“What Was Leonardo da Vinci's Religion?”
A Lecture Given on March 19, 2011
at the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI)
4801 E. Fowler Ave.
Tampa, FL 33617
by Deputy Director of the World Union of Deists, Jayson X
(Jayson can't use his full name due to religious persecution which could threaten his employment in public education.)
There is an old saying: “You should never discuss sex, politics, or religion in polite company.” The point of this saying is that it is much easier to have pleasant relationships when we avoid controversial topics. People generally have very strong opinions about sex, politics, and religion; and many of these opinions contradict each other. Today, I am not going to talk about sex or politics. Instead, I am going to talk about religion. I apologize beforehand if I offend you.
By religion, I mean more specifically that aspect of religion known as theology. Theology is the belief or beliefs that one has regarding God or The Gods. According to this definition, almost every human has a theology because almost every human has a belief regarding God. Many Jews believe that they are the Chosen People of God, most Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Only-begotten Son of God, most Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last and greatest prophet of God in human history, all Agnostics believe that mortal humans do not have enough intelligence and/or information to determine if God exists or not, and all Atheists believe that God does not exist.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was arguably the most intelligent human who ever lived, so it makes sense that people would want to know what his theology was. Such people reason that such a smart person probably had a very good theology, maybe even the best theology, and such a theology could greatly help them. What we believe greatly influences how we think, feel, and act; and how we think, feel, and act greatly influence how sane, good, and happy we are in this life. What we believe might even greatly influence how sane, good, and happy we are in the next life, if there is such a thing.
What did Leonardo base his beliefs on? Was it the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church
into which he was baptized, was it the teachings of the Bible, or was it something else? Leonardo's writings indicate that he based all of his beliefs on reason. Reason is one's ability to perceive reality as honestly and completely as one can, and then make logical conclusions based on what one perceives. The opposite of reason is faith, and I like Mark Twain's definition of faith: “Faith is being convinced that what you don't believe is true.” More seriously, faith is believing something without sufficient reason. Reason leads us to conclude that human beings built the pyramids of Egypt by themselves. Faith might lead us to conclude that aliens helped the ancient Egyptians build them.
Marco Rosci's biography, Leonardo, notes that Leonardo "adopted an empirical approach to
every thought, opinion, and action and accepted no truth unless verified or verifiable, whether related to natural phenomena, human behavior, or social activities" http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1697/was-leonardo-da-vinci-religious). Leonardo himself wrote, “Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.”
Truly, Leonardo valued reason much more than faith. Reason-based beliefs are discovered and verified through the scientific method. The scientific method is when one observes reality with one's five senses, makes logical hypotheses based on one's observation, and then does experiments to prove or disprove one's hypotheses. The vast majority of Leonardo's writings are concerned with observations and experiments. Da Vinci was a great artist, but he might have been a much greater scientist. Judging from his writings, his main goal in life was to know as much about the real universe as he could.
Contrast Leonardo's goals and methods with the faith-based goals and methods of so many of his Italian contemporaries. Faith-based goals usually are designed to make one happy, not to know as much about the real universe as possible. Faith-based beliefs are usually taught by some ancient authority and then uncritically believed by the believer. They are not based on the scientific method. The main goal of most of Leonardo's Italian contemporaries was to have eternal bliss in Heaven, and the method they used to achieve this goal was to believe and do what the Roman Catholic Church taught.
While he epitomized the zest for life and nature that was the guiding theme of humanism, he did at the same time eschew the dependence on ancient sources and the worshipful repetition of its principles that equally characterized its scholarship. “Those who study the ancients and not the words of Nature,” he wrote, “are stepsons and not sons of Nature, the mother of all good authors.” He was the first to approach the pronouncements of the Aristotles, Ptolemys, and Galens as teachings to be tested and challenged rather than as teachings to be necessarily accepted (Nuland 8).
In this long excerpt from his notes, listen to how Leonardo praises reason-based beliefs and criticizes faith-based beliefs:
"I am well aware that because I did not study the ancients, some foolish men will accuse me of being uneducated. They will say that because I did not learn from their schoolbooks, I am unqualified to express an opinion. But I would reply that my conclusions are drawn from firsthand experience, unlike the scholars who only believe what they read in books written by others."
"Although I cannot quote from authors in the same way they do, I shall rely on a much worthier thing, actual experience, which is the only thing that could ever have properly guided the men that they learn from."
"These scholars strut around in a pompous way, without any thoughts of their own, equipped only with the thoughts of others, and they want to stop me from having my own thoughts. And if they despise me for being an inventor, then how much more should they be despised for not being inventors but followers and reciters of the works of others."
