Leonardo's Great Lady: Between life, death and resurrection

Kristina Keogh

Virginia Commonwealth University

A large-scale composite drawing in pen and brown ink, black and red chalk, and ocher wash depicting the internal organs of the female body, which has become commonly referred to as The Great Lady, offers the opportunity to approach the work of Leonardo da Vinci from a number of entry points between art and science. Previous scholarship has suggested that the drawing functioned as an anatomical examination of human reproduction as well as a symbolic and thematic meditation on the body of the woman as the body of the earth (Kemp, 2011). I would also propose that Leonardo’s anatomical drawing encompasses a depiction of the processes and treatments that the body experiences following death. Leonardo’s drawing is a textual and visual analysis of the human body that meditates upon the procedural and philosophical tensions associated with the manual investigation and dismantling of a corpse, even as the monumental Great Lady strives for completeness and integrity in its construction of the human form.

The physical break down of a corpse is inevitable, of course, since following death there is, predictably, decomposition. Leonardo acknowledged the physical processes of mortality when he wrote, “men are mortal and subject to decay and corruption in their tombs” (Leonardo da Vinci, Manuscript F, fol. 5r, Richter, no. 53). The image of the transparent anatomized form depicted in the Windsor drawing records the inexorable breaking down of the body, even as the artist describes generation and investigates the initiation of life. The Great Lady also refers to a wider practice, which began in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in both secular and sacred settings, of disassembling the female body in order to determine a cause of death, often following childbirth, or, in the cases of holy women, to discover expected wonders amongst the disparate parts of the human form. The process of bodily disassembly is also recorded through Leonardo’s artistic processes. The drawing shows evidence of being highly worked as the artist sought to synthesize years of anatomical study and experience with the dissection of multiple human and animal corpses. This synthesis has led to a breakdown of legibility in the image, as the structure of the body and its parts begin to blur together before the eyes of the viewer. The process of rendering the drawing, which is recorded within the drawing itself, emphasizes the body’s inevitable state of decay.

And yet, simultaneously, this visual documentation of death within the representation of the intricacies of anatomical investigation indicates a tension with the partitioning of the female form and even a desire to return to wholeness. For, while the body of the woman is taken apart, it is also constructed and re-integrated upon the large sheet of paper. The particular choice by Leonardo of a monumental surface suggests the artist was also building something as he was taking it apart. As Carmen Bambach has pointed out, Leonardo, “as an artist, was…deliberate in his considerations of physical scale and size when drawing on paper” (Bambach 111). This calculated choice of large scale contributes to the monumentality of the rendered body. In addition, it also suggests another framework for this object. Among the text that surrounds and encloses the body is a partially preserved passage that refers to death and “how man dies and is always reborn in part.” It ends by alluding to the last process – the preparation of the body for the tomb. The monumental Great Lady is also a sepulcher of sorts, a monument to and reconstruction of the bodies that were taken apart.

Finally, in the midst of art and science lies spirituality. In his discussion of the Life of the Spirit, Leonardo writes, “the soul can never be corrupted with the corruption of the body, but acts in the body like the wind which causes the sound of the organ” (Leonardo da Vinci, Manuscript H, fol. 88v, Richter, no. 265). Leonardo’s Great Lady represents a concurrent portrait of decay and incorruptibility as the processes of death are recorded and the integrity of the soul is rendered through the preservation of the body upon the grand edifice of the page.

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, The Cardiovascular System and Principal organs of a woman, c.1509-10, black and red chalk, ink, yellow wash, finely pricked, 47.6 x 33.2 cm, Windsor, Royal Library 12281r. (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

Suggested reading

Monica Azzolini, “Exploring generation: A context to Leonardo’s anatomies of the female and male body,” in Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical world, edited by Alessando Nova & Domenico Laurenza (Venezia, 2011), 79-98.

Carmen Bambach, “Leonardo’s drawing of female anatomy and his ‘fassciculu medjcine latino’” in Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical world, edited by Alessando Nova & Domenico Laurenza (Venezia, 2011), 109-130.

Martin Kemp, “Dissection and divinity in Leonardo’s late anatomies,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 35 (1972): 200-225.

Katharine Park, Secrets of women: Gender, generation, and the origins of human dissection (New York, 2006).

Carlo Pedretti & Paola Salvi The temple of the soul: The anatomy of Leonardo da Vinci between Mondinus and Berengarius, 2nd edition (Foligno, 2008).