|self-portrait of Leonardo|
A Lecture by Rudolf Steiner given in Berlin, February 13, 1913
My Dear Friends,
The name of Leonardo is constantly being brought before the minds of innumerable people through the wide circulation of perhaps the best known of all pictures, the celebrated “Last Supper”. Who does not know Leonardo da Vinci's “Last Supper” and knowing it, does not admire the mighty idea expressed more particularly in this picture? There we see embodied pictorially a significant moment — one that by innumerable souls is considered the most significant of the world's events: the figure of the Christ in the center, and on either side of Him the twelve Disciples. We see these twelve Disciples with deeply expressive movements and bearing; we see the gestures and attitudes of each of the twelve figures so individualized, that we may well receive the impression that every form of the human soul and character finds expression in them. Every way in which a soul would relate itself according to its particular temperament and character to what the picture expresses is embodied in them. In his treatise on the subject of Leonardo da Vinci's “Last Supper”, Goethe expressed perhaps better than any writer the moment after Jesus Christ uttered the words, “One of you shall betray Me”. We see what is taking place in each of these twelve souls so closely connected with the speaker and who look up to Him so devoutly after the utterance of these words; we see all that wonderfully expressed by each of these souls in the numerous reproductions of this work which are disseminated through the world.
There have been representations of the “Last Supper” dating from earlier times. We can trace them without going still further back, from Giotto down to Leonardo da Vinci; and we find that Leonardo introduced into his “Last Supper” what we might call the dramatic element, for it is a wonderfully dramatic moment that confronts us in his representation. The earlier representations appear to be peaceful, expressing, as it were, only the fact of being together. Leonardo's “Last Supper” seems the first to conjure up before us with full dramatic force an expression of very significant psychic conditions. If, however, the world-famed reproductions have given us an impression of the idea of the picture which enters into our hearts and souls, and we then go to Milan, to that old Dominican church, Santa Maria Delle Grazie, and there see on the wall what can only be described as blurred, indistinct, damp daubs of color — which are all that remains of the original picture, so famous the whole world over through the reproductions — we may perhaps then be led to investigate further. The impression that comes to us then is that for some long time back there has not been much visible on the walls of the old Dominican church of the picture, of which those who saw it after Leonardo painted it spoke in such enthusiastic, fervent and rapturous terms. What must once have spoken to the soul from these walls as a miracle of art, not only through the idea which had just been expressed with difficulty, but what must have spoken through Leonardo's marvel of color in such a way that in these colors was expressed the inmost depths of the soul — aye, the very heartbeat of the twelve Disciples — all that must have long ceased to be visible on the wall. What has this picture not had to suffer in the course of the ages!
Leonardo felt himself compelled to depart in technique from the method in which such frescoes had been painted by his predecessors; he found the sort of colors formerly used were not striking enough. He wanted to conjure on to this wall (as through magically) the finest emotions of the soul; and therefore he tried as had not been done before — he used oil colors. There then arose a multitude of obstacles. The position of the whole place was such that comparatively soon these colors must be affected. Damp came out of the very wall itself; the whole room, which was used as a refectory by the Dominicans, was often completely under water in the floods. Many other things intervened besides — the quartering of soldiers there in war time and so on. The picture had all this to undergo. At one time the monks of the monastery themselves did not behave with special piety towards this picture; they found that the door which led from the kitchen into the refectory of the monastery was too low, and one fine day they had the door heightened. This ruined a great part of the picture. Then at one time a coat of arms was placed right over the head of Christ. In short, the picture received the most barbarous treatment. Then there were “artistic charlatans” — as we must call them — who painted it over, so that scarcely anything of the original coloring is now to be seen. In spite of this, when one stands before the picture, an indescribable enchantment proceeds from it. All the barbarisms, the painting-over, and the soaking could not fundamentally destroy the charm which proceeds from the picture. Although it is today no more than a mere shadow stretching across the wall, yet a magic proceeds from this picture. That magic lies only partly in the painting; rather, it is the conception that works on the soul — it works powerfully.
