “Gertrude’s response is ‘no’ to whatever you want or need today.” And her gag line for Rembrandt’s, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” is “Nick, just now, realized he’s in the wrong classroom.” You’re funny, Katherine. You just need to be more judicious about the butt of your jokes. #Buzz