"When the followers and reciters of the works of others are compared to those who are inventors and interpreters between Nature and man, it is as though they are non-existent mirror images of some original. Given that it is only by chance that we are invested with human form, I might think of them as being a herd of animals."
"Those who try to censor knowledge do harm to both knowledge and love, because love is the offspring of knowledge, and the passion of love grows in proportion to the certainty of knowledge. The more we know about nature, the more we can be certain of what we know, and so the more love we can feel for nature as a whole."
"Of what use are those who try to restrict what we know to only those things that are easy to comprehend, often because they themselves are not inclined to learn more about a particular subject, like the subject of the human body."
"And yet they want to comprehend the mind of God, talking about it as though they had already dissected it into parts. Still they remain unaware of their own bodies, of the realities of their surroundings, and even unaware of their own stupidity."
"Along with the scholars, they despise the mathematical sciences, which are the only true sources of information about those things which they claim to know so much about. Instead they talk about miracles and write about things that nobody could ever know, things that cannot be proven by any evidence in nature."
"It seems to me that all studies are vain and full of errors unless they are based on experience and can be tested by experiment, in other words, they can be demonstrated to our senses. For if we are doubtful of what our senses perceive then how much more doubtful should we be of things that our senses cannot perceive, like the nature of God and the soul and other such things over which there are endless disputes and controversies."
"Wherever there is no true science and no certainty of knowledge, there will be conflicting speculations and quarrels. However, whenever things are proven by scientific demonstration and known for certain, then all quarreling will cease. And if controversy should ever arise again, then our first conclusions must have been questionable (http://www.evolutionaryphilosophy.net/leonardo.html)."
Alright, so we have established that da Vinci based his beliefs on reason, not faith. But did he believe in God? Yes. We know this because Leonardo wrote about God as if God exists and did not write about God as if God does not exist. Listen to the following quotations from the Maestro's own writings:1
"Good Report soars and rises to heaven, for virtuous things find favor with God. Evil Report should be shown inverted, for all her works are contrary to God and tend toward hell."
"O you who look on this our machine, do not be sad that with others you are fated to die, but rejoice that our Creator has endowed us with such an excellent instrument as the intellect."
"Thou, O God, dost sell unto us all good things at the price of labor" (Gelb 69).2
"If the Lord—who is the light of all things—vouchsafe to enlighten me, I will treat of Light; wherefore I will divide the present work into 3 Parts . . . Linear Perspective, The Perspective of Colour, The Perspective of Disappearance."
"[W]e may justly call . . . painting . . . the grandchild of nature and related to God."
"We, by our arts may be called the grandsons of God."
"Fame alone raises herself to Heaven, because virtuous things are in favour with God."
1 The following two quotations are found at http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1697/wasleonardo-da-vinci-religious.
2 The following four quotations are found at http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080118110349AAKd1iY .
Now that we are convinced that the Maestro both based his beliefs on reason and concluded that God exists, let us consider whether he believed everything the Roman Catholic Church taught or everything the Bible teaches. Was he even a Christian?
Let's answer this last question first. In order to answer it, we must first define what a Christian is. A Christian is someone who follows the religion which was supposedly started by Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe was the Messiah. The Greek word for Messiah is Christos, hence the name Christian. The (small-o) orthodox version of Christianity has the following teachings among others: the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming.
The Incarnation is the belief that God became a human being in the womb of a virgin named Mary. This human being is called Jesus Christ. The Atonement is the belief that Jesus’ death on the cross took away the guilt of all of humanity's sins, thus allowing people who believe in the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming to go to Heaven.
The Resurrection is the belief that Jesus miraculously came back to life after he died, which proves that what Jesus taught was true, including the teaching that there is life after death. The Ascension is the belief that Jesus miraculously went up in the sky and, thus, vanished into Heaven. This supposedly explains why Jesus is not walking around the Earth nowadays. The Second Coming is the time in the future when Jesus will come back to Earth and make everything right. True Christians will experience the eternal bliss of Heaven, and everyone else will be burned alive forever in Hell.
Leonardo was probably not an orthodox Christian or any other type of Christian like that.
Simply speaking, there is nothing in his writings to indicate that he believed in the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming. He wrote approximately 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, approximately 7,000 of which survive until this day. Yet those thousands of surviving pages do not profess any uniquely Christian beliefs. Some of them do have drawings of Christian scenes, but, as far as I know, those drawings were for paintings that Leonardo did or planned to do for payment.
