Symbolism in Leonardo da Vinci’s Work

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the quintessential Renaissance polymath, continues to captivate us through his remarkable artistic and intellectual pursuits. Known for his mastery of various disciplines, from art and science to architecture and engineering, da Vinci’s work transcends time and remains an enduring source of fascination. Among the many facets of his genius, the symbolism embedded within his art holds particular allure. This article will delve into the rich tapestry of symbolism in Leonardo da Vinci’s work, exploring the visual language he employed to convey ideas, emotions, and universal truths.

I. Religious and Mythological Symbolism

As a product of his time, da Vinci’s art is replete with religious and mythological symbolism. His works often depict Christian themes, intertwined with pagan symbolism to create a unique blend of the sacred and the profane.

  1. The Last Supper (1495-1498)

Perhaps the most famous example of religious symbolism in da Vinci’s work, The Last Supper illustrates the moment Jesus reveals his impending betrayal during the final Passover meal. The painting is rife with symbolism, from the architectural setting and the placement of the apostles to the hand gestures and expressions of each figure.

  • Spatial organization: The arrangement of the apostles into groups of three represents the Holy Trinity, while the central figure of Jesus forms the apex of a triangle, symbolizing his divinity.
  • Bread and wine: The depiction of bread and wine on the table signifies the Eucharist, the Christian sacrament representing Jesus’s body and blood.
  • Judas Iscariot: The figure of Judas, isolated from the others and clutching a purse, embodies his betrayal.
  1. The Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486)

This painting presents an enigmatic scene, with the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, John the Baptist, and an angel in a rocky landscape. It contains both Christian and pagan symbolism, emphasizing the interconnectedness of the natural and spiritual realms.

  • Pyramidal composition: The central figures form a pyramid, symbolizing stability and harmony.
  • The angel: The angel’s gesture toward John the Baptist signifies the divine mission of both John and Jesus.
  • Rocks and plants: The rocky setting and plant life symbolize the dual nature of Christ – simultaneously earthly and divine.

II. Mathematical and Geometrical Symbolism

Leonardo’s fascination with mathematics and geometry is evident throughout his work. He believed that these disciplines held the key to understanding the universe, and he incorporated their principles into his art.

  1. Vitruvian Man (c. 1487)

This iconic drawing demonstrates da Vinci’s obsession with proportion and symmetry. The figure embodies the ideal human proportions, as described by the Roman architect Vitruvius, while also illustrating the geometric relationships between the parts of the human body.

  • The square and circle: These two shapes symbolize the earthly (square) and the divine (circle), highlighting the connection between the physical and the spiritual.
  • Proportional relationships: The proportional relationships within the figure express the harmony and order of the universe.
  1. The Mona Lisa (1503-1506)

Da Vinci’s most famous work, the Mona Lisa, showcases his use of geometry and proportion to create a sense of harmony and balance.

  • Pyramidal composition: The figure’s triangular form conveys stability and equilibrium.
  • The golden ratio: The painting’s dimensions and the placement of key elements adhere to the golden ratio, a mathematical concept linked to aesthetic beauty and harmony.

III. Natural Symbolism

Leonardo’s deep interest in the natural world and his meticulous observation of its various elements led him to incorporate them as symbols in his work. These symbols convey deeper meanings and universal truths, reflecting his belief in the interconnectedness of all things.

  1. The Madonna of the Carnation (c. 1478-1480)

In this painting, the Virgin Mary holds a carnation, a flower with multiple layers of symbolism in both Christian and pagan contexts.

  • Christian symbolism: The red carnation symbolizes the Passion of Christ and the blood he shed for humanity’s salvation.
  • Pagan symbolism: The flower is also associated with marriage and fertility, representing the dual nature of Mary as both mother and virgin.
  1. The Lady with an Ermine (1489-1490)

This portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, features an ermine, a small mammal with a rich symbolic history.

  • Purity: The ermine, known for its white winter coat, symbolizes purity and innocence.
  • Loyalty: In medieval bestiaries, the ermine was described as preferring to die rather than soil its fur, making it a symbol of loyalty and virtue. This may reflect the sitter’s fidelity to her lover, Ludovico.

IV. Esoteric Symbolism

Intriguingly, some of Leonardo’s work contains symbols and motifs associated with esoteric and occult traditions. While it is unclear whether da Vinci was an active participant in these traditions, the presence of such symbolism adds yet another layer of complexity to his art.

  1. The Adoration of the Magi (1481)

This unfinished painting, depicting the visit of the Magi to the newborn Jesus, includes a mysterious array of symbols and figures, some of which have been linked to esoteric traditions.

  • The spiral staircase: The spiral staircase in the background has been associated with the initiation process of the ancient mystery schools, symbolizing the spiritual ascent to enlightenment.
  • The ruins: The crumbling architecture may represent the decay of the old, pagan world, giving way to the new Christian era.
  1. The Last Supper (1495-1498)

In addition to its overt religious symbolism, The Last Supper also contains elements suggestive of esoteric knowledge.

  • John or Mary Magdalene: Some interpretations suggest that the figure to Jesus’s right is not the apostle John, but Mary Magdalene, a theory popularized by Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code.” This interpretation implies the presence of hidden knowledge within the painting, although it remains a subject of intense debate among scholars.


The multifaceted symbolism within Leonardo da Vinci’s work attests to his extraordinary intellect, curiosity, and artistic vision. By skillfully weaving together religious, mythological, mathematical, geometrical, natural, and esoteric symbols, da Vinci created a rich visual language that continues to captivate and intrigue viewers. His art, a testament to his insatiable quest for knowledge and understanding, invites us to look beyond the surface and explore the profound connections that bind the universe together.

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