Anyone who has acquainted himself with Leonardo's other works, and tried to study the reproductions of the works ascribed to Leonardo scattered through the different galleries of Europe, which have been preserved more or less as he painted them, anyone who has acquainted himself with Leonardo's activities and has made a study of what he has written in the course of time, and of his life as it flowed on from the year 1452 to 1519, will stand before this picture in the Dominican refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie at Milan with very peculiar emotions. For in reality, as much of the magic creation which Leonardo once painted on this wall has been preserved to us, we feel that just so much does there still remain for the universal consciousness of man of the mighty greatness, of the power and content of the comprehensive personality of Leonardo himself. The extent of the influence of Leonardo's work on people today stands practically in the same relation to what this comprehensive personality put into the evolution of the world as these faded and blurred colors do to what Leonardo once conjured up on the wall. We stand sadly before this picture in Milan, and with the same sadness we confront the whole figure of Leonardo.
Goethe points out how, if we allow the lives written by earlier biographers to work upon us, we receive an impression that in Leonardo a personality appears to mankind, working everywhere with a fresh life force, contemplating life joyfully and working joyously on life, taking up everything with love, with a tremendous thirst for knowledge desiring to grasp everything fresh in soul, and fresh in body. Then perchance we turn to that portrait of his in Turin, supposed to be painted by himself, and look at this picture of Leonardo as an old man — this face with its expressive lines caused by suffering, with the embittered mouth, and the features which betray something of the opposition which Leonardo had to feel towards the world and towards all he had to experience. In a remarkable way this personality appears at the beginning of the new age. Then, if we once more turn back to the picture in Santa Maria Delle Grazie and endeavor to study this shadow on the wall of the refectory, trying to compare it with the oldest reproductions of this picture, and try, as it were, with “the eyes of the spirit” (to use Goethe's words) to call up the picture within us, the following feeling may perhaps arise: Did he who once painted this picture go forth satisfied when he put the last touch to it? Did he say to himself: “Thou hast here recorded what lived in thy soul”?
It appears to me, one may quite naturally arrive at this feeling. Why?
If we survey the whole of Leonardo's life, we must admit that the feeling just described is aroused. We begin by studying Leonardo from his birth. He was an illegitimate child, the son of a mediocre father — Ser Pietro of Vinci — and of a peasant woman who then entirely disappears from view, while the father marries respectably and puts his child out to nurse. We see the child growing up alone, having intercourse only with nature and his soul, and we see what an enormous amount of life force there must have been in this human being that enabled him to remain so fresh! For above all he did retain his youthful freshness. Then, as he already showed a talent for drawing, he entered the school of Verrochio. His father sent him there because he believed his talent for drawing could be made useful. Here Leonardo was employed to assist in painting the Master's pictures. An anecdote is related of this period — how Leonardo had once to paint in a figure which, when the Master saw, he resolved to paint no more, because he knew he was surpassed by his pupil. This seems to be more than a mere story, when one considers the whole being of Leonardo.
We then find him in Florence, his artistic talent always increasing: but we find something else besides. If we follow up his talent for painting we are impressed with the feeling that year after year he went about making the greatest artistic plans, constantly making new ones. He had also commissions from people who recognized his great gift and wanted to own something of his. First he would form an idea of what he wanted to create and then he began to study; but in what did this study consist? He entered in an extraordinarily characteristic way into every detail that came into consideration. For instance, if he had to paint a picture with three or four figures in it, he did not only study a single model but he went about the town observing hundreds and hundreds of people. He would often follow a person for a whole day if a feature interested him, and sometimes he would invite all sorts of people of different classes to come to him and would tell them all sorts of things to amuse or frighten them, so that he might study their features in the different soul experiences. Once, when a rioter was caught and hanged, Leonardo went to the place of execution, and the drawing is still preserved in which he tried to catch the facial expression, the whole bearing of the victim; in the lower corner is the drawing of another head so as to catch the whole expression. Caricatures have been preserved, incredible figures by Leonardo, from which we can see what he was trying to do. For instance, he would take a face and make the experiment of making the chin larger and larger. To study the significance of a single part of the human form, he would enlarge a single limb, to ascertain how in the natural size this limb was dovetailed into the whole human organism. Caricatured forms — in all sorts of contortions — we find in Leonardo. Drawings of his have been preserved (many the works of his pupils, but many by himself as well) in which he has drawn the same detail over and over again — drawings which he would then use.
