The topic of Baptism in old mystery school traditions and the Baptism of St. John are central themes to the Phoenix St. John concept, hence my chosen name “St. John.” As a consequence, I have chosen to write on a Baptism-related topic today. I will start by sharing my favorite painting of all times: Da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist. Da Vinci painted St. John the Baptist on walnut wood. It is believed to be his final painting. The pointing gesture of St. John toward the heavens suggests the importance of salvation through baptism that John the Baptist represents. My favorite feature in this painting is St. John’s hand on his heart. I hope Masons reading this will recognize an affinity with our Masonic custom of hand on heart as I do.
The Virgin of the Rocks (sometimes the Madonna of the Rocks) is the name used for two paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci, of the same subject, and of a composition which is identical except for several significant details. Both paintings show the Madonna and Child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel, in a rocky setting which gives the paintings their name. The significant compositional differences are in the gaze and right hand of the angel. There are many minor ways in which the works differ, including the colours, the lighting, the flora, and the way in which sfumato technique was used.
The fact that Da Vinci painted two Virgin of the Rock versions has intrigued scholars and esoterists alike. Yet, this is a relatively rare topic, compared to how much The Last Supper, by Da Vinci has been discussed after the painting became central to the popular Da Vinci Code drama by Dan Brown. Art historians have never satisfactorily explained why there should be two Virgin of the Rocks. One is in the National Gallery in London, and the other in the Louvre in Paris.
Years ago I read The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ, by Picknett and Prince, a book on the vein of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, for those familiar with The Da Vinci Code’s influences. I saw Templar and Christ on the title of this book and my curiosity was sparked. I had to read it. It turned out to be an interesting read, although many argue that a lot of the information in it has been debunked. I mention the book here because it was there that I first encountered the intriguing paintings which are the topic of this discussion along with the controversy discussed below. This book is one of the few sources to investigate the matter at length.
The book makes the claim that Da Vinci encoded what the authors call an unwarranted importance of St. John the Baptist into many of his works such as the Adoration of the Magi and Virgin and Child with St Anne. I will discuss each of these works and claims in a subsequent article. Whether one considers the authors’ claims justified or fanciful, as they tend to make their points forcefully, there are clear indications that Da Vinci was up to something peculiar indeed. Only Da Vinci knows for sure what, if anything, he intended to convey in The Virgin of the Rocks. It is the authors’ interpretation that Da Vinci intended to emphasize the role of the Baptist over that of Christ.
The authors tell us that the original commission was from an organization known as the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, and was for a single painting to be the center piece of a triptych for the altar of their chapel in the church of San Francesco Grand in Milan. The contract, dated 25 April 1483, still exists, and sheds interesting light on the expected work—and on what the members of the confraternity actually received. In it they carefully specified the shape and dimensions of the painting they wanted. Both of Leonardo’s finished versions meet these specifications.
The contract also specified the theme of the painting. It was to portray an event not found in the Gospels but long present in Christian legend. This was the story of how, during the flight into Egypt, Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus had sheltered in a desert cave, where they met the infant John the Baptist, who was protected by the archangel Uriel. This legend tells how, at this remarkably fortuitous meeting of the two holy infants, Jesus conferred on his cousin John the authority to baptize him when they were both adults.
The point of this legend is that it allowed an escape from one of the more obvious and [difficult] questions raised by the Gospel story of Jesus’ baptism. Why should a sinless Jesus require baptism at all, given that the ritual is a symbolic gesture of having one’s sins washed away and of one’s commitment to future godliness? Why should the Son of God himself have submitted to what was clearly an act of authority on the part of the Baptist?
In the style of the day, the members of the confraternity had specified a lavish and ornate painting, complete with lashings of gold leaf and a flurry of cherubs and ghostly Old Testament prophets to fill out the space. What they got in the end was quite different, to such an extent that relations between them and the artist became acrimonious, culminating in a lawsuit that dragged on for more than twenty years.
Leonardo chose to represent the scene as realistically as possible, with no extraneous characters—there were to be no cherubs or shadowy prophets of doom for him. Although this scene supposedly depicts the flight into Egypt of the Holy Family, Joseph does not appear in it at all. The Louvre version, which was the earlier, shows a Virgin with a protective arm around one child, the other infant being grouped with Uriel. Curiously, the two children are identical, but odder still, it is the child with the angel who is blessing the other, and Mary’s child who is kneeling in subservience. This has led art historians to assume that, for some reason, Leonardo chose to pose the child John with Mary. After all, there are no labels with which to identify the individuals, and surely the child who has the authority to bless must be Jesus.
