Creator Mundi – Let there be light … / © 2017 Franz Gnaedinger
Many old master paintings are lost, but luckily some of them survive in copies by pupils, and then it can happen that an alleged copy, carefully restored and freed from overpaintings, turns out to be the original. This miracle happened with a Leonardo copy ascribed to Giovanni Beltraffio. Dianne Dwyer Modestini restored it, removed the old overpainting, and recognized a masterpiece from Leonardo’s hand, well preserved in several parts, less well in others.
The panel shows God in the appearance of Christ, looking at us frontally, surrounded by blackness, eyes veiled, forehead shining, his beautiful mouth giving the impression as if he had just spoken, holding a crystal ball in his left hand (on the right side), raising his right hand (on the left side), and pointing with his shining middle finger to the base of his parting (Scheitelansatz).
Most experts follow Modestini while some deplore the “dull composition.” It is much improved when you add the missing parts of the panel on the sides and below. The radius of the orb measures 1 unit, the diameter 2 units. Add one unit on the right side of the orb, and 5 units on the left side; 1 unit below the orb and 7 units above. Thus you obtain the original format 10 by 8 units, or 5:4. Now Leonardo’s “diuine proporzione” unfold, play their visual music, and serve the meaning of the picture
The center of a painting is important in Leonardo. Here the center of the original format is the throat (Halsgrübchen) indicating the Word by which God created the world according to the gospel of John 1:1
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
We see light on his forehead, chest, raised hand, and a first weak gleam in the transparent world sphere, making the holding palm, shining through, appear as the Earth with a range of hills or mountains, the dark blue cloth as night sky, and a brighter fold as Milky Way Two lines from a Dylan song
Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through ev’ry day
We see the transition from darkness to light in the contrast of the dark cloth and bright chest, while the seam mirrors the original format by the numbers: its height measures 4 units (very slightly more in order to counterbalance the optical effect that makes an arc appear slightly flatter than it is), height of throat (Halsgrübchen) in the center 5 units, height of head above the seam 5 units, height of figure 4 + 5 = 9 units, half the sum of original width and height. We perceive these relations at once, like a harmonious chord rich in overtones
Lines and diagonals of the grid 10 x 8 explain several features of the composition, especially the fingers of the raised hand, but while the base of the parting (Scheitelansatz) is well defined in several Leonardo paintings, here it can’t be fixed (at least not rationally), and this, I believe, holds meaning. We admire and study the world, feel the presence of a divine hand in the marvels of nature, but we can’t really explore God’s mind.
(Comparisons. The Mona Lisa painting is an allegory of seeing. The lateral pillars, which flanked the window of the balcony, symbol of the eye lens – the room a symbol of the eye chamber – were trimmed from the panel. The original format was 4:3. In the center of the original rectangle appears the bright reflex on the woman’s bosom – like a sun above the dark green-brown ‘horizon’ of the seam. Also the original format of John the Baptist, last painting by Leonardo, would have been 4:3, only that the panel was deliberately made smaller. John, alter ego of the painter, soon to be swallowed by the dark shadow in the background, announces a greater one than himself, God, whose Creation surpasses every human work in completeness and brilliance. Compare the hands, and consider that Leonardo was a left-hander.)