That having been said, perhaps da Vinci was some kind of very liberal Christian, one which rejected all the faith-based teachings of Christianity but who kept every other Christian doctrine that seemed good and true. However, such very liberal Christians--people like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson--are more accurately categorized as Deists. I will talk more about Leonardo and Deism later on.
Da Vinci was certainly not a devout Roman Catholic. In fact, Leonardo had strong reasons to hate the Roman Catholic Church. Here are three of those reasons:
One, Leonardo was a truth-seeker, and the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages tended to imprison, torture, and execute truth-seekers. This fact would not endear him to the Roman Catholic Church. "In Leonardo's time, the late 1400s, there was no formal scientific research. Scholars instead unquestioningly accepted the observations of nature that were passed down from Aristotle and other ancient Greeks. This was because although the [Roman Catholic] Church would not permit free inquiry, they were unable to suppress the writings of the ancient Greeks, and so they allowed ancient Greek science to be taught as long as it did not conflict with the teachings of the Bible" (http://www.evolutionary-philosophy.net/leonardo.html). In fact, Pope Leo X interfered with da Vinci's beloved autopsies, prohibiting him from further dissections. Thus, Leonardo's "great studies on the human body were terminated, never to be resumed with the same intensity" (Nuland 94).
Two, Leonardo thought that the Roman Catholic Church was scamming its less sophisticated members: "Leonardo objected to the commercial exploitation of relics, religious art, and pious items, saying, 'I see Christ once more being sold and crucified and his saints martyred.' In his notebooks and letters, he protested the sale of indulgences, liturgical and ceremonial pomp, obligatory confessions, and the cult of the saints. He assailed the clergy—at all levels—for their lack of morality, values, and education. As a scientist, he questioned the contemporary reality of miracles performed by priests and monks" (Apostolos-Cappadona).
Leonardo liked to poke fun at silly religious beliefs and practices. The following jest is found in one of his notebooks:
A priest going the round of his parish on Saturday before Easter, sprinkling holy water in the houses as was his custom, came to a painter's room and there sprinkled the water upon some of his pictures. The painter, turning round somewhat annoyed, asked him why this sprinkling had been bestowed on his pictures; then the priest said that it was the custom and that it was his duty to do so, that he was doing good, and that whoever did a good deed might expect a return as good and better; for so God had promised that every good deed that was done on earth shall be rewarded a hundredfold from on high. Then the painter, having waited until the priest had walked out, stepped to the window above, and threw a large bucket of water to his back, saying: Here is the reward a hundredfold from on high as you said would come from the good you did me with your holy water with which you have damaged half my pictures (Gelb 18).
Three, Leonardo was accused and brought to trial for sodomy. Whether Leonardo was homosexual or not, this Church-sponsored persecution would not endear him to the Roman Catholicism. If Leonardo was homosexual, he would probably hate the Roman Catholic Church for forbidding him to enjoy the type of sex he craved. If he was not homosexual, he still was threatened with severe punishment for a victim-less crime which he did not do.
Of course, homosexual acts are not just condemned by the Roman Catholic Church; they are also condemned by the Bible. Simply speaking, the Roman Catholic Church of Leonardo's time was Fundamentalist Christian. Fundamentalist Christianity teaches that every assertion of the Bible is literally true, unless the assertion is obviously figurative language. Thus, the seven days of creation were literally seven 24-hour periods of time. As The Defender's Study Bible--a popular Fundamentalist Christian version of the King James Bible--explains, "The use of 'Day' (Hebrew yom3) in Genesis 1:5 is its first occurrence in Scripture, and here it is specifically defined by God as 'the light' in the cyclical succession of light and darkness which has, ever since, constituted a solar day. Since the same word is used in defining all later 'yoms' as used for this 'first' yom, it is incontrovertible that God intends us to know that the days of creation week were of the same duration as any natural solar day" (Morris 4).
[We] know that throughout his life Leonardo questioned dogma and expressed his doubts about the literal interpretation of the Bible. For example, in the eighteen pages of the notebooks that Bill Gates purchased for $30.8 million, Leonardo questions the biblical explanation of the Flood. 'Here a doubt rises, and that is: whether the Flood which came at the time of Noah was universal or not. And it would seem not, for the reasons which will now be given. We have it in the Bible that this deluge lasted 40 days and 40 nights, of incessant and universal rain, and that this rain rose to ten cubits about the highest mountains in the world. And if it had been that the rain was universal, it would have covered our globe which is spherical in form. And this spherical surface is equally distant in every part from the centre of its sphere; hence the sphere of the waters being under the same conditions, it is impossible that the water upon it should move, because water, in itself, does not move unless it falls; therefore how could the waters of such a deluge depart, if it is proved that it has no motion? And if it departed how could it move unless it went upwards? Here, then, natural reasons are wanting; hence to remove this doubt it is necessary to call it a miracle to aid us, or else to say that all this water was evaporated by the heat of the sun' (Gelb 16-17). 3 Pronounced yōm.
