By Sarah Roy
On March 19, renowned art historian Martin Kemp came to speak to the campus on behalf of the Janson-La Palme Distinguished Lecture in European Art History series. Kemp’s is an accomplished name in the art world, having amounted considerable written material on science, anatomy, natural history, optics, and art, specializing in Leonardo da Vinci yet spanning a wide historical timeline of interests. He is emeritus professor in the History of Art at Oxford University and curated several exhibitions on a variety of themes, da Vinci included. Kemp’s large knowledge base came full circle in his invigorating lecture, “Leonardo’s Visions of Earth and Heaven.”
Kemp’s delivery was very eloquent and the subject matter thought-provoking; it was quickly apparent his expert status is well-deserved. He began by complimenting Chestertown for being authentically charming, diverging from the treatment of other “cosmetically painted up” historical towns, and delved earnestly into the big questions, namely: was Leonardo da Vinci an orthodox Christian or did he have deist tendencies that could be interpreted in his work? There has been some debate, and though the title and the focus of the lecture were not constrained to this particular point, it hovered over the heart of Kemp’s presentation and reunited with the audience at the end.
The two paintings which were the focal examples of his talk included the classic “Mona Lisa” and the recently unearthed “Salvator Mundi,” a piece lost and rediscovered. By analyzing these paintings with careful attention to detail, it is possible for evidence of da Vinci’s notebook work to manifest itself in exaggerating vividness in the figures of note. Lateral thinking – solving problems with a creative approach – was da Vinci’s specialty, an all-around polymath whose intense interest in both the beauty and mechanics of nature (and how these concepts are interchangeable) lent a subtle anatomy to his distinctly signature works. Much of that was due to his studies of the human body as a microcosm of the universe and a macrocosm of smaller parts of motions in the environment. As Kemp puts it, “man was termed a lesser world.”
An engineer and designer of canals for a portion of his life, da Vinci made several notes and sketches on water and hair, highlighting the implicit renewal flows and embellishing the motif throughout his images. Essentially he identified the motions as identical with the exception that hair was weighted at the end and so reacted to objects differently. The curve and activity was identified and repeated in delicate hair on both of the figures.
Kemp discussed other correlations researched by da Vinci: his examination of veins and their semblance to rivers (the young were straight; the old were winding), bronchial tubes branching with the poetry of trees, the entire organism as a vessel similar to an irrigation system, shepherding water (the blood of plants) from place to place. A poignant universality can be lifted from the pages where da Vinci had established that “the living body of the earth can accomplish circulation.” The impetus which vitalizes the body of the earth and the body of the person is the same.
Kemp declared the artist to be “a second nature in the world,” and we can assume da Vinci thought likewise. The second half of his lecture moved back into the divine, discussing da Vinci’s frequent portrayal of enigmatic smiles on his subjects. “Mona Lisa,” the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, is iconically recognized for this expression, and it may have been da Vinci’s highest compliment. Kemp theorizes that this portrayal of mystery is a sign of spiritual enlightenment, the inherent peaceful knowingness of those graced with the ability to see past the material clog of our dimension and into the spiritual.
Lisa del Giocondo is wearing the same shade of ambiguous satisfaction that da Vinci’s rendering of Salvator Mundi as Christ, giving the blessing gesture, is dressed with. Kemp concluded that da Vinci considered it his responsibility to represent the Creator’s presence in the world, and that the genius talent was not interested in speculation or theology – his path was clear and alight with an elusive fire gathered in the creases of his mind and paints.
If you would like to read more about Kemp’s insight on da Vinci, check out his succinct and fascinating book Leonardo, among his other writings.