If we consider this attentively, we get an impression that he worked in the following way: suppose he had an order for a picture and had to represent this or that. He studied the details in the way just described. His interest was then aroused in something special, and he no longer continued to study for the purpose of the picture, but to learn the peculiarities of some animal or man. If he had to paint a battle, he would go to the riding school to study detail or somewhere where horses were left to themselves, and in this way he lost sight of the original conception for which he had meant to use the study. In this way study after study accumulated, and in the end he had no interest in returning to the picture. Among the important pictures originating from his early Florentine time (although they had been painted over, and their original form is no longer recognizable) we have the “St. Hieronymus” and the “Adoration of the Magi” for which innumerable such studies exist as have just been described. Moreover, we have the feeling that this man lived in the fullness of the secrets of the universe; he sought to penetrate them, tried in an original way to reproduce the secrets of nature, but never really attained the creation of any work of which he could say it was in any way complete.
We must put ourselves in the place of this soul, who was too rich to bring anything to completion, a soul in whom the secrets of the universe so worked that no matter where he began, he had to pass on from secret to secret and could never come to an end. We must try to understand the soul of Leonardo, which was too great in itself ever to be able to reveal its full greatness.
Let us pursue our study of Leonardo. We see how he was given two commissions by Duke Ludovico, one of which was the “Last Supper” and the other an equestrian statue of the Duke's father. This brought him to Milan. Further investigation shows us that Leonardo worked from fifteen to sixteen years at these two works. To be sure, many other things were going on at the same time. In describing him as we have just done, we must, to understand him fully, add that the Duke had not summoned him as a painter only. The Duke sent for Leonardo because he was not only a distinguished musician, but perhaps one of the most distinguished musicians of his time. And it was due to his musical gifts that he was summoned to the Duke's court — not only on that account, however, but because he was one of the most important war engineers of his time — one of the most important hydraulic engineers and one of the most important mechanics of his time — and because he could promise the Duke to supply him with engines of war that were something quite new — engines utilizing steam power — and because he could construct suspension bridges which could easily be put up and taken down quickly. At the same time, he worked at the construction of a flying machine. To accomplish this he busied himself in observing the flight of birds, and what remains of Leonardo's writings concerning the manner in which birds fly are among the most original existing in the world on this subject. At the same time it must always be remembered when we have Leonardo's writings in our hands today that these are only copies containing much that is inaccurate, and in this form they correspond to what we can now see of the “Last Supper”. Yet in all these things, we can clearly see what a great and comprehensive genius Leonardo was.
We can now see how Leonardo not only assisted the Court of Milan on every possible occasion — arranging this or that artistic or theatrical event, but we also see him working out all sorts of military and other schemes and assisting the builders of the Cathedral with advice and help. Besides this, we know that he trained innumerable pupils who then worked at the different works in Milan; so that one can hardly imagine today how much of Leonardo's work is incorporated into the whole town of Milan and its neighborhood.
In addition to all this Leonardo was engaged in making endless studies for the statue of the Duke's father, Francesco Sforza. One might say there was not a single limb of the horse that he did not study a hundred times, in a hundred different positions, and in the course of many years he completed the model of the horse. Then through an accident, when it was set up at a festival, it was destroyed — and he had to make it all over again. This second model was also destroyed when the French invaded Milan in 1499, for the soldiers used the model as a target and shot it to pieces. There is nothing left of the gigantic labors of a personality who, one may really say, tried to discover one world-secret after another, in order to construct a work in which dead matter should be a manifestation of life, as it reveals itself in the secrets of nature.
