Leonardo’s transformations of nature

April Kiser

Canisius College

Leonardo’s delight in nature is nowhere more evident than in his drawings of cats, lions, horses and dragons in which he exhibits a keen appreciation of animal bodies as natural forms full of life and energy.

In two sheets now in the Royal library at Windsor, Leonardo charts the movements of these animals and investigates their commonalities. In one, dated c. 1513-1516, flexible cats, lions, and a dragon sit, twist, prowl and wrestle in flurries of motion (Windsor, Royal Library12363) (fig. 1). In another, dated c. 1517-18, St. George and his horse pursue a dragon surrounded by horses bending, stretching and rearing on hind legs (Windsor, Royal Library 12363) (fig. 2). Possibly related to a book on animal and human motion, in these drawings Leonardo grapples with the potent meeting of visible physical forms and invisible forces of motion. Leonardo regarded knowledge of the mechanics of motion as essential to the understanding of animals and their representation. However, his interest in animal movement extended beyond mechanics. The tensed muscles and animated figures suggest both action and transformation.

For instance in the Windsor drawing 12363, movement links a common house cat and a lioness, as echoes of each shape reverberate between the different forms (fig. 1). Detailed muscles, many tensed in action, suggest motion and flexibility. Prominent physical components—the arch of the back, the turn of the neck and the positioning of the limbs—unite the different figures. Leonardo transformed the domestic cat into an aggressive lion, which, in turn, transforms into an imagined dragon.

In the Windsor drawing 12331, Leonardo analyzes the structures of different movements of horses and dragons and through drawing traces out their similarities. His study of horse limbs range from traditional poses to violent fights and dramatic contortions. The feline at the top slinks with its belly low to the ground, legs bent, and head turned up supported by a neck curved at an extreme angle. The contours of the fallen horse below echo this cat and the pattern continues in the next image of a horse leaning over another fallen horse, forcing it down. Leonardo used these struggles—between the horses, cats, lions, and between St. George, his horse and the dragon—to study visually movement and its impact on the bodies.

The premise of Leonardo’s drawings in these pages is that nature has underlying consistencies. The understanding of the basic elements of nature gave the artist remarkable power to reassemble them into new creations. In his notebooks, he explained that the knowledge of animal limbs was essential to making convincing representations. Astute knowledge of the parts made the artist capable of representing convincingly a multitude of animal pictures. Like many intellectuals of his time, he noted the resemblances that link animals together and insisted that only careful study of the parts of animals provided the artist with a repertoire of essential models for making any animal picture.

In addition, both sheets offer striking examples of how Leonardo extended the analysis of animal parts and forms to imagined animals such as the dragon. He noted that it was possible to draw a natural-looking dragon by combining properly the anatomical parts of observed animals. In many ways, his technique was not different than assembling any known animal from a thorough knowledge of their parts.

He wrote:

Nature being inconstant and taking pleasure in creating and making new lives and forms, because she knows that they augment her terrestrial substance, is more ready and swift in creating than time is in destroying (Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Arundel, 156v, Richter, no. 261).

Leonardo observed that nature is in constant flux and that it is this continuous change that made nature triumphant over its rival, time. Leonardo used drawing as a tool suited to representing the many animal bodies, continuous motion, and potential for change found in nature. Nature’s constant change and endless ability to create appealed to Leonardo while drawing offered him a similar power to experiment with the creation of new forms.  

Representing infinite variations of animal movements but also their structural similarities, Leonardo used drawing to explore nature’s power to transform existing forms into new creations. Nature was a creative force, building on existing forms but constantly engaged in creative acts. For example, in the Windsor drawing 12363, Leonardo depicts alert cats, focused on an unseen target. Their muscles appear tense and ready for action, but their limbs remain close to the body in a defensive structure. More aggressive lions, bodies elongated for prowling and attacking, are juxtaposed to the more tentative cats. Similarities in limb structure and movement exist, but Leonardo experiments with changes in movement and disposition that transform the cat into the lion. His dragon on the same sheet offers an even more striking variation.

Leonardo’s animal drawings simultaneously encompass nature’s consistency and its unpredictable transformations. Nature provided multiple models for Leonardo’s art. First, it offered him visible models of physical forms: the limbs and body parts that served as the essential materials for his animal representations. Nature also provided a model of life infused with motion and mutability. This second model engaged the artist with the complex task of visually representing forces and transformations not immediately accessible to sight.

Leonardo used drawing to study motion in animals in order to better understand nature, extend nature’s acts of creation with his art and counter the destructive powers of time with human creativity.

Leonardo da Vinci, Cats in motion, c.1513-16, pen and ink with wash over black chalk, 27.0 x 21.0 cm, Windsor, Royal Library 12363. (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

Leonardo da Vinci, Horses, St George and the Dragon, and a lion, c.1517-18, pen and ink, 29.8 x 21.0 cm, Windsor, Royal Library 12331. (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012).

Suggested reading

Paolo Galluzzi, Mechanical marvels: Invention in the age of Leonardo (Firenze, 1996).

Mary Garrard, “Nature’s special child: Leonardo da Vinci,” in Brunelleschi’s egg: Nature, art, and gender in Renaissance Italy (Berkeley, 2010), 123-155.

Martin Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, experiment, and design (Princeton, 2006).

Leonardo da Vinci: Natur im Übergang. Beiträge zu Wissenschaft, Kunst un Technik, edited by Frank Fehrenbach (Munich, 2002).

Carlo Vecce, “Word and Image in Leonardo’s Writings,” in Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 2003), 59-77.