And here we encounter more controversial interpretations of the Virgin of the Rocks, which I find interesting to say the least as I delight in their curiosity. I will first explain and illustrate with red lines below what intrigues me the most. As stated above, the child embraced by the Virgin is the one kneeling as he receives the blessing from the child sitting next to the angel. According to the story Da Vinci was commissioned to interpret, the kneeling child should be John. If one traces lines from the angel’s pointed finger and the Virgin’s hand towards the kneeling child, the lines perfectly frame the child’s head. Since John the Baptist was beheaded, this seems to confirm the identity of the kneeling child but why would Leonardo place John with the Virgin Mary and not her son Jesus?
Note how rounded the Virgin’s hand is, almost suggesting that a rounded object, like a head, should be fitted in between her hand and that of the angel below. The Virgin’s fingers are even spread out somewhat as if she was holding a large thing.
The authors speculate that perhaps the similarity of the two children suggests that Leonardo was deliberately fudging their identity. Since it makes no sense that John should be sitting with Mary, it is possible to interpret the Virgin and angel’s hand gestures as indicative that the head of the Baptist should be placed above the child sitting with the angel so as to identify that child as John. In that case, it is John who is blessing Christ in the painting and not the other way around as the popular story goes. It is quite likely that the curious placement of the children led to the fight and lawsuit between Da Vinci and his patrons. Many speculate that there are two Virgin of the Rocks because Da Vinci was forced to repaint the scene without such oddities.
When we turn to the second version of the Virgin of the Rocks, we find that all the elements needed to make the above deductions are missing—but those elements only. The two children are quite different in appearance, and the one with Mary bears the traditional long-stemmed cross of the Baptist (although it is thought that this may have been added by a later artist, possibly to clarify that it is John sitting with Mary and not Jesus as one would expect). Mary’s right hand is still outstretched above the other child, but this time with a more relaxed, open gesture instead of appearing to grip an object. The angel no longer points. It is as if Leonardo is inviting us to ‘spot the difference’—daring us to draw our own conclusions from the anomalous details. There was surely no need for him to put his head on the block by working such heretical messages into his paintings unless he had a passionate belief in them.
Here I depart completely from the theories in the book to add my own impressions of what this could all mean, based on my studies and intensive interest on the Baptist and Baptism rituals in general. There are, as most people today know, a lot of theories and indications suggesting that Da Vinci was involved in subversive versions of Christianity. Da Vinci’s patrons of the Medici clan in Florence are widely believed to have been esoterically inclined and subversive as well. Under gnostic interpretations of the Baptism ritual, most notably the Cathar Consolamentum Baptism, the ritual was an immersion in the Holy Spirit. The tradition is a continuation of much earlier Baptism traditions of which John the Baptist is the best known.
John baptized many people, not just Jesus, leading many scholars to believe that Jesus was a follower or disciple of John. This is one plausible interpretation of why Da Vinci would place Christ in a seemingly subordinate position as to John. Several New Testament accounts report that some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John too.
The pervasive centrality of the Baptism ritual among ancient traditions was continued by heretical Christian groups of the late middle ages, such as the Cathars. The Medici and Da Vinci are thought to have secretly delved into such spiritual currents, leaving many “clues” of this fact in works of art. Under a more gnostic or heretical view, the Baptism in general and the Baptism of Christ in particular are events of monumental significance. One could argue that perhaps Da Vinci meant to portray that Christ would not have granted John authority to Baptize him as the legend Da Vinci was commissioned to portray goes because the ritual was well established before Christ; Christ joined into a pre-existing spiritual tradition rather than grant John unique authority to perform it. It is not certain what, if anything, Da Vinci meant to portray, however, so we are left with informed guesses and instinctive interpretations.
There is no doubt that John the Baptist has remained a central figure in later philosophical currents such as Freemasonry. Why Da Vinci would rebel in this commission to the point of fighting a law suit for years and create two versions of the painting, one with and one without these subtle but formidable elements, remains a mystery. But this mystery is not surprising when one considers the very real possibility that Da Vinci may have, in fact, intended to conceal heretical or esoteric knowledge for posterity. We are Da Vinci’s posterity and here we are now, speculating on his work’s meaning.
Thank you for reading! I do not subscribe to or espouse all material in the books below. I provide them here because I believe the books are good food for thought. Keep in mind that many of the claims found in these books are high contestable. I always recommend doing extra research and cross referencing for the serious interested Masons. For the lighter readers, please enjoy!
Until next time, fraternally,
Phoenix St. John