We know how Leonardo worked at the “Last Supper”. He often went and sat on the scaffolding anbrooded for hours in front of the wall, then he would take a brush and make a few strokes and go away again. Sometimes he only went and stared at the picture and went away again. When he was painting the Christ Figure, his hand trembled. Indeed, if we put together all that we can find concerning this subject we must say that neither outwardly nor inwardly was Leonardo happy when painting this world-renowned picture. Now there were people at that time in Milan who were displeased with the slow progress of the picture, for instance a Prior of the monastery, who could not see why an artist could not paint such a picture quickly, and complained to the Duke. He too thought the affair had lasted too long. Leonardo answered: “The picture is to represent Jesus Christ and Judas, the two greatest contrasts; one cannot paint them in one year; there are no models for them in the world, neither for Judas nor for Christ”. After he had been working at the picture for years, he said he did not know whether he could finish it after all! Then he said that if finally he found no model for Judas he could always use the Prior himself! It was thus extraordinarily difficult to bring the picture to a conclusion but within himself Leonardo did not feel happy. For this picture showed the contrast between what lived in his soul and what he was able to represent on the canvas. Here it is necessary to bring forward a hypothesis of Spiritual Science, which may be reached by anyone who studies what can by degrees be learned about this picture.
The following hypothesis presented itself to me as I tried to find an answer to the above-mentioned question. If one follows up Leonardo's life in this way one says to oneself: in this man there lived an enormous amount that he could not reveal outwardly to mankind; the external means were much too feeble to express this. Was he able, as without doubt he intended in the “Last Supper”, to paint into this work a grandeur that would have satisfied him? This question arises quite naturally, when one realizes how again and again he tried to investigate secret after secret for his studies to bring something into existence, and did not succeed. After all, one is bound to ask such a question: and it almost answers itself. If Leonardo on the one hand only got as far with the equestrian statue — which he had intended to make a miracle of plastic art — as making a model which was destroyed, so that he never even touched the statue itself, and if, after sixteen years of work, he finally said good-bye to this unexecuted statue — how did he leave the “Last Supper”? One has the feeling: he went away from this “Last Supper” dissatisfied! If all we can see of this picture today is a ruin of blurred, damp colors, and if for a long time past nothing more has been perceptible of what Leonardo once painted on the wall, we may perhaps maintain that what he painted there could not in the faintest degree have represented what lived in his soul.
To arrive at such a conclusion it is necessary to put together all the different impressions one receives from the picture itself, but there are also a few external aids. Among the writings of Leonardo still extant there is a wonderful treatise on painting. In it painting in its essence as an art is set forth, how it must work in relation to perspective and coloring, how it must work according to principle. Oh! This work of Leonardo's on painting, although we have only a fragment of it, is a wonderful work, the like of which has never been accomplished in the world. The highest principles of the art of painting are here represented as only the greatest genius could represent them. It is wonderful to read, for instance, how Leonardo shows that in painting a battle, the horses had to be represented with the suitable foreshortening because it brought out the impression of bestiality and yet of grandeur that should be perceptible in a battle. In short, this work is a wonderful one. It shows us all Leonardo's greatness and, we may say, all his impotence. We shall refer to this again. Above all it betrays how he always tried in the representation of his art to study the reality as it presented itself to the human eye. How light and shade and coloring are to be turned to account in painting, all this is to be found wonderfully described in this work of Leonardo. If we find in Leonardo's soul the ardent longing of his conscience never even in the smallest particular to offend against the truth — which, as we shall see further on, he prized so highly — if that feeling animated his soul, we may say that this is apparent everywhere; that is, the resolution never to offend against the truth of the impression, always so to work that the impression is justified by the inner secrets of nature.
If we let his “Last Supper” work on us, we find two things of which we can say that they do not altogether agree with Leonardo's view of the principles of painting. One is the figure of Judas. From the reproductions and also to a certain extent from the shadowy painting in Milan, one gets the impression that Judas is quite covered in shadow — he is quite dark. Now when we study how the light falls from the different sides, and how with regard to the other eleven disciples the lighting conditions are represented in the most wonderful manner in accordance with reality, nothing really explains the darkness on the face of Judas. Art can give us no answer as to the wherefore of this darkness. This is fairly clear as regards the Judas figure. If we now turn to the Christ Figure, approaching it not according to Spiritual Science but according to the external view, it only produces, as it were, something like a suggestion. Just as little as the blackness, the darkness of the Judas figure seems justifiable, just as little does the “sunniness” of the Christ Figure, standing out as it does from the other figures, seem to be justified, in this sense. We can understand the lighting of all the other countenances but not that of Judas nor that of Christ Jesus. Then, as if of itself, the idea comes into one's mind: surely the painter has striven to make evident that in these two opposites, Jesus and Judas, light and darkness proceed not from outside but from within. He probably wished to make us realize that the light on the face of the Christ cannot be explained by the outer conditions of light, and yet we can believe that the Soul behind this Countenance is itself a light force, so that It can shine of Itself, in spite of the lighting conditions. In the same way the impression with respect to Judas is that this form itself conjures up a shadow which is not explained by the shadows around it.
