It’s safe to say that the National Gallery’s extraordinary Leonardo show has been a phenomenon. Standing in Trafalgar Square in the dark at 6am, I was struck by just how many individuals, couples, even families, had travelled from around the world to glimpse a handful of revered works. And yet reverence is surely the word when approaching Leonardo, the quintessential Renaissance-man. It’s no surprise that this exhibition is a religious event for art-lovers, a pilgrimage that must be made before the pieces on display are once more dispersed around the world. The gentleman queuing in front of me justified his trip from Oregon in the U.S. with tears in his eyes, telling me how he never believed a show like this could actually happen in his lifetime. I almost felt like a cheat for only having taken one bus to get there.
Could this event possibly live up to the hype? Absolutely. Securing these works by Leonardo is a big enough coup in itself, but what really makes this exhibition is the effort by curator Luke Syson and his team to ensure viewers appreciate Leonardo as, above all, a painter. In numerous interviews Syson has re-iterated his desire to celebrate this facet of Leonardo’s achievements, as his prowess with paint has been rather overshadowed by other recent exhibitions exalting Leonardo the scientist/inventor. Leonardo’s salaried tenure under the Milanese regime of Ludovico Sforza provides the perfect narrative framework when illustrating just how radically – and quickly – he revolutionised painting. The trajectory plotted by Syson here is effortless, plausible, and never once asks us to look away from Leonardo’s extraordinary images. This show makes a compelling case for an aesthetic shift in Leonardo’s work, showing (rather than telling) us how he moved from a fascination with accurately depicting natural beauty to a belief that painting could imaginatively approach the divine, that it could reveal how God sees the world.
The first room of this exhibition illustrates the artist’s arrival in Milan. Sforza’s usurpation of the dukedom initiated a utopian project, a desire to create a ‘new Athens’, and Leonardo originally arrived there as a musician. It is rather fitting, then, that the first painting we see is ‘The Musician’, a small, quietly revolutionary image of a young singer under Leonardo’s tutelage. By way of comparison, a portrait of a similar subject by one of Leonardo’s pupils is hung nearby, something this exhibition does often and to great effect. Moving into the second room and the exhibition really blossoms into life, collating sketches and preparatory material by Leonardo in order to illuminate ‘The Lady with an Ermine’ and ‘The Belle Ferronnière’, two portraits of unsurpassed beauty. Leonardo’s precise anatomical sketches are instrumental to our understanding of his approach, and similar material is on display in Room Three to illuminate the unfinished ‘Saint Jerome’.
If the previous two rooms had shown viewers how Leonardo looked to nature, then the two versions of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ in Room Four demonstrate his developing approach to divine subject matter. In the same room for the first time in known history, viewers can move effortlessly between them and appreciate the change in Leonardo’s approach when he came to paint the later version. It’s a wonderful privilege and a fascinatingly interactive experience, probably the most high-brow game of spot-the-difference ever initiated. The two pictures illustrate between them the thrust of the whole exhibition, the visible shift from naturalism to a kind of otherworldly, heightened reality. The next room continues the focus on divinity with ‘The Madonna Litta’ hung in the company of work by Leonardo’s pupils; Boltraffio’s ‘Madonna of the Rose’ proves an unexpected highlight, an expression of humanity and tenderness that should have pleased his master.
However the international headlines belong to one picture here over any other: ‘Christ as Salvator Mundi’, the recovered and restored ‘lost Leonardo’. Resplendent in the sixth room, this painting strengthens the case for this being the greatest interactive exhibition in recent memory; everyone who sees it can have their two cents – can it really be a Leonardo? Syson has stated that he’d stake his life on it. The painting itself certainly inspires this level of devotion, a haunting and mysterious vision of Christ so magnetic that it’s impossible to avert one’s eyes. The exhibition may conclude upstairs in the Sunley Room with an engaging dissection of the ‘Last Supper’ mural, but the ‘Salvator Mundi’ is the true crescendo of this exhibition, the image of a being somewhere between a man and a god painted by an artist believed by many to personify that same divine blend. As I left the gallery I tried to overcome my euphoria and make sense of it all. Yes, it had been somewhat testing to navigate the rooms with so many other viewers squeezed in, but I realised that this was surely part of the experience; Leonardo’s works have been the hottest ticket for over five hundred years, attractions inspiring religious fervour and adoration. Leonardo truly did elevate painting to divine heights. Do not miss this.
By Alex Belsey
‘Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ is at The National Gallery until 5th February. Advance tickets are sold out but there are a limited number of tickets released every day. These sell out quickly and require you to be queuing outside the Sainsbury Wing from at least 6am, if not earlier. But if anything’s worth an early start, it’s this.