Unknown Masters Fire, the John Gesture
In 1997, Lynn Picknett & Clive Prince introduced the so-called “John gesture”: a specific pose painted by Leonardo da Vinci. They were at pains to clearly identify the symbolism of the gesture, but with a little help of Hermetic magic…
by Philip Coppens
In the 1990s, authors Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince wrote two books in which Leonardo da Vinci held centre stage. The first, Turin Shroud: In Whose Image?, argued that the Turin shroud was a medieval photograph, likely engineered by the Florentine educated painter and engineer. The second, The Templar Revelation, argued that da Vinci’s paintings contained specific clues towards an “underground stream”, which held a reverence for Mary Magdalene and – specifically – John the Baptist. The second hypothesis formed the backbone for the multi-million bestselling The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. The two books “meet”, as the Turin Shroud was held – until the fire of 1997 – in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist (in Italian, the Duomo di San Giovanni, “the Dome of Saint John”). This cathedral was built between 1491 and 1498, with the Chapel of the Holy Shroud added to the structure between 1668 and 1694.
The cathedral sits on the site of three churches, dedicated to St John the Baptist, the Saviour and the Virgin Mary.
That the two books would overlap – an artefact possibly created by Da Vinci, hanging inside a church dedicated to John the Baptist – may be a coincidence; it may even be at the foundation of Picknett’s and Prince’s thinking to begin with. Still, they argue that it is a clever clue that hints at the true allegiance of this group of “Baptist worshippers”. First, let us – as everyone else these days seems to do so – briefly discuss the Turin Shroud itself. A relic of Christ or a medieval forgery? We note that a carbon dating test in 1988 dated it to 1260 and 1390, the era in which the shroud was first exhibited. It is powerful evidence that the shroud was indeed created at that time, either created by the de Lirey family (the first owners of the relic) or by a conman who sold it to them. Furthermore, despite vociferous attempts to question the validity of this dating, the result still stands.
Secondly, in 1995, I had the opportunity to interview professor Gilbert Raes, who analysed a piece of the shroud in 1973 – and kept the piece in his office desk for many years afterwards, the Church apparently not overly concerned in retrieving it after his analysis was concluded. Raes stated that in his opinion, the textile – his area of expertise – felt “recent”, thus subscribing to a medieval, rather than a “33 AD” origin for this fabric. However, we do not want to tackle the Shroud. Instead, let us look at the cathedral in which it rested for so many centuries. Above the entrance, a gigantic painting hangs; it is a reproduction of da Vinci’s Last Supper. It is an intriguing “coincidence” to find this reproduction hanging here. Furthermore, why a Cathedral indulges in a reproduction, rather than having in its past paid for an original piece of artwork, is another interesting question.
Walking around the church in a clockwise fashion, there are the usual and unusual mixture of the various saints and chapels. What is remarkable, is that many of the paintings contain the so-called “John gesture”, even though it is not John the Baptist doing this gesture. What is the “John gesture”? Picknett & Prince identified that da Vinci in his paintings often depicted certain people as raising their right index finger skywards. This is very pronounced in da Vinci’s painting of John the Baptist, but even in the Last Supper, one figure makes the John gesture.
Other painters seem to have noticed this was one of da Vinci’s trademarks. Raphael depicted Leonardo as Plato in his The School of Athens, where Leonardo/Plato is depicted with the “John gesture”. That this “John gesture” is also present in many of the paintings in the Turin Cathedral, could be a mere coincidence, but we note that the “John gesture” is extremely rare to be found in iconography. So: coincidence? Or more evidence for Picknett & Prince’s theory?
What does the John gesture mean? In short, Picknett & Prince do not know, but do construct a possible scenario. John the Baptist is notorious for his right index finger, with which he identified Jesus as the “Son of God”. For Picknett & Prince, the “John gesture” should be read as a concealed reference to John the Baptist, in which the sign says “remember John the Baptist”. Let us detach for now the “John gesture” from all of its built-up theorizing. What we are left with, is a curiosity in the work of da Vinci, whereby certain paintings show a person who is raising a right index finger. What could it mean? To repeat, the “John gesture” is not solely linked with John the Baptist; a number of people in his paintings show “the finger”, even though for the most parts they are linked with the Baptist. The key question is: what does the finger mean?
There is no clear religious significance to this finger position. Jesus is often seen extending two fingers, with the palm towards the audience, “blessing” the audience; The “John gesture” raises a single finger, with the palm towards himself. Picknett & Prince have wondered whether the single finger could somehow be a reference to show that – as one comes before two – John’s church preceded that of Jesus. The turning of the palms could be a mirroring, showing that John’s church was in opposition with Jesus.
For sure, such thinking is logical, but it fails in on one major point: it requires a large context, and a lot of contextualising has gone in to come up with these possibilities. What da Vinci would have been after, if it was a signed, was an immediate sign of recognition for him or her with the “right knowledge”; those with eyes that see. The meaning therefore needs to be concise, and be set in a universal frame of reference. So let us focus on a more direct route in trying to understand the “John gesture”. Leonardo’s education and career in Florence coincided with the Renaissance, which was a “rebirth” of the Platonic ideas, a re-acquaintance with the Hermetic literature. The Hermeticum contains large sections on magic, which makes use of the traditional four elements (Fire, Water, Air, Earth), as well stressing that gestures and finger positions are key ingredients in the various rituals. The “magical finger rituals” are now best known through the so-called “Masonic handshakes”, but these are a quite recent example of an entire spectre of “finger magic”, most of which is now lost.