This is, as already said, a hypothesis of Spiritual Science, but one that has developed in me in the course of many years and we may believe that the more we consider the problem the more we would find it substantiated. According to this hypothesis one can understand how Leonardo, who strove to be true to nature in all his work and study, worked with trembling brush to present a problem that could only be justified with respect to this one figure. We can then understand that he might well be bitterly disappointed, indubitably so, because it was impossible by means of the then existing art to bring this problem to expression with complete truthfulness and probability. Because he could not yet do what he wanted, he finally despaired of the possibility of its execution and had to leave a picture behind him which still did not satisfy him, and the question as to the feelings with which Leonardo left his picture can be answered in full accord with the whole figure and spiritual greatness of Leonardo. He left it with a feeling of bitterness, realizing that in his most important work he had set himself a task the execution of which could never be satisfactory with the means available to man. If in the centuries to come no eye will see the picture Leonardo had conjured on to the wall at Milan — that, in any case, was certainly not what lived in his soul. If we picture him thus before his most important creation, we are indeed tempted to ask: What secret really lay behind this figure?
A fortnight ago we considered the personality of Raphael and tried to show what a different understanding we obtain of such a man as he, if we rest on the principles of Spiritual Science. For we know clearly that the human soul is something that repeatedly returns to many earth lives, that a soul born into a certain age does not live that one life alone, but in the whole plan and process of its evolution brings with it the predispositions acquired in earlier earth lives, and with these predispositions finds itself confronting what the spiritual environment now offers. If we so regard the soul, knowing that it enters into existence with an inner spiritual inheritance that had its origin in repeated earth lives — and admitting that the whole of evolution seems full of meaning and wisdom, we postulate that things do not happen accidentally in certain epochs, but in accordance with rule and law, as the blossom of the plant appears after the green leaf — if we accept the existence of a plan full of wisdom in the history of the evolution of man, according to which the human soul returns again and again from the spiritual regions — then only do the individual figures become comprehensible. What can be studied with regard to particular human lives is more clearly manifest if we observe those human souls which are exceptional, out of the ordinary. If we study Leonardo as we have tried to sketch him at particular moments of his life, we are led again to consider the background from which this soul stands out. This background is the time in which this soul was placed, from the year 1452 to 1519.
What manner of time was this? It was the time before the rise of modern natural science and the views which result from that. It was the time before the birth of Copernicus' conception of the world, before the influence of Giordano Bruno, Kepler, and Galileo. How do we view this age in the light of Spiritual Science? We have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that the further we go back in the course of human evolution, the greater is the difference in the whole of man's outlook and his connection with his surroundings. In the primeval ages of man's evolution we find in every soul a kind of clairvoyance, by means of which, in the transition stage between sleeping and waking, he looked into the spiritual world. This original clairvoyance was lost in the course of time; but until the fifteenth century there still remained from earlier times a remnant of this clairvoyance; not clairvoyance itself — that was long before lost — but what remained was a feeling that the human soul was connected with the spiritual background of the world. What souls had once been able to see, they could still feel, and although this feeling had already become weak, still they felt that in the center of their being they were connected with the spiritual that lived and wove in the world, even as physical processes in the human body are connected with the physical events of the world. According to the laws of evolution, the old intercourse between man's soul and the spiritual world had to be lost for a time. Modern natural science could never have blossomed if the old clairvoyance had remained. The whole of this old way of looking at things had to be lost, so that the soul could turn to what the senses offered and what could be scientifically proved by the intellect belonging to the brain. The world outlook based on natural science, which has been built up from the time of Leonardo until today, was only made possible through the loss of the old spiritual perception of mankind and through man's inclining himself “objectively” to external sense perception and to what the intellect can grasp through that.
