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Not even watching

It’s a funny thing that makes a man rise at 6.30 on a frostbiting, Sunday morning in December but then that’s never been an issue for proud Nelson, standing practically tumescent on his 169ft column. Facing Whitehall, he evidently cared little for the Leonardo exhibition at the NG, not even bothering to watch the growing queues of people like me, who had been too disorganised to book tickets in advance and as a result of it completely selling out, would have to stand in line at silly o’clock in the morning if I wanted to catch a glimpse of the works of the Renaissance man. Anyway, the sub-zero temperature meant that tumescence was a far cry from my loins.

I arrived to find about twenty people keener than I queuing outside the Sainsbury Wing. By the time the bells of St Martin in the Fields rang eight times, that number had grown to over one hundred.

My best friends became Ann and Dot, two middle-aged Scottish ladies who, after discussing how cold it was, held a discussion about Dundee United’s recent good run of form. There was actually a really pleasant camaraderie between those of us in the line. We took it in turns to hold each other’s places to allow the pleasure of a thawing stroll across Trafalgar Square to grab a coffee.

When Leonardo da Vinci’s cartoon of the Virgin and Child with St Anne and the infant St John the Baptist (on display here) was hung in a Florentine friary in 1499, there are reports at the time of crowds flocking to see it as if it were some kind of religious festival. Half a millennium later, nothing has changed. He is still regarded as semi-divine. What is happening at the National Gallery at the moment is quasi-religious, with people travelling from all over the world on their own pilgrimages. Pilgrims will be arriving here in the cold, four hours before the gallery even opens, every day until this exhibition ends in early February.

So, why all the fuss? Well, allow me to provide three slightly crude explanations:

  1. There are only 15 known paintings by Leonardo and nine of them are on display in this exhibition. This exhibition shows all his Milan paintings except the immovable Last Supper mural, to whose absence is dedicated a life-size replica in the Sunley Room.
  2. The international legislation and reluctance of galleries to part with their most highly valued works and not to mention the extortionate insurance costs that come with assembling such a show, mean that it is unlikely a display of his paintings on this scale will happen again.
  3. The man’s pre-eminent talents were not limited to painting. A leading draftsman, musician, architect, city planner, engineer, inventor, teacher, theologian, anatomist and philosopher, he represents the holistic genius and, for many, his work proved the existence of God.

At 10 the doors opened and the crowds of people with and without tickets bustled into the entrance of the Sainsbury Wing. As an early queuer I was delighted to get straight in with the first group of the day.

The first work you see when you enter is his drawing of the ventricles of the brain and layers of the scalp from c. 1490. Like many of his drawings you can see his meticulous interest in anatomy, his famous left-handed mirror writing, but most importantly it highlights Leonardo’s belief in the influence of sight on the functioning of the human mind. He believed that sight, artistic creativity and the soul were inextricably linked, and that the physical realisation of the mind through art was a divine process.

Writing in 1550, Vasari couldn’t disagree, describing Leonardo as being “endowed by heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind”. Through various sources, the show does well to regularly remind the viewer of these perceived metaphysical powers.

Each work is worthy of far more detailed description but for the sake of not over-eulogising this to death, I’ll summarise three highlights, and leave you to see it for yourselves:

  • The Musician, the first painting you see, showing unprecedented realistic portrait representation, especially in that the musician’s pupil furthest from the source of light is dilated while the other, in the light, is constricted
  • The Lady with an Ermine (pictured), whose beauty Leonardo hoped would inspire love in the viewer
  • His two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks seen together for the first and probably last time

I can see that the thought of queuing for hours in the freezing cold would put off most people from coming to this exhibition, but I strongly urge you to go. Strangely I think it adds to the experience; there’s nothing like a little Calvinist hardship to build your anticipation! By the time you get in you’ll have earned it, which is as it should be when viewing the works of the man who represents the very zenith of human achievement.

by Edward Lines