The androgynous Saint John and the pregnant Magdalena (and Leonardo)


Detail of the Last Supper of Leonardo. San Pedro threatens the Magdalena-St. John the Evangelist.

One of the greatest mysteries of the Leonardo Cenacle is this image (above), in which we see an androgynous Saint John the Evangelist. Some commentators (including myself) argue that more than a Saint John, who appears here is Maria Magdalena. I will not repeat what was said in another article of this section: Leonardo and the mistery of Maria Magdalena. Except the following extract:

There is a very convincing proof that Leonardo painted a woman in the place occupied by "Juan Evangelista". See the following image, extracted from the Leo-E Desk page:


Codex Forster II, sheet 3 Recto. On the right we can read Cristo; Giovan Conte, quello del Cardinale del Mortaro; Giovannina, viso fantástico, sta a Santa Caterina all'ospedale.

Given that, according to Jean Paul Richter, Count Giovanni would be among the faces chosen by Leonardo to portray the physiognomy of Christ (passage 667 of the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci), since the appointment of such Giovannina is immediately afterwards (JP Richter , passage 1404), and also alludes to her face, this could represent the only woman in this fresco, which can not be other than Mary Magdalene, personifying John "the virginal" as we have seen above. This finding would end the long controversy about this particular.

I will just point out that, far from being a "rarity" attributed to the creative genius of Leonardo, the identification of the Magdalena with Saint John Evangelist is a foreign idea of apocryphal character, with roots in Catalonia and Provence. In particular, this unusual scene of the Last Supper may have identifiable origins in the biography of Leonardo, that below I will endeavour to specify.

The Saint John the Evangelist of Santes Creus

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A pregnant Magdalena in the altarpiece of Saint John the Evangelist, in Santes Creus (1603).

In this illustration (above) it is possible to observe a singular fact: a pregnant Sainte Magdalena, carrying a kind of girdle to highlight her belly and swollen breasts. This detail, made public by the researcher José Luis Giménez in his book El legado oculto de María Magdalena (published in 2005), has attracted to the monastery of Santes Creus, in the municipality of Aiguamúrcia (Tarragona province), many curious and researchers. Although it is not less significant that in the header of the altarpiece where this image is (of author anonymous, and dated in 1603), we find a Saint John the Evangelist with all the symbolism associated with this character, but with a remarkable similarity with Maria Magdalena: red hair, long hair and notoriously female factions (bottom).

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Saint John the Evangelist (!) in Santes Creus (1603).

Moreover, in the same church we find another altarpiece dedicated to María Magdalena, work of Juan de Borgoña (dated to 1510). It details the Provençal legend of the sainte (which ranks her in Marseille). I will not cease to explain the legend (which boils down to the fact that Maria Magdalena and some friends, including Joseph of Arimatea, have taken refuge in the South of France fleeing persecution, not of Jewish and Roman authorities, but of their "brethren in Christ": the Apostles Peter and Andrew). According to a popular belief, the Magdalena -bride of Jesus in the flesh- would be pregnant. She would have had a daughter, with the name Sara. Note that in the Cenacolo of Leonardo, Maria Magdalena is threatened by Pedro, as specify some gnostic gospels.

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Two details of the altarpiece of Santa Magdalena by Juan de Borgoña (Santes Creus, 1510).

In the altarpiece by Juan de Borgoña of Santes Creus, as the dated in the year 1603 (located in that same monastery of Tarragona), Magdalena appears to hold also a notorious pregnancy (her belly is swollen in a way that does not seem natural; wouldn't be effect of the rigidity of her garments, for example). Something similar happens in the Magdalena of the altar of the Church of St. Maria Magdalena in Rennes le Chateau. In this respect Jean Luc Robin (Rennes le Château, el secreto del abad Saunière) says literally: "[in the South of France] in many representations of Maria Magdalena, especially statues, she appears pregnant".


Maria Magdalena in the altar of Rennes le Château.

The cited researcher said that it occurs in one of every five representations of the Magdalena in the French Midi. Both in Rennes and in Catalonia (as well as almost of all southern France) we find exemples of tradition alluding to the pregnancy of Maria Magdalena. Another example is found in Girona, in an altarpiece of Pere Mates painted in the year 1526. Here the Magdalena covers her belly with a cup (a symbol characteristic of the sainte), as pretending to hide her pregnancy. Again, this altarpiece illustrates the golden legend of the Magdalena in Provence.


Maria Magdalena in the altarpiece of Pere Mates (cathedral of Girona, 1526).

