The inner beauty of women: The legacy of Leonardo
The inner beauty of women: The legacy of Leonardo
In the paintings and drawings of women by Leonardo da Vinci there is a quality the artworks carry that says a lot about how Leonardo felt about the inner beauty of women.
Da Vinci’s most famous portrait is the Mona Lisa, which draws more than six million viewers to the Louvre every year. Enigmatic, powerful, holding such grace, she seems to know who we are as if she is looking into our soul. Small in size, the painting emanates such energy that it speaks to every woman, calling her to be that inner beauty, stillness, power and grace – her sacredness. The loving gaze from the eyes and the knowing smile are speaking to the viewer, engaging them directly so that you cannot hide anything from yourself when you look at her portrait. It is as if she is saying, “you are my equal, you know this stillness and power too. I am everywoman.” The ‘sfumato’ technique that Leonardo has used allows her features to be softened so that the texture of her skin is translucent and glowing, indicating her connection to her other worldliness. The shadows accentuate the light, and at the same time diffuse the detail so that the eyes and the smile are constantly being evaluated for their distinct soulfulness.
When we look at the women in Leonardo’s paintings we are invited to feel these same inner qualities within us – that we are timeless and enduring. He understood these qualities as being inherent within himself.
The painting of The Annunciation is another portrait of a woman composed at her spinning wheel, and here too we are met with a quality of stillness, inner beauty and grace.
Leonardo explains in his notebooks, for the benefit of other artists, the qualities that he feels are to be brought out in paintings of women. He understood how adopting such an attitude would benefit both women and men.
‘Women must be represented in modest attitudes, their legs close together, their arms closely folded, their heads inclined and somewhat on one side.’
The Madonna of the Rocks portrays Mary with her infant son Jesus and John the Baptist. This woman is so still, so composed, so much a woman – the essence of a woman – delicate and powerful at the same time. Her inner beauty radiates from her whole body. She is a mother and yet there is an absoluteness about her that is much bigger than this role. The artist has placed her in the centre of the picture, a radical departure from previous religious art where women were placed on the sidelines in minor roles. In his painting Leonardo set a standard for how women can be portrayed, and the painting still fitted the religious requirements of the day. The church had paid for the work to be made, as a commission to Leonardo. From then on art could never be the same – a standard had been established. It could be said that this painting was like a Trojan horse for the Catholic Church, reinforcing the woman’s position and making visible the power of her true quality for all to see and feel.
There are numerous drawings of women’s faces that Leonardo made, which also show a gentleness, composure and delicateness. Leonardo advised artists about studying beauty accepted by others, rather than by looking for a similarity to the artist’s own face: “For often a master’s work resembles himself”.
The only other artist at this time who could portray these qualities of a woman’s essence – the inner beauty of women – is Botticelli. In his painting The Allegory of Spring, the three graces epitomise grace, delicateness and stillness in their movement.
Present Day: How are women portrayed today and what does it say about our women?
There is so little today that offers the same qualities of inner beauty, stillness and grace for women that Leonardo and Botticelli celebrated. The women in Leonardo’s paintings by modern standards may be deemed plain and unremarkable. However their innate essence can be felt, as it is transferred into the painting by the energetic state of the artist.
How are women being portrayed in art and media today?
What is being reflected to us about the beauty of women?
The modern day stereotypes of women in art that come to mind are pop art portraits of movie stars, bold and often aggressive-looking abstract portraits and graphic nudes, and women are not featuring in our present day visual world in a way that inspires or holds them as complete and sacred in their qualities. In the media, in movies, magazines and screen devices we are daily bombarded with visual images of women that tantalise the eyes – celebrities and social media personalities and models who are the ‘looks’ to aspire to. The emphasis is on the external appearance, with breasts and lips enlarged with fillers, and even then the photos are airbrushed to smooth out imperfections.
Catwalk models are encouraged to remain very serious, even aggressive – it is not cool to smile.
“Looking miserable is the facial expression equivalent of extreme thinness, in the sense that the more miserable and more thin the model, the more elite the fashion show or magazine.”
If we look to celebrities, we see their faces changing with cosmetic surgery as they age, and their true faces are lost in the fillers. There is more focus on the body parts than the essence of the whole woman.
Are contemporary art and image making taking us further away from who we truly are – from the beauty of women – by offering us incomplete reflections? The images that we are bombarded with to aspire to lead to an insatiable demand for imitation and an unreachable ideal of perfection.
Today’s images of women are specific to our times, reflecting the superficial trends as fashions change every season on the whims of the stylists and the values of the particular culture.
In every era, every decade, there are portraits and depictions of women that give us an insight into how the artist or photographer feels about his subject, how women are viewed by that particular society, and how women view themselves. With iPhones women can invent themselves with selfies, and many young women are enticed to sexualise their bodies in order to gain acceptance and approval. When the emphasis is placed on body parts there is often a vacant stare from the model and we are denied access to the depth and joy that is our natural birthright.
"A woman’s body will always be beautiful to her, if she but allows who she truly is on the inside to model it."Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume I, ed 1, p 548
Leonardo gave us a legacy – a legacy equally for men as for women, and relevant today – which honours the woman as being powerful in her tenderness, sacredness and soulfulness; the timeless qualities of her inner beauty.
Appreciation for the inner beauty of women is the legacy of Leonardo as his paintings call timelessly down through the ages to the women of today to be their own champions, to regain the opportunities lost and to reconnect to, restore and reclaim the power and beauty of their natural grace and femaleness.