Today we again stand at a new turning point, at the turning point leading to a time in which it will again be possible for man, through modern Spiritual Science, to attain to a spiritual view of things. For the development of natural science has a double significance. First, it had to give to man the treasures of natural science. In the course of the centuries since the appearance of Copernicus, Kepler and others, natural science has passed on from triumph to triumph, and been adapted in a wonderful way to practical and theoretical life. That is one result that has been gained through natural science in the centuries since the time of Leonardo. The other is something that could not come at once but has only become possible in our own times. For not only have we to thank natural science for what we have learned through the Copernican system, through the observations and discoveries of Kepler and Galileo, and the experience of modern spectro-analysis, and so on, but we have also to thank science for a certain education of the human soul. The human soul first of all began to observe the sense world; in this way natural science was built up. Through natural science new ideas and new conceptions were formed — but where it has rendered the greatest service its greatness was not acquired through sense perception, but through something quite different.
This has already been referred to. In one particular sphere, in the time of Copernicus, people relied on sense perception. What was the result? People believed that the earth stood still in space and that the sun and the planets revolved around it. Then came Copernicus, who had the courage not to rely on sense perception. He had the courage to say that when one relied entirely on sense perception one did not make a single empirical discovery, but that empirical discoveries could be made if one combined in one's thinking all that had previously been observed. Then men followed in his footsteps and went further, but it is essentially a mistaken view of the state of affairs to believe that natural science reached its present height because mankind relied only on the senses. What has come to mankind through natural science has, however, impressed itself on the soul; the ideas of natural science live within us and have educated our souls. Natural science, besides the discoveries it has given us, has also been a means of education for the soul, and souls have today become mature because the ideals of natural science have really not only been thought but lived, so that souls of their own accord will be driven into Spiritual Science. Human souls had, however, first to become ripe for that, and for that centuries had to elapse since Leonardo's time.
Now let us consider Leonardo. He enters his age with a soul that, in an earlier existence, belonged to those initiates who had raised themselves in the old way to the secrets of world conception. This experience could not be continued in the age into which he was born, the fifteenth century. For in earlier incarnations insofar as these earlier earth lives made it possible, one may have experienced the cosmic mysteries in a great and mighty way; but how they can be brought through into one's consciousness in a new life depends on the external physical body. A fifteenth-century body could not bring to expression the inner thought, inner feeling, and inner power of execution which Leonardo had taken up into himself in earlier stages of existence. What he brought from earlier lives worked only as a force; but he was condemned to be confined in a body living in the age directly before the rise of natural science, and he felt himself limited in every direction. The time was then coming, the dawn was already there, when man would only perceive the world of sense existence with the senses, and would only think with the intellect that is connected with the instrument of the brain. Leonardo was always driven to seek for the spirit; he brought that with him from previous lives. The impulse to seek for the spirit worked in a glorious and grand way in him.
Let us now consider him as artist. Art had become very different in Leonardo's time from what it was in the Greek period. Let us try, for instance, to realize the creation of a plastic statue by a Greek artist. What kind of feeling do we get when we contemplate the statue of Marcus Aurelius, for example? Never would they who executed such a work have molded the form from an external model or made studies in detail as did Michaelangelo or Leonardo. The wonderful horse of Marcus Aurelius' statue was certainly never studied as Leonardo studied his for the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza; and yet how alive are these old statues! What is the reason? It is because in Greek times human souls felt themselves to be really the creators of their bodies, they identified themselves with all the soul forces of the universe. In the age of Greek art one felt in an arm, for instance, all the forces that formed that arm. Man felt himself within the independent inner being of his own form. He did not look at the form from outside but created “consciously” from within, for he was still conscious of the formative creative force. We can still prove that externally even today. Look at the Greek statues of women; they were all experienced directly. Therefore they are all represented at the age in which expanding growth is present. We feel in these that the artist imitated nature because he was within the spirit of nature, because he felt himself connected in his soul with the spirit of nature. This feeling of being one with the spirit which weaved and lived in things had to be lost in Leonardo's time; it had to be lost, for otherwise the new age could not have come. This is not a criticism of the age, but a statement of the meaning of the facts.
