Dear Straight Dope:
There's a debate over whether Leonardo DaVinci was actually a Christian or not. I've seen Christian websites claiming he is, but what I've read about the man tells me that he was non-religious at best. What's your take on this?
Frankly, Carl, there isn’t a whole lot to go on. In fact, I wish you had told me where you read about his being non-religious and what Christian websites claimed he was, because I had some trouble finding anything specific. Even when I did, such as when the Rev. Burris Jenkins, in a 1930 debate, said that Leonardo was a theist, there was no evidence provided to back the claim.
The most specific, and earliest statement on this subject (which probably had the best frame of reference, without all the years of people trying to push their own views) comes from the first edition of Vasari’s biographical essay (1550), which said, "his 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." Interestingly, this note was not found in the second edition (1568).
Marco Rosci’s biography, Leonardo (1976) 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." Rosci further noted that "he put his faith in the logical, empirical evidence of the senses and the certainty of mathematics." Also: "We know that Leonardo increasingly advocated an ‘un-Christian philosophy’ concerning man and nature and indulged in symbolic imagery during the first decade of the new century." And: "Leonardo’s activities seem to represent a complete rejection of the cultural and ideological values held dear by the papal court. There was certainly a conflict in Leonardo’s mind between old, cherished beliefs and new, disturbing visions. He still pinned his faith in logical certainty, in the often-repeated affirmation that mathematics and geometry were the true foundations of knowledge."
A. Marinoni, in his essay on Leonardo in The Literary Heritage, wrote: "He is content to leave the scholars to study metaphysical problems and essential causes praiseworthy activities but incapable of being put to the practical test and thus becoming the source of interminable controversy."
These statements imply a somewhat atheistic, or at least non-Christian (non-Catholic), attitude.
However, it also needs to be noted that Leonardo himself referred to God and the Creator in his own writings. For example, in Manuscript H, he said: "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." He also wrote, "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." Rosci described Leonardo’s views in this area: "Man 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."
Also, we have the issue of his paintings, which frequently portrayed Christian religious themes and people (The Last Supper, various Madonna and Child paintings, etc.).
Some of his scientific work went against the church orthodoxy. For example, according to the American Museum of Natural History website on Leonardo: "Recognizing the fossils as remains of once-living organisms, and arguing against the Deluge [worldwide flood] explanation, 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."
So where does this bring us? Unfortunately, not to a definite answer. The likeliest explanation, after reviewing what I’ve found, is that Leonardo was a theist of some sort, probably a Christian. He was not, however, beholden to the Roman Catholic world view in all of its beliefs (which probably accounts for Vasari’s statement). He believed in scientifically testing claims to knowledge, and came up with some results that the Church would not have liked. Meanwhile, though, he painted godly portraits that the Church did, indeed, like. His views aren’t as clear-cut as some might wish, in part because, well, he was human, and like many humans not entirely consistent in his views. I think that’s about the best we’re going to be able to do with this one, Carl.
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