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.