Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A THOUSAND WORDS
Mary Elizabeth Podles on Christian Art

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

Today’s column revisits an old friend, known to us from a thousand coffee cups and mouse pads, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Like a Coca-Cola sign, so familiar is he that we no longer actually read him but jump ahead to the next association: mental stimulation (coffee cup), brilliant thoughts at our fingertips (mouse pad), and so on. Poor Man! Surely that was not the fate Leonardo had in mind when he so carefully inscribed you in his notes. For Leonardo, the illustrated Man was the distillation of his studies of human anatomy as an artist, a scientist, and a philosopher, in an age when the three were not so separate as they might be today.

By fitting the human figure in both a circle and a square, Leonardo set out to demonstrate that the ideal human proportions correspond to the two ideal geometric figures. The correlation between geometry and the human form was by no means new. In antiquity, the geometry of human proportion was the basis of architectural proportion, and the ideal building was a reflection of the geometry of the ideal man, or rather, was man writ large. That is why we still feel comfortable in architecture based on Classical principles: each part of the whole relates to our own proportions, no matter how grand the scale.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.


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