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Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani ("The Lady with an Ermine") by Leonardo da Vinci, about 1489-90. (National Gallery London)

The Hands Of Leonardo

by Alva Noë
Dec 9, 2011

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Alva Noë

The title of the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition now up in London at the National Gallery is Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. It focuses on Leonardo's work at the court of Ludovico Sforza from the artist's arrival as a 30-year old in 1482 until his departure in the late 1490s. But the show might have been entitled "Hands," for the paintings on display are a riot of hands and the exhibition itself offers a surprising exposition of the human hand.

Leonardo was interested in the way the body expresses the soul. What is remarkable here is the way he brings hands into focus as, psychologically speaking, every bit the equal of faces, looks and posture.

No where is this calling attention to the hand more striking than in the portrait of Duke Ludovico's teenage mistress Cecilia Gallerani ("The Lady with an Ermine"). Her strong face gazes off to the left, unadorned youth and clean-skin on full display; delicate, thin-lipped, with the softest traces of a grin, Cecilia is a joyful person in full possession of her life. The right hand with which she holds the ermine, however, is out of place. It is enlarged, bony, powerful, even masculine. It juts forth. It is neither an accurate depiction of a young girl's hand, nor an idealization of her beauty, or her person. It is an almost caricature-like demonstration of something else. But what?

Again and again hands thrust forward, competing with faces and gazes for our attention. Could it be we are being reminded of the animality, the practicality, the handedness, that belongs to our distinctive way of being, our humanity?

In two versions of the "Virgin on the Rocks" — on display together for the first time — the Virgin's hand looms mightily over the baby Jesus. In the intimate and sensual "Madonna Litta," Mary's strong hand holds her baby tight. "The Musician," painted at the beginning of Leonardo's tenure in Milan, is the portrait of a young singer; his right hand floats noticeably at the picture's bottom, holding the music that he has, perhaps, just finished singing.

If there is an argument here, it is summed up in the unfinished "St Jerome." In this frightening work, the old man, visibly racked with spiritual agony, his musculature strained, stares off madly into the space of his visions; his right hand holds a rock; he is presumably about to thrash it against his own breast. But his left hand, only sketched, is raised before his face; it is monstrous, gigantic, bony and elongated — the fact of its mere suspension, its disuse, is the perfect proof of the Saint's emotional turmoil and disconnection from normal life.

All the paintings in the exhibition — with two striking exceptions — are marked by the forcible foregrounding of hands juxtaposed with the demure, oblique looking away of the subject's gaze. It is almost as if Leonardo posits the idea that if he gives you the hands of the person, he doesn't need to show you the open face and eyes, for the hands, no less than the eyes, are a window into the soul.

I said there were two exceptions. Across from "The Lady with an Ermine" is a portrait, "La Belle Ferronnire," of what is probably Ludovico's other woman, his wife. She is even more beautiful than Cecilia; her smile even more concealed in a vibration of emotion. But she looks straight at us. And she alone, of all the subjects of Leonardo's paintings in this show, holds her hands concealed behind a low wall. We don't need to see her hands; Leonardo has given us her eyes.

The other exception is Leonardo's iconic depiction of Jesus as the savior of the world, "Salvator Mundi." It is a full-frontal portrait of the face of the man, Jesus. We see his eyes — dark, smokey, they gaze upon us — and we also see his right hand — long fingered, enormous — raised in blessing. Jesus is God, the savior and creator of the world, but he is also fully a man. What this portrait shows us is not just this man, but man's essence. A human being uses hands to make, to create, to act, to show and to perceive.

Leonardo's famous "The Last Supper" — a full-scale copy by one of Leonardo's students is presented here in the final room of the exhibition — dramatizes the moment just after Jesus has informed his disciples that one among them will betray him. But we can regard this picture as a study in the expressive power of hands. Thirteen men, and 13 pairs of hands; each pair is specific to the man. We see hands pointing, clutching, holding, leaning, resisting, imploring, exclaiming, opening and offering. It is hands and, perhaps, also posture, much more than face, that tells us the story that unfolds at this last supper.

The exhibition includes a drawing from early on in Leonardo's tenure in Milan, a cross-section of the skull and brain that exhibits the central importance of vision in the human psyche. The drawing is not actually based on anatomical investigation but is a kind of imaginative cartoon of the idea that sight is our critical sense and basic to the organization of our minds, an idea that was, then as now, received wisdom. There can be no doubt that as a painter, as a maker objects for us to look at and contemplate, Leonardo's interest in the visual is paramount. But in an strange way, the paintings in this show give the lie to his pseudo-anatomy, and so to the received wisdom. For it is less the eyes of man, but the hands — the hands with which we act, and express, and with which the artist creates his works — that is the real target of investigation in these works of Leonardo.


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