Great Understanding of Light: Leonardo Da Vinci

Only a handful of people brandished with 'Genius,' but perhaps none are worthier than Leonardo Di Ser Piero Da Vinci (1452 – 1519). Born from humble beginnings, Leonardo would become one of the most iconic and famous artists in human history.

Arguably the most studied and speculated upon artist of all time, Leonardo's paintings and sketches have been discussed, dissected, and deconstructed countless times over the centuries and have left the master's legacy with as much mystery as understanding.

The following looks into that legacy, specifically into Da Vinci's understanding and the use of light in his paintings and artwork. This elevates the magnitude of his masterful artistic expressions.

The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Born out of wedlock to a lower-class family, Leonardo Da Vinci's prospects of a bright future probably seemed unlikely to most outside observers. Hailing from a small hill town, he only ever received an informal primary education in reading, writing, and arithmetic. He did show, however, some natural artistic talent.

Driven by this and an overwhelming curiosity for life, he found himself, by the age of 14, working as a studio assistant for a leading painter and sculpture in Florence. By 17, he was an apprentice, and by the age of 20, he qualified as a master.

During these adolescent years of study, Da Vinci honed his skills and understanding of artistic principles. One principle he particularly excelled at is lighting to highlight and emphasize the messages encapsulated within Leonardo Da Vinci artworks.

The Vitruvian Man (1490)

Leonardo Da Vinci - Vitruvian Man

The first picture on the list isn't necessarily a showcase of lighting but instead of the very principle of light itself; the "Vitruvian Man." The iconic drawing shows a naked male figure surrounded perfectly within the shape of a square that lays inside a circle and is the ultimate representation of the 'enlightenment' of the human mind into the veiled principles of the universe.

Named and inspired by the Roman architect Vitruvius, who first proposed that the perfect proportions of the human body could be applied to the realm of architecture, it illustrates man's understanding of 'itself' and the cosmic connection between humans and the universe wonderfully. 

Leonardo would continue to be fascinated with the human body and its seemingly perfect geometry and relation to mathematics. He would draw hundreds of sketches of the human anatomy and use the 'golden ratio' of proportion in almost every one of his compositions.

The Last Supper (1498)

Leonardo Da Vinci - The Last Supper 1498

Da Vinci's mural of Jesus and his disciples is arguably his most famous and profound work. It depicts the scene of Jesus Christ and his twelve disciples at the last supper before Jesus's capture and eventual crucifixion. More specifically, it portrays the moment Jesus announces that one of his friends would betray him.

The painting emphasizes the apostle's reactions to Jesus's prophetic claim. The response to the painting has also been one of utmost acclaim, praising Da Vinci's use of space, exquisite use of perspective, and lighting and motion to convey complex human emotions as a shining example of the master's incredible skill.

The light emanates outward from the central Jesus, highlighting the Son of God as the piece's focal point. This is also enforced by the light coming in from the windows behind. Furthermore, each apostle seems to have its spotlight, as if each one is telling its own story. 

The Mona Lisa (1506)

Leonardo Da Vinci - Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) c. 1503-05

Art is a funny thing; you never know what will be your biggest' hit.' So when Leonardo was hired to paint Lisa Del Giocondo, he perhaps thought it little more than a paying job. Nevertheless, like all true artists, he also saw it as an opportunity to express the highest forms and ideals of 'art' itself. 

The lighting, in particular, masterfully magnifies the Mona Lisa as a representation of the Holy Mother, the Virgin Mary. Her face is illuminated such that she seems genuinely 'alive.' As a result, she is left with an enigmatic expression, the meaning of which is still debated today.

It is the most famous, most visited, most studied painting in the world, and like the last supper mural, has been parodied and copied countless times over. It currently resides in the Louvre Museum in France, after a long and fascinating history.

Saint John the Baptist (1516)

Leonardo Da Vinci - St. John the Baptist (San Giovanni Battista)

Believed to be Da Vinci's final painting, 'John the Baptist shares some strong similarities to the Mona Lisa. However, it invokes many contradictory feelings, from its solitary figure to its haunting expression to its ambiguousness.

What's remarkable about the painting is the sense of unease it invokes. This again is achieved through proper genius use of lighting or lack thereof. Shrouded in darkness, John himself is the light, as if as an embodiment of the principle of the good against evil.

Moreover, it could be suggested that the entire doctrines of Christianity are made completely clear for any viewer of this painting. And all this is achieved simply through the use of lighting.

The Bottom Line

Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci was truly one of history's most fascinating artists. However, lighting in his work is just the tip of the iceberg of man's greatness; the rest remains eagerly waiting for you to discover.

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