Leonardo found evidence in fossils, rock formations, and the movements of water that the Earth was much older than the Bible and Roman Catholic Church taught. "Recognizing the fossils as remains of once-living organisms, . . . Leonardo reasoned that such fragile shells could not have been swept so far inland and survived intact. He also noted that the fossils commonly lay in successive rock layers, evidence that they were deposited by multiple events rather than by only one. And he observed that groups of different fossil shells found together resembled the living groups assembled in coastal waters. For all these reasons, Leonardo correctly concluded that the fossils came from animals which once inhabited an ancient sea that covered the land" (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1697/was-leonardo-da-vinci-religious).
In his own words, he says, "Since things are far more ancient than letters, it is not to be wondered at if in our day there exists no record of how the aforesaid seas extended over so many countries; and if, moreover, such record ever existed, the wars, the conflagrations, the deluges of the waters, the changes in speech and habits, have destroyed every vestige of the past. But sufficient for us is the testimony of things produced in the salt waters and now found again in the high mountains far from the seas" (Nuland 106).
Perhaps most impressive is the mysterious phrase, "The sun does not move," which stands by itself in capital letters among his writings. It is likely that da Vinci correctly concluded before Copernicus and Galileo that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of the solar system. This truth obviously contradicted the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church during that time. However, it also contracts the teaching of the Bible.
Psalm 93:1 teaches that the Earth stands still, while Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that the sun orbits it.
Here is Psalm 93:1: "The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. Yea, the world is established; it shall never be moved;" And here is Ecclesiastes 1:5: "The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises." So, according to these two Bible verses, the Earth does not move and the sun goes around it.
An Earth-centered universe explains how the sun could stand still in the Book of Joshua.
Joshua 10:12-14 proclaims, "Then spoke Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the men of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, 'Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon, and thou Moon in the valley of Ai'jalon.' And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies." The purported miracle was that God stopped the sun from rotating around the Earth. This was a miracle because the sun supposedly always moves around the Earth.
About a century after Leonardo's death, another famous Italian genius, Galileo Galilei, was found guilty of contradicting the Bible by teaching that the Earth orbits the sun. The following is part of the "Sentence of the Tribunal of the Supreme Inquisition against Galileo Galilei, given the 22nd day of June of the year 1633". "We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare, that thou, the said Galileo, by the things deduced during this trial, and by thee confessed as above, hast rendered thyself vehemently suspected of heresy by this Holy Office, that is, of having believed and held a doctrine which is false, and contrary to Holy Scriptures, to wit: that the Sun is the centre of the universe, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the centre of the universe: and that an opinion may be held and defended as probable after having been declared as contrary to Holy Scripture" http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1630galileo.html).
So Leonardo based his beliefs on reason and concluded that God exists, but was probably not a Christian. He neither based his beliefs on a supposedly holy book like the Bible nor a supposedly holy institution like the Roman Catholic Church. What religion was he then, that is what did he believe about God? Well, he was not a Jew or a Muslim, because Judaism and Islam, like Christianity, require leaps of faith; and faith is the opposite of reason. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all based on miracles, and no miracle has ever been scientifically proven. Therefore, believing in miracles requires faith.
It seems to me that da Vinci was probably a Deist. What is a Deist? A Deist is someone who bases all of his or her beliefs on reason and concludes that God exists (or probably exists). Reason is one's ability to perceive reality as honestly and completely as one can, and then construct logical explanations for what one perceives. God is the being whom many people believe purposefully created the universe. God is not the same thing as mindless Nature, nor is God some other kind of mindless force that does things. God is a very intelligent being that planned the universe and then purposefully executed that plan.
Deists often liken God to an author who remains hidden and silent. To learn about God we must read God's metaphorical book, the universe. Listen to Leonardo's very Deistic words on this subject: "The grandest of all books, I mean the Universe, stands open before our eyes" (Nuland).
Leonardo constantly read that "book" of the universe to learn the truth. He did not rely on supposedly holy people, holy books, or holy institutions.
The earliest biography of Leonardo was the first edition of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, which was written in 1550. In it, Vasari wrote that Leonardo's "cast of mind was so heretical that he did not adhere to any religion, thinking perhaps that it was better to be a philosopher than a Christian." Vasari was Roman Catholic, and this is how a Roman Catholic might easily misunderstand a Deist. Deism is a very simple belief system compared to Roman Catholicism. Although Deists believe that God exists, compared to Roman Catholicism it has almost no doctrines. Deism seems more like Atheism or Agnosticism, than Roman Catholicism or other forms of (small-o) orthodox Christianity.