Why this interest of Santes Creus for the figure of Maria Magdalena? Perhaps is not strange to the fact that Blanca of Anjou, wife of Jaime II of Aragon, deposited here a valuable relic: the tongue of the Magdalena. As we have seen above, according to the gnostic gospels, she was considered as an "apostoless", which had to leave Palestine by the pressure -and coercion- of Peter and Andrew. The tongue is the organ of the eloquence, and therefore would make reference to her "apostolate" in Provence. Thus -perhaps- their veneration in Santes Creus.

Note another detail: Jaime II of Aragon, buried -like Blanca of Anjou- in Santes Creus, founded in 1319 the order of Montesa, giving continuity to the Templar Order in Catalonia. And note also that the templars had an "encomienda" (feudal land) in Aiguamúrcia (municipality near Santes Creus). The old name of Aigumúrcia was Aiguamorta (dead water). Note the templar "encomienda" of Aiguaviva (water alive), in Girona, with a chapel (in form of L) dedicated to Maria Magdalena. The templars, in Aiguamorta (Tarragona) and Aiguaviva (Girona) could have kept alive the memory of Maria Magdalena in Provence: mother of the progeny of Christ and early evangelizer of these lands. Aiguaviva and Aiguamorta would be two milestones of that tradition in Catalonia.

Notice the chapel in form of L (a "comma", or "vírgula"?) in Aiguaviva (Girona). This form could allude to the concept of the "feminin principle". Please, look at the following article: Some "gozos" to Maria Magdalena (and Leonardo).

The secret, hidden in a knot

If we look at the Leonardo Cenacle, and compare it with the exposed in the altarpiece by Juan de Borgoña, in Santes Creus, we can observe an identical detail. In both cases appears a knot. This one can represent -in a encrypted way- the name Leonardo (knot is "vincolo" in Italian). But from my point of view, the symbolism of the knot goes much further. The Egyptians identified it with an emblem of life, associated with Isis. According to Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant (Diccionario de los símbolos): "The knot of Isis is a symbol of immortality. It is often on the head or in the hand of the people, or on their belt. It is usually composed of a shoe lace, and indicates a living footprint on the ground; sometimes is made of fabric, fibers, strings, etc"...

This is the case in both images (Juan de Borgoña and Leonardo): a knot of fabric that expresses a hidden message; alluding -maybe- to the idea of the feminine apostolate of Maria Magdalena, a Christian image that follows the tradition of the ancient cult of Isis (the symbolism of the knot was adopted by Jewish Kabbalists, between the 12th and 14th centuries).

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Detail of the altarpiece of María Magdalena (Juan de Borgoña, 1510). Note the knot.

The secret, in short, refers to the legacy of Christ. Not so much -from my point of view- to His carnal lineage (through His daughter Sara), but to the transmission of His authentic message -not contaminated by later interpolations- through His wife: Maria Magdalena. Perhaps the so-called gnostic gospel of Maria Magdalena? A picture can be seen in the cathedral of Girona where the Sainte reads a few pages. Is it perhaps her own gospel?


Cathedral of Girona. Maria Magdalena (reading her own Gospel?).

That is -I believe- what aims to express the representations in the South of France and Catalonia, where Magdalena appears pregnant, and exerts the role -and even the identity- of Saint John the Evangelist: "beloved disciple" according to the Gospel. Hence the identification between the Evangelist and the Magdalena? Is for that reason that is called the "beloved disciple"?

Note a curious fact: the dating of the altarpiece of Saint John the Evangelist, unattributed, in Santes Creus, takes us to the year 1603, which coincides with the beginning of the so-called "Rosicrucian movement" that would take place with the alleged discovery of the tomb of Christian Rosenkreutz, the year 1604, as described in the apocryphal work (although presumably written by Valentin Andreae) entitled Fama Fraternitatis. Has any relationship this hidden order (that some people seek to make heir to the Templars) with the transmission of the secret legacy of Maria Magdalena through the art? Would Leonardo, in his work, be a transmitter of this sacred tradition? It would be for this reason, therefore, that introduced these details in his paintings? If this is true, the Leonardo paintings would be a kind of "initiation guide", for members of an order of Rosicrucian type to which he would have belonged (of course, the modern Rosicrucians, from the 17TH century, would be his followers).

In this regard, see my article Leonardo da Vinci, the first Rosicrucian.

Fernando Yáñez (pupil of Leonardo), transmitter of a sacred tradition? 