“Hermetic finger magic” is clearly defined – thus meeting our “universal frame of reference” criterion set out above; each finger is assigned a specific element: the index finger with fire; the thumb with water; the middle finger with the Ether (the fifth and original element); the ring finger with earth and the little finger with air. Furthermore, the right hand is associated with the positive side (order), and the left hand with the negative side (chaos). As such, in Hermetic magic, the right index finger is associated with “positive fire”.
I would thus argue that the specific finger movement repeatedly drawn by Leonardo, in the knowledge that the finger movement is not present in Christian iconography, should thus preferentially be interpreted as a Hermetic magical “sign-ature”, with the meaning of “positive fire”. At first sight, it may seem far removed from John the Baptist, whom we would expect to see with a raised right thumb – the thumb being the sign for water. But on closer inspection, we find that John the Baptist is indeed linked with fire.
Within a Christian context, John is linked with fire on two occasions – and in opposite senses. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” says Mt. 3: 10. Here, fire consumes – negative. “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me …will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” says the next verse, Mt. 3:11. Here, it purifies and energizes. Thus, these are the two kinds of spiritual fire: the fires of Hell and the fire of Purgatory. One is the deadly self-consuming fire of hate; the other the life-giving fire of love.
The association with “fire” is also apparent from his feast of the nativity, which occurs on June 24, or the summer solstice. Pagan societies held various fire festivals on the eve of summer solstice and most Christian regions veneered this pagan ritual into St John’s fire festivals.
Leonardo could thus merely have depicted the well-established Christian symbolism of John with fire and express this by using Hermetic symbolism, with which Florence – and by extension Leonardo himself – was well-aware. That may be all there is to it; the “secret” of the “John gesture” may be nothing more than this, and for a sceptic, it will no doubt be the end of it. But once the magical cabinet is opened, it reveals other neat “tricks”… Within a Hermetic context, we note that the causal element is the Ether. The first element to descend from that is Fire, which then created Water – used by John for his baptisms. Fire and water then created Air, and the three elements then created Earth.
In Hermetic magic, these elements are then associated with various body parts. Intriguingly, Fire is associated with the head, and John the Baptist is most famous for his decapitation, in which his head has become a powerful talisman in some magical traditions.
Let us also return to the sequence in which the elements were created. Hermetic magic states that if Fire and Water are combined (as they have been in Leonardo’s “John gesture”, when John performs the gesture himself), Air is created; these three elements then create the fourth element, Earth. The John gesture could thus be seen as a Hermetic expression of the creation of all four elements.
Leonardo is also known for his androgynous characters. His depiction of John the Evangelist in the Last Supper is so feminine that many, including Dan Brown, have argued that “he” is actually Mary Magdalene. The painting of John the Baptist is also very feminine, and some studies suggest that the Mona Lisa actually contains the image of the (male) Leonardo. This androgyny is also known as hermaphrodite, or Hermes-Aphrodite, and expresses the Hermetic principle of the mixture of both sexes, ascending above the male-female paradigm. In Hermetic magic, this creation hinges on the transformative “positive fire”. Finally, we need to note that the most important symbolism of “positive fire” is in its association with “purifying fire”. For the Hermetic mage, this is the fire that will burn inside the initiate, which will set him on the path of ascension to God. In classical mythology, this is best known through the Phoenix, the bird who burns on his own ashes and is then transformed. This “purifying fire” is therefore the fire of transformation, which sheds the “mortal coil” and transforms “man” into “super man”, the shaman with supernatural powers. This is the key message of the Hermetica, and it is what made the Hermetica so inviting to the 15th Florentine Christians, who transformed themselves into Hermetic mages.
In essence, the Christian imagery of fire with John the Baptist is itself veneer on a pagan fire symbolism. This, of course, makes it extremely hard to identify whether Leonardo “knew” and “used” this pagan context, or whether he “merely” used the Christian imagery.
To somewhat dabble in a scientific approach, it needs to be said that Leonardo’s painting, apart from the androgynous characters, lacks any overt Hermetical context. Furthermore, Leonardo was not a member of the Platonic Academy. Though logically it is clear that he must have been aware of basic Hermetic principles, there is no “good evidence” that he was a practicing Hermetic mage. Hence, we can only conclude with a “theoretical framework”, in which we take the John gesture, not for its association with Leonardo, but in its pure Hermetic context. As such, it is the sign that identifies the “purifying fire”. Iamblichus wrote “he who approached to fire would receive a light from divinity”, underlining the link between fire and its derivative, light. Proclus in Timaeo wrote that “through divine fire all the stains produced by generation would be purged away”. But in the knowledge that John the Baptist is often associated with sheep, let us conclude with a quote from Ovid: “Fire purifies both the shepherd and the sheep.” This article appeared in Les Carnets Secrets 5 (2006).