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Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) could draw, no doubt about it.  He knew anatomy, for example, and made anatomical studies from human cadavers.  This must have been very unpleasant, given the absence of phermaldehyde at that time. It was also against the law, forbidden by the all-powerful Catholic Church which taught that the body housed the soul.  Leonardo’s curiosity knew no bounds.  He set out to dissect decaying bodies to find the place where the soul might have been located. The fact that he got away with this attests to his tremendous fame in his own lifetime and the high esteem in which he was held.  He was unassailable.

There are no paintings by Leonardo in any permanent collection in America.  (The one at the National Gallery is disputed and I don’t think it’s a Leonardo.)   So, when a Leonardo painting makes it into an exhibit, it behooves us to pay attention.  When I saw his “Madonna of the Yarnwinder “ at the Art Institute of Chicago this spring in the French Renaissance exhibit, I did a double take and paid attention.

Let’s pay attention here. We know that the upper body of the Madonna is facing us symmetrically (1 and 2). We can see that it’s not turned because her cleavage is in the middle.  Her right arm is tightly pressed against her side (1) and her hand is tilted in a way that is anatomically impossible.  Try it. Her left knee (4) has to be connected to the femur which has to be lodged in a pelvic socket.  Now, where would that be? At 3? Impossible.  Does the femur follow the dotted line?  Also impossible.  How does he get away with this?  He’s Leonardo and nobody questions his abracadabra.

Notice the bulge over her left thigh, concealing his sleight of hand.  Saved by drapery!   Once you see this, you’ll wonder at his sense of humor.  Granted, he had to get the Madonna and child into a triangular composition, that was standard for the time since the triangle is supremely stable and dogmatic stability is what the client wanted. But I think there’s humor here.  He’s pulling our leg as he pulls that woman’s leg right out of her pelvis.  At some point in his career, painting yet another Madonna must have gotten a bit boring and he might very well have felt the need to amuse himself.

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