In short, where and how Leonardo would have obtained information about the Provençal legend? In my book El viaje secreto de Leonardo da Vinci I make mention of the fact that Leonardo could have, already in the second half of the decade of the 1490, a Spanish disciple named Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina. In this regard, I wrote the following:

Leonardo makes two mentions of  "Ferrando Spagnolo, dipintore.". The first, of April 30, 1505 («Fiorini 5 d'oro paghati to Ferrando Spagnolo, dipintore», in accounts of the battle of Anghiari), and the second, of 30 August of the same year («A Ferrando Spagnolo, dipintore, per dipignere con Lionardo da Vinci nella sala del Consiglio fiorini 5 larghi»). The personality of this artist has been discussed at length. It is often confused with another Fernando (Fernando Llanos), which like Fernando Yáñez, of which we spoke, could have worked with Leonardo, although at earlier dates (on the second half of the decade of the 1490). This is what holds Carlo Vecce in his biography of Leonardo (p. 250): «Is paid separately to collaborators painters: Raffaello d'Antonio di Biagio, Ferrando Spagnolo [i.e., Fernando de Llanos, who already was a pupil of Leonardo in Milan]... ". Both one (Fernando Llanos) and another (Fernando Yáñez) painted works of leonardian aesthetic (Fernando de Llanos his Epifanía or Huida a Egipto; Fernando Yáñez his Santa Catalina or Sagrada Familia). Noteworthy is the fact that Fernando Yáñez mimics in some of his paintings (San Juan Bautista and San Sebastián, as well as San Antonino and San Vicente Ferrer) a gesture typical of Leonardo: «finger-pointing towards the sky». In addition to Italy, he worked in Valencia, Cuenca and Barcelona.

Ultimately, Fernando Yáñez (or Fernando de Llanos) could have collaborated with Leonardo da Vinci already as early as mid-1490, when Leonardo was painting the Last Supper in Milan. Would this be the origin of the "gnostic" conception that Leonardo adopts when painting the Magdalena? I refer in particular to her iconographic confusion with the Apostle Saint John the Evangelist. Not in vain, this artist (Fernando Yáñez) had a relationship of close familiarity with two of the painters I mentioned above: Juan de Borgoña and Pere Mates. To this regard Ferran Soldevila says in his Història de Catalunya (Editorial Selecta, chapter 55):

“La influència del gran moment pictòric del Renaixement arriba a través de pintors de segona i tercera categoria, com un Joan de Borgonya, oriünd d’Estrasburg, que treballa a València i a Catalunya i que no té res a veure amb el seu homònim de Castella. Li és atribuït el retaule de Sant Feliu de Girona, bella mostra de l’estil, i és considerat deixeble seu el pintor Pere Mates, gironí, que produí copiosament per a les esglésies d’aquelles comarques. Alguns pintors, això no obstant, pogueren, a Itàlia mateix, experimentar la influencia directament i ésser deixebles d’alguna de les grans figures del Renaixement italià. Així Fernando Yáñez i Fernando Llanos, que si bé eren manxecs, treballaren a València en tornar d’Itàlia”.

Juan de Borgoña lived in Barcelona since at least the year 1510 until his death. It is known that in the year 1507 he met in Valencia Fernando Yáñez, which as we know in the year 1505 formed part of the workshop of Leonardo in Florence. He would have seen him later in the year 1510, when Fernando Yáñez valued a painting of him in the city of Barcelona (Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona. El retaule de Santa Maria Magdalena de Santes Creus. Imatges de la Llegenda Daurada).

Whatever it is, Juan de Borgoña met personally Pere Mates and Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina. On two occasions (in 1501 and 1510) painted two altarpieces on María Magdalena. And -as we have seen- he had a relationship with a pupil of Leonardo (Fernando Yáñez), that would have met the florentine painter in the moment in which he painted the Last Supper (in the second half of the 1490). Everything suggests that Leonardo was in contact with the Provençal legend of Maria Magdalena, either through Fernando Yáñez or others, in the time he made his famous Cenacolo. This links him to the tradition current in Catalonia and in the South of France, almost arriving to our days through the folk celebration; for example, the "goigs" in praise to the sainte: Some "gozos" to Maria Magdalena (and Leonardo).

From my point of view, this is a solid -and very clear- nexus linking Leonardo with Catalonia. He was inspired in the heterodox tradition preserved in this region to represent some of the secret hidden in their paintings, that -from this point of view- would be "initiation guides". The altarpiece of St. John Evangelist of Santes Creus, in the year 1603, fits in the Rosacrucian environment that, already in the 17TH century, gave impetus to the organized "heterodoxy", which was later expressed in speculative Freemasonry.