Let us now see how Leonardo went to work when he studied the movements of the hand, or of the separate parts of an animal, or the human countenance! He shows by his methods that he had in his soul an inner knowledge, an inner realization, but this did not, however, rise into his consciousness. There was something that worked in a living way on those figures, but Leonardo could not grasp it inwardly. He felt himself separated from this “inner comprehension” and so nothing satisfied him. There he stands, in expectation of this new natural-scientific world outlook, which he cannot himself possess because it is not yet in existence. Take his writings — on every page problems spring up which mankind could only solve in the course of the three following centuries— some of them indeed have not yet been solved. Leonardo had most wonderful ideas, of which, in many cases, he could make no use at all. We find them in his works and also in his artistic creations. Thus we find in him that powerlessness to which a soul must be subject in an age that sees the end of an old world outlook, and in which the new has not yet arisen. This new world outlook certainly led to the splitting up of man's comprehensive outlook into a study of detail; we see the beginning of specialization of individual branches of work. In Leonardo everything is still united. He is at one and the same time an all-embracing artist, musician, philosopher, and mechanician. He united all these in himself because his soul came over from olden times possessing great capacities, but now in this new age, he can just touch things from the outside but cannot penetrate them. So from the human point of view Leonardo appears as a tragic figure, but seen from a higher one, his was a figure of tremendous significance — at the dawn of a new age.
We can see that for ourselves if we examine what Leonardo created further. He brought the most important things only to a certain point, when his pupils had to work on them. Even with regard to such work as his “John” or “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre in Paris, we see how the technical treatment was such that they must soon lose their brilliancy. We see in everything how Leonardo could never do enough to satisfy himself. It is not possible without having the pictures before us to speak in detail of his paintings. If we absorb ourselves in them we can see how Leonardo as artist always touched limits beyond which he could not go; and how what lived in his soul never once reached the point of flowing up from soul experience into consciousness; how for a moment it flared up from that state of soul experience in such a way that one might rejoice aloud and then sink back in sorrow, because it did not come into full consciousness. It never once did so to Leonardo.
We really follow Leonardo's fate with very sad feelings when we see how in the end he was taken to France by Francis I, and spent the last three years of his life in a dwelling place assigned to him by Francis, in spiritual contemplation of the mysteries of existence. We find him there as a lonely man, who could really no longer have anything in common with the world around him, and who must have felt an enormous contrast between what he realized as the primeval foundations of existence, which might take form in art, and the fragment of it which was all he had been able to give to the world.
If we consider the matter in this light we look back to Leonardo, saying: “Here is a soul in which a great deal, an infinite amount takes place”. The impression made on the observer is very distressing if he represents to himself what his soul contributed to human activities. Even at the time of Leonardo's death how insignificant was the external manifestation of this soul's contribution to human activities, in comparison with what lived within it! We are confronted with an economy of existence if we adopt the theory that human life exhausts itself in what comes into existence externally. How senseless and aimless seems the life of a soul such as Leonardo's when we see what went on within it, and what it had to suffer and endure on account of this, compared with what it might have given to the world! What a contrast there would be if we were to say that this soul was only to be regarded according to its manifestation in external life! No! We must not regard it thus! We must look at it from another standpoint and say: No matter what this soul may have given to the world or experienced, what it went through in its inmost being belongs to another world, a world that compared with our own is a supersensible one. Such men are above all a proof that man's soul belongs to a supersensible existence and that such souls as Leonardo's have something to do with supersensible existence, and what they can give to the external world is only a by-product of what they have to go through altogether.
We can only get the right impression if we add to the current of external human events another, a supersensible, current and say: Something runs, as it were, parallel with the sense current, and such souls as these are embedded in the supersensible; they must live in it to form the connecting links between the sensible and the supersensible. The life of such souls only appears to have a meaning if we admit a supersensible existence in which they are embedded. We see very little of Leonardo by looking at his external creations; we get the idea that this soul has still to carry out something in a supersensible existence and we say to ourselves: Oh! We understand! In order that this soul, in the whole course of its collective existence, which runs through many earth lives, could always reveal something to mankind, it had in its Leonardo existence to pass through a life in which it was only able to bring to expression the very smallest part of what lived within it. Such souls as Leonardo are world riddles and life riddles — world riddles incarnate.
