Monday, January 24, 2005

The Leonardo Code

In Dan Brown's imaginative--and lucrative--tale, the ideal Renaissance man (Leonardo) and Jesus become inextricably linked in a dazzling web of intrigue, conspiracy, and covert ideologies and power. While a great deal of attention has been paid in the press and amongst Christians concerning Brown's attempted revisioning of the sources of the Christian church (a move wholly rooted in novelistic concerns and very little in actual historical datum), whether Leonardo's character was maligned or represented unfairly has not produced much contemplation. In the Jan. 17, 2005 edition of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviews two recent biographies of the Renaissance man.

The juxtaposition of these two works reveals interesting dimensions of a man who has inspired something of a modernist cultic following. Is Leonardo a scientific precursor to recent discoveries? Was he modern before being modern was the "cool thing" to do? Though we may try to make Leonardo an enlightened precursor of modernity, the evidence may struggle against our anachronistic ways. Gopnik illustrates,
"The famous figure of Vitruvian man, for instance, splayed out in his encircled square, is in origin a derivative illustration of an antique idea about regular proportions: a man's proportions when the arms are horizontal make a square; with the arms diagonal they center a circle. Though it is possible to see this as a 'humanist' ideal, it is not necessarily so; it says not that man's proportions are divine but merely that they are regular. The point of the image is not that man is the measure of all things; it is that man can, like all things, be measured. But the tension between this abstract and diminishing idea and its realization as a strange, aged, specific figure, with a strong, ostentatious but perfect body and a grave, unforgettable face--half Don Imus, half St. Jerome; Nicholl suggests that it is a self-portrait--gives the image a certain heroism, as though the individual had stoically lent himself for a scientific trial."

What seems to be the case was that Leonardo tread a precarious line between thought worlds colliding in the intellectual and spiritual ferment of the Renaissance. He further notes,
"Is Leonardo a scientist? We would like to make him one of ours, and are encouraged because through the years we have grown accustomed to the thought that scientists are in significant ways like artists: they imagine and observe and leap to hypotheses as poets leap to metaphors. They see beyond the thing at hand to the mysterious relation it may have to another thing at hand--when an apple drops on their head, they ask what dark, occult force in the earth drew it there. And yet, reading these new lives of Leonardo, one begins to think that scientists are not so very much like artists, and Leonardo least of all. He was a magus, and remains firmly on the far side of the scientific revolution. As Lisa Jardine's fine life of Robert Hooke reminded us recently, the real scientific revolution consisted of a willingness to measure once and again and then measure yet again. Doggedness, drudgery, and dutifulness--the three 'D's' of Protestantism--are at its heart, and those Leonardo never knew. He still thought by lunges and in metaphors. Things are understood by being shown to be like other things: the uterus is like a cosmos, the blood like rivers, the world is a microcosm."

I think that such insightful gazes into the thought world of Leonard lifts some of the mystery that permits Brown's imaginative mind to involve the artist in the greatest conspiracy of all time. These two biographies may provide us a portrait of an artist and not the caricature of a henchman.

And although interesting in and of themselves, these insights caused me to reflect on the task of theologians and, specifically, Biblical exegetes. Historical criticism spurred the 'scientific' study of the biblical texts which came to dominate western academia through the current day. No longer the queen of the sciences, theology had to justify its endeavors in an academy more and more interested in the so-called 'hard' sciences. The rise late last century towards literary criticism in biblical studies shifted the tide a bit along with an interest in narrative as a theological model. Yet the discipline remains quite entrenched in a scientific mode, broadly speaking.

How then ought we to label ourselves, scientists or artists? Do we follow the stricture of method and concoct testable hypotheses or do we interpret the impression of a text and summon theological significance with image and metaphor? Is there a middle ground for the theologian to claim as her own?