Freud on Leonardo
Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood is an essay by Sigmund Freud about Leonardo Da Vinci's childhood. It consists of a psychoanalytic study of da Vinci's life based on his paintings.
Freud provides a psychoanalytical interpretation of da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. According to Freud, the Virgin's garment reveals a vulture when viewed sideways. Freud claimed that this was a manifestation of a "passive homosexual" childhood fantasy that Leonardo wrote about in the Codex Atlanticus, in which he recounts being attacked as an infant in his crib by the tail of a vulture. He translated the passage thus:
According to Freud, this fantasy was based on the memory of sucking his mother's nipple. He backed up his claim with the fact that Egyptian hieroglyphs represent the mother as a vulture, because the Egyptians believed that there are no male vultures and that the females of the species are impregnated by the wind.
Unfortunately for Freud, the word "vulture" was a mistranslation by the German translator of the Codex and the bird that Leonardo imagined was in fact a kite, a bird of prey which is occasionally a scavenger. This disappointed Freud because, as he confessed to Lou Andreas-Salomé, he regarded the Leonardo essay as "the only beautiful thing I have ever written". Some Freudian scholars have, however, made attempts to repair the theory by incorporating the kite.
Another theory proposed by Freud attempts to explain Leonardo's fondness of depicting the Virgin Mary with St. Anne. Leonardo, who was illegitimate, was raised by his blood mother initially before being "adopted" by the wife of his father Ser Piero. The idea of depicting the Mother of God with her own mother was therefore particularly close to Leonardo's heart, because he, in a sense, had 'two mothers' himself. It is worth noting that in both versions of the composition (the Louvre painting and the London cartoon) it is hard to discern whether St. Anne is a full generation older than Mary.