What I wanted to bring out today was not to be presented in sharply defined concepts, but it should only point the way in which such souls can be approached. For Spiritual Science must indeed not present theories! Spiritual Science should, in all that it undertakes, grasp the whole of man's life of feeling and experience, and must itself become an elixir of life, so that through it we gain a new relation to the whole of life; and such spirits as Leonardo are peculiarly fitted to lead one to this new relation to the world and to life, so that through Spiritual Science we may understand the world. If we contemplate spirits such as Leonardo we can say: They enter life as enigmas, because they have to work out in their lives something greater than their age can give them. Because they bring the results of previous incarnations, souls such as Leonardo not only enter life in a humble position, but even as Leonardo entered it. Born of mediocre father and of a mother who soon disappeared from view after bearing an illegitimate child, he was brought up among middle class people. Thus we see him thrown on his own resources, and giving expression to what he had brought over from previous lives. When we consider the unfavorable conditions of his birth, we recognize that these did not hinder the manifestation of his great soul capacities. We see Leonardo's soul so sane, so comprehensive, that we can echo what Goethe says out of his own soul: “Symmetrically and beautifully formed, there he stood, as a pattern for humanity, even as the power of comprehension and clarity of the eyes really belongs to the mind, so clarity and perfection were possessed by this artist in the highest degree”. If we apply these words to Leonardo — to whom they are applicable — we must apply them to the youthful Leonardo, who appears before us fresh in body and mind, accomplished, full of the joy of creation, joy in the world, and longing for the world; a perfect man, a pattern man, born to be a conqueror, and full of humor, as he shows on various occasions in life.
Then we turn our gaze to the drawing which is considered to be, and justly so, his own portrait drawn by himself — the drawing of an old man — in whose face many experiences, many hard and painful experiences, have ploughed deep furrows, the expression of the mouth indicating the whole disharmony in which we see the lonely man at the end. Far from his fatherland, under the protection of the King of France, still struggling with the world and life, but lonely, forsaken, misunderstood, although still loved by the friends who had not neglected to accompany him.
In Leonardo's case we see especially the greatness of spirit which endures much suffering, as it accommodates itself to the body, first having fashioned it perfectly and then leaving it embittered. When we look into this countenance we feel the genius of humanity itself looking out at us. Yes, we begin to understand this age, the time of sunset in which Leonardo lived — the time which heralded a new dawn, in which Copernicus, Kepler, Giordano Bruno, Galileo lived — and we see all the limitations and restrictions which Leonardo's great spirit had to undergo. We understand the age and we understand the great artist who transcends all human means and yet can, after all, only work with human means. After we have studied the subject attentively from the point of view of Spiritual Science, we must bring the whole of our human intellect to bear on it, and gazing into Leonardo's face we shall see the entire spirit of that age looking out at us. Yes, from these embittered features there looks a human spirit, at first inclining downwards. We must know it thus, to understand the full greatness of the force which had to be there to admit of the rise of a Copernicus, a Kepler, a Giordano Bruno. In truth, we only obtain a proper reverence for the whole course and evolution of the human spirit, if we know how the tragedy of Giordano Bruno's death at the stake is even greater than studied in the light of Leonardo's soul — conscious of its own weakness before the passing, the downfalling of its age. Leonardo's greatness only becomes evident to us when we get an inkling of what he could NOT accomplish. That is connected with a matter with which we will sum up today's considerations. It is connected with the fact that the human soul can be satisfied — aye, even made happy — at the sight of imperfection (although more satisfied, it is true, by great than by little imperfection); at the sight of that creative activity, which, due to its greatness, fails of execution; for in these dying forces we guess at and finally see the forces being prepared for the future, and from the sunset there arises for us the promise and the hope of the dawn. The relation of our souls to human evolution must always be such that we say to ourselves: All progress takes this course: wherever what has been created falls into ruin, we know that out of that ruin new life will always blossom forth.