Leonardo, Homosexuality, and Sublimation

The Italian renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, who is currently the focus of the art world, arguably sublimed his homosexuality into his art.

Leonardo never showed any interest in women and even wrote that heterosexual intercourse disgusted him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he never married, and chose instead to surround himself with beautiful young men, in particular Salai (a nickname meaning ‘little devil’) and Melzi, both of whom Leonardo included in his last will. In 1476, at the age of 24, Leonardo was twice charged with sodomy, even though the charges were dropped for want of witnesses.

As in his life so in his art: Leonardo drew many more male than female nudes, and gave much more careful attention to the male sexual organs. Many of the figures in his paintings appear androgynous, especially the John the Baptist (pictured) who, complete with the fine curls of Salai, looks nothing like the biblical cousin of Jesus and everything like Salai or, indeed, Mona Lisa. There is also a drawing entitled The Incarnate Angel from the school of Leonardo that appears to be a humorous take on the John the Baptist, depicting John (and therefore Salai) with an erect phallus. Salai’s name is even inscribed – and has at some point been crossed out – on the back of the picture.

Then, in the famous Last Supper, Leonardo painted a female figure, often interpreted as Mary Magdalen, in the privileged position to the immediate right of Jesus. However, it is generally understood that it is in fact St John who occupied this position. In the Bible, John 13:23, it is written (presumably by John himself), ‘Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.’ And again at 21:20, ‘Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?’ In his Spritual Friendship, St Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx in the 12th century, contrasts St John with St Peter. To Peter, he says, Jesus gave the keys to his kingdom, but to John ‘he revealed the secrets of his heart’. ‘Peter … was exposed to action, John was reserved for love.’ Whatever the relationship between Jesus and St John, for Leonardo to have placed a female figure in the place of St John, all the more in a painting of the Last Supper designed for the dining hall of a monastery[1], might be thought of as rather more than just a mistake.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.


[1] The monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

Gnothi seauton: Mature ego defences

The Oracle of Delphi

Whilst no one can escape using ego defence mechanisms altogether, some ego defence mechanisms are thought to be more helpful or ‘mature’ than others. For example, if a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog (‘displacement’), or he may go out and play a good game of tennis (‘sublimation’). Sublimation is the channeling of negative feelings into useful activities such as study, sport, or art, and is thought to be a far more mature defence mechanism than displacement, which is the redirection of negative feelings towards someone or something less important.

There are a number of other ‘mature’ ego defence mechanisms like sublimation. Altruism, for example, is (contentiously) thought of as a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic careers such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their needs into the background. Similarly, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress once this role is removed from them.

Another mature ego defence mechanism is humour. By seeing the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an emotion, event, or situation, a person is able to put it into its proper context and thereby to diffuse the anxiety that it provokes in him. If human beings laugh so much, this is no doubt because they have the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom, and Freud himself famously noted that ‘there is no such thing as a joke’. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies, and the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death.

Further up the scale of mature ego defence mechanisms is ascetism, which involves denying the importance of what people normally fear and strive for, and so denying the very grounds for anxiety. The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940) felt that ‘anxiety is fear of one’s self’; if the importance of the self can be denied, so too can the grounds for anxiety. If people in modern societies are more anxious than people from another time or people from traditional societies, this is perhaps because of the undue emphasis that modern societies place on the self. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu ‘Song of God’, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra and tells him not to give up but to do his duty and fight on. In either case, all the men on the battlefield are one day condemned to die – as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit in them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna says, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist (…) the wise are not deluded by these changes.

– Bhagavad Gita

Arguably the most mature of all ego defence mechanisms is anticipation. Anticipation involves finding self-knowledge and, like the blind prophet Teiresias, using this self-knowledge to predict or ‘anticipate’ our feelings and reactions. In the Ancient World the greatest of all the oracles was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν

‘Know thyself.’

Adapted from