The Chthonic Roots of Leonardo da Vinci’s Youthful Iconography


  • Christopher Tyler City University of London



Leonardo da Vinci, iconography, Greek mythology, Persephone, Narcissus, Hades


Background: Leonardo da Vinci painted some of the most iconic works of the High Renaissance, and yet some of their iconographic features remain largely unexamined, as do the relevant large-scale conventions of Christian iconography and the Etruscan roots of the Humanist tradition of the period.Problem statement: An unusual feature that is found in most of Leonardo da Vinci’s depictions of the Virgin Mary is a striking yellow or golden sash around her waist. Such a feature is not found in prior depictions of this central figure of Christian iconography, and in only a few of the works of his immediate pupils, and is thus largely unique to Leonardo. As such, it calls for an analytic appraisal of its derivation as a symbolic trope in his youthful works.Proposition: An association with the myth of Persephone is developed on the basis of several features of his ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ in particular, in which a yellow sash is a central motif. This mythic identification in turn helps to account for the substantial deviation of this work from the specification of its original commission into an extreme version of the mountainous setting that is common to most of Leonardo’s established works. The roots of this symbolism are then considered in relation to the Etruscan resonances of the Florentine milieu in which Leonardo matured.


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