The Burlington House Cartoon - Leonardo da Vinci

This is the first in a new series of prose pieces, intended to give a new perspective on great works of art.


And where else can i start, than here?

With a charcoal drawing

By history's greatest Autodidact.



Seen on screen; the skill of the artist's hand is obvious.

And, yet - somehow

The story is only half told.


Because, from here, what can we really see?


The paper looks dirty.

The figures seem stationary.

The spirituality is dulled.

The virgin is beautiful - but not radiant.


In truth, it all seems quite . . . normal.

Just another drawing, in and of it's time.


And yet,

When you see it in real life.


When you gaze up at it there

Hanging on the wall,

As the world around you fades away

And a smoky light seems to drift all around you;


Then, it becomes clear.

You are not just looking at a drawing.


You are in the presence of royalty.


This is the work of a man for whom the words "mastery" and "genius"

Are inadequate.

An artist who has been studied for more than 500 years

And is still not fully known; for all his secrets.


But, while other paintings can make us feel detached from the artists hand;

Here, we have the opposite.


If a painting he artist's equivalent to a finished novel

Then a drawing is like a diary entry.

It lays the skill of an artist's hand bare

For all to see;

With no barriers, or tricks.


And so it is here too.


We are not just looking at a family scene

Or a spiritual story;

We are seeing Leonardo's genius, expressed in the purest form possible;

With nothing but charcoal, chalk, and paper.


And, with that in mind, i find it no coincidence, that Leonardo left this work unfinished.


Notice St Anne's ghostly hand - pointing heavenwards.

Or Mary's feet, at the bottom of the scene.

Or the background - which has a mirage like quality to it.

(So faintly rendered, that it sometimes seems it is not there at all.)


Most will simply see this as a sign of Leonardo giving up on the drawing.

They will say he moved on to more important projects

As was so often the case, throughout his extraordinary life.


But, to me?


I don't think so.


I think this mastery of "non finito" (unfinished art)

Is Leonardo's way of telling us that, sometimes -

In both art . . . and life itself -

To finish something in it's entirety, is actually to ruin it.


True beauty lies in the incomplete.

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