A Sign of the Times?


Details from the ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ in the Louvre. Are these hand gestures sign language? Did Leonardo sign his initials: LDV?

Artists were not permitted to sign their paintings in the fifteenth century. Even the subjects’ identities were disguised under a layer of flattering (or covertly unflattering) iconography. Anagrams, puns, links to family crests, and professed virtues linger under ambiguous titles provided much later. The titles of paintings were more general descriptions considering documentation and eye witnesses were long gone by the time subsequent generations named them.

Woman with a ferret? Musician Playing a Lute? But what woman? What musician? Why a ferret? Why point a finger at something unimportant? More importantly, why play by the rules?

It’s fair to assume Leonardo made his own rules in his rise to discovering the secrets of anatomy, and religious affiliations were easier to cover up because popular holy stories and themes eclipsed any personal iconography of the artist’s. It helped that Leonardo was a master of the art of subtlety. He’d been keeping his thoughts to himself for years. After all, declaring a man could fly was tantamount to blasphemy. Hiding models of flying machines was perhaps the hardest of all, but nevertheless, it is documented Leonardo tested his ornithopters from Mt. Cerceri, a nearby mountainside.

'Madonna of the Rocks' by Leonardo da Vinci. The Louvre version.


MADONNA of the ROCKS two


In my novel, Second Lisa, I premise Leonardo uses sign language in the version marked number 1 (see left) of the ‘Madonna of the Rocks,’ to declare his connection under the noses of the authorities.

There is some pentimento evidence to presuppose this.

A pentimento, derived from the Italian word pentirsi, meaning repentance, is an under-drawing which indicates where an artist has altered their original design. Sometimes these ghostly images appear in plain sight as a painting fades, but more often, they only become visible through the use of infrared cameras. State of the art forensic cameras using X-ray and reflectographic technology can also reveal completely different images under the visible work, but in the case of the ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ fig. 2, they show a previous composition. A variation from the (considered) original cartoon shows the figure of Mary no longer holding her hand over an infant’s head.

The two versions were painted years apart due to a binding contract to deliver the painting to the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception after it was refused due to the complaint it failed to adhere to the original specifications.

After prolonged refusal to pay, the artists in partnership sold the painting to another patron. The second version fulfilled the legal obligation but it was missing one of the original elements. Why did Leonardo remove the angels pointing hand gesture?

The ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ was painted as a collaborative commission in the art studio of the de Predis brothers, in Milan. One of the brothers who worked alongside Leonardo, was deaf and likely taught Leonardo the art of signing. What better way to sign a work covertly than in the open. Wouldn’t that be the perfect finishing touch of the artist we’ve come to celebrate as the iconic Renaissance Man?

Hats off to Leonardo. Boo to the authorities who tried to control art and intimidated artists from acknowledging their own works (including the invisible workforce of women painters who worked, uncredited, alongside their male counterparts)

It’s rather obvious that the artist has taken pains to show the hand gestures in a vertical line. Hardly an accident of composition if one wanted them to be ‘read’ together.

So, I ask you. Could these hand gestures be sign language? Do they spell out the initials LDV? The Madonna’s left hand forms an L, the pointing gesture was once known to represent the letter D, and the infant’s sign of benediction forms the letter V. All ‘signs point’ to a yes, for me.

My next blog will feature excerpts from my latest paranormal time-slip novel to the quattrocento of the Italian Renaissance, ‘Adoration – loving Botticelli.’ This love story (accepted genre: paranormal romance) pairs Sandro Botticelli with a woman from the twenty-first century. Think, Oscar Wilde’s ‘Portrait of Dorian Gray,’ and the wonderful book, ‘Time Traveler’s Wife,’ and you will be halfway there.






About Veronica Knox

Veronica Knox has a Fine Arts Degree from the University of Alberta, where she studied Art History, Classical Studies, and Painting. In her career as a graphic designer, illustrator, private art teacher, and ‘fine artist,’ she has also worked with the brain-injured and autistic, developing new theories of hand-to-eye-to-mind connection. Veronica lives on the west coast of Canada, supporting local animal rescue shelters, painting, writing, editing other author’s novels, and championing the conservation of tigers and elephants, and their habitats. Her artwork and visuals to support ‘Second Lisa’ may be viewed on her website - www.veronicaknox.com
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