A 12-stamp set celebrating Leonardo da Vinci was unveiled by Britain’s Royal Mail earlier this week.
Widely considered one of the greatest artists of all time, da Vinci—and his extensive collection of drawings, in which he explored fields as diverse as botany, anatomy, portraiture, design and the nature of the world around him—continues to fascinate 500 years after his death. The U.K.’s Royal Collection holds the greatest collection of his drawings, which have been protected from light, fire and flood and are in almost pristine condition. Among the world’s greatest artistic treasures, they allow people today to understand what da Vinci intended—and to observe his hand and mind at work after a span of five centuries.
“Alongside an ambitious program of 12 exhibitions around the U.K., then exhibitions at the Queen’s Galleries in London and Edinburgh, we are thrilled to be working with Royal Mail on this special 12-stamp set, which invites everyone to join the celebration of Leonardo and his work in 2019,” said Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings at the Royal Collection Trust.
The drawings featured on the stamps, which were issued Feb. 13, were chosen to coincide with the 12 exhibitions, “Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing,” taking place across the U.K. One drawing from each of the 12 exhibitions is featured on a stamp.
One of history’s greatest polymaths, da Vinci pursued the scientific study of human anatomy, the theory of light, the movement of water and the growth of plants. The common thread to all of his work was drawing: he drew incessantly for new ideas, to refine compositions, to record his observations and to test his theories. Many of his drawings are accompanied by extensive notes in mirror-writing (da Vinci was left-handed and throughout his life habitually wrote in perfect mirror image, from right to left).
Fewer than 20 paintings by da Vinci survive, and there’s nothing in sculpture or architecture; however, because he hoarded thousands of his drawings and dozens of notebooks, many of which have been passed down through succeeding centuries, there’s a detailed knowledge of the workings of his extraordinary mind.
1. The skull sectioned (1489)
Ulster Museum, Belfast
Da Vinci had little access to human material when he first started to study anatomy, but in 1489, he obtained a skull, which he cut in a variety of sections to study its structure.
In this drawing, he shows the skull sawn down the middle, then across the front of the right side. This beautifully lucid presentation, with the two halves juxtaposed, allows the viewer to locate the facial cavities in relation to the surface features. He wished to determine the proportions of the skull and the paths of the sensory nerves, believing that they must converge at the site of the soul.
2. A sprig of guelder-rose (circa 1506-12)
Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens
A beautifully rendered study of guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) has been drawn in red chalk on paper rubbed all over with powdered red chalk.
Although it may be connected with his Leda and the Swan, it is far more detailed than necessary as a study for a painting; indeed, it surpasses anything found in contemporary herbals. The leaves are shown curling and sagging, for da Vinci was interested not merely in their shape but also in their living form when subject to the natural forces of growth and gravity.
3. Studies of cats (circa 1517-18)
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
His studies of sleeping cats are among his most sensitively observed drawings and must have been done directly from life.
His appreciation of the animals’ lithe forms had a scientific basis, for elsewhere on the sheet he wrote: “Of flexion and extension. The lion is the prince of this animal species, because of the flexibility of its spine.”
This suggests the drawings were made in connection with his proposed treatise on “the movements of animals with four feet, among which is man, who likewise in his infancy crawls on all fours.”
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Da Vinci drew plants and flowers as studies for decorative details in his paintings and probably also in the process of working towards a systematic treatise on the growth of plants and trees. His finest botanical drawings were executed for his painting Leda and the Swan, which was to have a foreground teeming with plants and flowers, thus echoing the fertility inherent in that myth.
The focus of this drawing is a clump of star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), whose swirling leaves are seen in studies for, and copies of, the lost painting.
Southampton City Art Gallery
He was also fascinated by the mechanism of the shoulder and by how the arrangement of muscles and bones allowed such a wide range of movement. Here, he analyzes the shoulder and arm in a series of drawings at progressive states of dissection. He begins at upper right with the muscles intact and then lifts away individual muscles, such as the deltoid and biceps, to reveal the structures below. At lower right, Leonardo demonstrates the articulation of the ankle with the tibia and fibula lifted away from the foot.
Walker Art Gallery
Over the last 15 years of his life, da Vinci worked on a painting of the myth of Leda, showing the queen of Sparta seduced by the god Jupiter in the guise of a swan. The painting was the highest valued item in his estate at his death; it later entered the French royal collection but was apparently destroyed around 1700.
In this sketch, he expended little effort on Leda’s demure downward glance, devoting his attention instead to the most complicated of hairstyles (throughout his life, he had a love of personal adornment in both hair and clothes).
Derby Museum and Art Gallery
Da Vinci was fascinated by the male profile, both the divinely beautiful and the hideously grotesque. Such heads are found throughout his work, from paintings such as The Last Supper to quick doodles in the margins of his drawings.
Towards the end of his life, he made many carefully finished drawings of classical profiles, exercises in form and draughtsmanship simply for his own satisfaction. Their features, such as the dense mat of curly hair seen here, were inspired by ancient coins and medals of Roman emperors.
Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum
His most brilliant anatomical studies were conducted in the winter of 1510-11, when he was apparently working in the medical school of the university of Pavia, near Milan. He may have dissected up to 20 human bodies at that time, concentrating on the mechanisms of the bones and muscles.
This is his most complete representation of a skeleton, seen from front, side and back in the manner of an architectural drawing. He aimed to compile an illustrated treatise on human anatomy, but his studies remained unpublished at his death.
Da Vinci’s greatest completed work was The Last Supper, painted in the refectory of the monastic church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and now in a ruined state. The mural shows the reaction of the disciples to Christ’s announcement of his imminent betrayal. Few drawings survive of the hundreds that must have been made.
This study for the head of St. Philip, leaning towards Christ in devotion and despair, was probably based on a live model, but da Vinci has idealized the features, taking them out of the real world and into the divine.
Manchester Art Gallery
Two of Leonardo’s favourite devices—a mysterious smile and a pointing hand—are combined in this ethereal drawing. It shows a woman standing in a rocky, watery landscape, smiling at us while gesturing into the distance, her arms gathering her drapery to her breast.
The most plausible explanation is this is the maiden Matelda gathering flowers as she appears to Dante on the far side of a stream in Purgatory, the second book of his Divine Comedy; however, the purpose of the drawing is unknown.
Leeds Art Gallery
Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan, commissioned da Vinci to execute a bronze equestrian monument, well over life size, to his father, Francesco.
His early studies show Francesco on a rearing horse over a fallen foe. Over the next five years, da Vinci built a full-sized clay model of the horse and prepared a mould for the casting—a huge technical challenge.
In 1494, Ludovico requisitioned the 75 tons of bronze for the cast to make cannon, and the monument was never finished. Invading French troops used the clay model for target practice, destroying it.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
During the 1480s, da Vinci began to assemble material towards a treatise on the theory of painting. His own paintings, such as the Mona Lisa, were noted even in his own day for their sophisticated treatment of shadows, and here he sets out the geometrical principles of light and shade.
The diagram and notes (in mirror writing) explain where the light falls at right angles on the face, the face will be most strongly illuminated; where it falls at a shallow angle, the face will be less strongly lit; and where no light is received, under the nose and chin, the surface will be completely dark.