Yes, Leonardo da Vinci was a mysterious man whose actual religious beliefs have been debated for hundreds of years. He has been called an absentminded Roman Catholic, a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, an Agnostic, and an Atheist. But, given the information I have just presented, I am convinced that he was probably a Deist. To back up this assertion further, I will share two quotations from two of his modern biographers:
Diane Apostolos-Cappadona wrote, "He found proof for the existence and omnipotence of God in nature—light, color, botany, the human body—and in creativity" (Apostolos-Cappadona). That sounds like a Deist to me!
Marco Rosci wrote that Leonardo believed that "[m]an is the handiwork of a God who retains few links with traditional orthodoxy. But man is emphatically no mere 'instrument' of his Creator. He is himself a 'machine' of extraordinary quality and proficiency and thus proof of nature's rationality" (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1697/was-leonardo-da-vinci-religious ). That also sounds like a Deist to me!
There are some reasons to disbelieve that da Vinci was a Deist, but these arguments can be easily explained away.
For example, in his second edition of The Lives of the Artists, which was written 18 years after the first edition, "Vasari describes Leonardo's final months . . . : 'Finally, being old, he lay sick for many months. When he found himself near death he made every effort to acquaint himself with the doctrine of Catholic ritual.' . . . He died on May 2, having received the sacraments of the Church" (Nuland 99-100). However, it is very odd that this version of Leonardo's death was not recorded in the first edition of The Lives of the Artists. It is almost as if Vasari felt the need after awhile to make Leonardo seem Roman Catholic. Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church pressured Vasari to add this false detail to keep people from questioning Roman Catholicism. If Leonardo was baptized Roman Catholic but chose not to die Roman Catholic, he probably rejected Roman Catholicism. And if Leonardo, who was good and wise, rejected Roman Catholicism, then maybe others are good and wise to reject Roman Catholicism too.
Another fact in support of this theory has to do with the aforementioned description of Leonardo's heretical cast of mind. Remember that Vasari wrote that Leonardo's "cast of mind was so heretical that he did not adhere to any religion, thinking perhaps that it was better to be a philosopher than a Christian." That detail of Leonardo's life is found in the first edition of The Lives of the Artists, but it is not mentioned in the second edition of The Lives of the Artists, which was written 18 years later. So the second edition dropped the scandalous, heretical, non-Christian reference and added an acceptable Roman Catholic death. That sure seems like revisionist history of the worst kind to me!
Another argument for Leonardo's supposed Christianity goes something like this: What about all that Christian art he did? Doesn't that mean that he believed in Christianity? Not necessarily. Da Vinci might have mainly done those paintings for the money. After all, he also contracted his services to make weapons of war, although he was generally a man of peace.
No discussion about the Maestro's religion would be complete unless the subject of The Da Vinci Code was mentioned. Are the claims of Dan Brown's book correct? No. The Da Vinci Code is like the movie National Treasure. Both are works of fiction based on historical people, places, events, and myths. I will let those who are more knowledgeable than me about this subject elaborate:
None of the collections of Leonardo documentation has anything about the Priory of Sion. Leonardo had absolutely no time for such secret mumbo-jumbo. The figure on Christ's right is the youthful St. John, who is awaking (as traditionally) from a doze. He's typical of Leonardo's pretty young men. The Da Vinci Code is fiction not history. . . . The myth of some kind of sexual liaison between Christ and Mary Magdalene has been around for years and lacks any kind of historical justification. . . . [There is] no knowledge of any activity on the part of Leonardo in the field of cryptography other than the obvious use of reverse writing in his notebooks and his intentional obfuscation of design details in many of the drawings for his remarkable inventions. . . . [T]he possibility of a line of progeny emerging from the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene . . . [is] an enduring mystery and delicious speculation . . . [that belongs] in a novel (Gelb 5-6).
In conclusion, Leonardo da Vinci was probably a Deist--not a Christian, or the guardian of the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, or something else.
My name is Jayson X, and I am the deputy director of the World Union of Deists. The World Union of Deists is an organization dedicated to teaching people about Deism, and if you want to know more about it or Deism, you can email me at email@example.com or go to our website, www.deism.com. On the back table there is a pad of paper. Please write your email address on it if you want me to email you a copy of tonight's lecture. I promise that I will not send you any other emails unless you ask for them.
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