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  • Ross Moughtin

Come on, Leonardo, we haven’t got all day!

Now that I have retired I am planning to do some painting and so for inspiration I went this Tuesday to the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery. The plan is that next week I will be painting the front downstairs bedroom as well as the hall and the lesson I learnt from Leonardo was simple: painstaking preparation. The exhibition is of 12 of his drawings on temporary loan from the Royal Collection to mark the 500thanniversary of the artist’s death. (The fact that HRH Prince Charles was just over the road in St George’s Hall simply added to the moment.) Great exhibition. Very well displayed but you need good eyesight to appreciate Leonardo’s genius. In fact, the visitor alongside me sensibly brought her magnifying glass. Being myopic, I simply took off my glasses. Highly intricate drawings showing an acute, even obsessive regard for detail. And detailed notes in his reversed handwriting interspersed among the images. His anatomical drawings, produced towards the end of his life, are awesome. In his review for the Guardian, Jonathan Jones writes: “He finds within us a mysterious architecture. The interior of the heart is laced with fan vaulting like a gothic cathedral. Our bodies are labyrinths of tunnels and cavities, spheres and tree branches.” However – and this is a big ‘however’ – few, if any of these remarkable drawings, were meant for exhibition. Even his anatomical drawings were never used in the about-to-happen scientific endeavour. These were simply Leonardo’s preparations for some bigger work. That’s why they are still together, bound together after his death by his favourite pupil. This is art for art’s sake. Moreover, it seems that once he got started, he couldn’t stop – going into far more detail that was needed for the final project. Tragically much of his preparations came to nothing. He never got round to actually doing it. Other of his masterpieces perished – especially his painting of the Battle of Anghiari . Thankfully we still have his Mona Lisaand the Last Supper. Leonardo may have been a genius but clearly he needed an agent. So, for example, the ten years from 1482 he spent in Milan to produce the biggest equestrian statue in the world came to nothing, thanks to an invasion by the French. Even his remarkable clay model was destroyed by the French soldiers, using it for target practice. Typical. But we do have all his preparatory sketches of horse, again in remarkable detail showing Leonardo’s power of observation. And more, his fascination with life. Vasari relates that if Leonardo saw a person with an interesting face he would follow them around all day observing them. Nowadays, of course, he would be arrested for stalking. Of course, preparation is essential. Time spent rubbing down the woodwork for my own artistry next week will be time well spent. But there comes a point when you have to start glossing. Unlike Leonardo, I have a wife. If I had commissioned Leonardo to paint our hall, no doubt he would have spent the first few weeks researching the different abrasive papers on the market while testing the various paints for colour fastness. And then, after several months, he would have moved on – leaving me to finish the job. In other words this quest for perfection can so easily become a delaying tactic, the practice of procrastination. Novelist Margaret Atwood confesses: “If I waited for perfection I would never write a word.” As you can see in this blog. Clearly preparation is important for the way God works. So God promises to heal his creation and restore humans to their true vocation in Genesis 12 as he chooses to bless the nations through Abram. But in terms of the Bible it is another 39 books, stretching over the millennium, before Jesus is born. The apostle Paul encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road about 33 AD but he doesn’t’ really get going until 46 AD when Barnabas pulls him out of Tarsus.

Great things are happening in Antioch as non-Jews are turning to Jesus. This is an altogether new experience for the apostles and they are not sure what to do. Barnabas has a great idea – I’ll go and get Saul (aka Paul). Had not Barnabas travelled those 86 miles to fetch Saul, Saul may never have left his home town. But his invaluable time of preparation was over – now is the time for action. Of course, we are talking about balance – the need for suitable preparation (with the emphasis on the word suitable) and then actually doing it. And here the apostle gives us a great example of seizing every opportunity, even if it is not part of the plan, like his ministry in Macedonia. We need to realise that sometimes windows of opportunity can be very narrow. You feel like saying “Come on, Leonardo, we haven’t got all day!” So just do it.

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