Best known as the artist, Leonardo da Vinci donned many hats; he was a scientist, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and inventor, that he rightfully epitomized the term ‘Renaissance Man.’

He serves as a role model for applying the scientific techniques and methods to almost every aspect of life, including Renaissance art and music. He conducted dozens of astute experiments and created groundbreaking futuristic inventions as well as discovered various artistic principles.


Leonardo was born out of wedlock to a respected Florentine notary Ser Piero and a young peasant woman, Caterina on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, Italy. His father took his custody shortly after his birth and he was brought up by his stepmothers.

Growing up in father's family estate, he had access to various scholarly texts and also got an exposure to Vinci's longstanding painting tradition. At the age of 15, his father apprenticed him to the workshop of renowned artist Andrea del Verrochio in Florence where he received a multifaceted training that included painting, sculpture and technical-mechanical arts.

Seeking to make a living, and new challenges, he entered the service of the Duke of Milan in 1482 where he was spent time painting, sculpting and designing weapons, buildings, and machinery.  It was during these years that Leonardo attained new heights of scientific and artistic expertise.

Owing to his inexhaustible curiosity and broad interests, Leonardo was so often compelled by new subjects and ideas, that he usually left his projects unfinished. As a result, he only completed about six Renaissance artworks in 17 years, leaving dozens of paintings and projects unfinished.

True Master of His Craft

One of the great Renaissance painters, Leonardo continually experimented with artistic traditions, methods, style, themes, and techniques. He created innovative compositions, investigated anatomy to represent the human body with extreme precision. Taking a scientific approach, he explored the human psyche to illustrate the character and often experimented with methods of representing space and three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface.

“Perspective is nothing else than seeing a place or objects behind a plane of glass, quite transparent, on the surface of which the objects behind the glass are to be drawn.” - Leonardo da Vinci

His powers of observation and skill as an illustrator enabled him to understand and recreate the effects he saw in his natural surroundings, which added a unique element of liveliness to his paintings.

Let’s explore the ten most dramatic and expressive Renaissance paintings as well as other artworks of the genius:

1. Mona Lisa

The world’s most celebrated and famous painting, ‘Mona Lisa’ (image below) draws thousands of jostling visitors and art lovers to the Louvre Museum in France every day, many of whom are compelled by the sitter’s ( a young woman ) mysterious gaze and enigmatic smile.

Depicting a modestly dressed young woman in a thin veil and somber colours, this half-length portrait’s simplicity belies Leonardo’s expertise at realism. The subject’s softly modeled face with sharp features shows his skillful handling of the artistic technique of sfumato, which uses subtle gradations of light and shadow. The subtly painted veil, the finely wrought tresses, and the meticulous rendering of folded cloth fabric in this seemingly ordinary portrait exhibit Leonardo’s tireless patience in recreating his studied observations accurately.

2. The Last Supper

One of the most famed Renaissance artworks in the world, ‘The Last Supper’ (image below) is often interpreted as a complex study of varied human emotions revealed in a deceptively simple composition.

Painted by Leonardo in the late 15th century for the Dominican monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, this fresco painting is a sequential narrative that illustrates several successive moments in the Gospels wherein Jesus declares that one of the Apostles will betray him and then initiates the Eucharist.

Leonardo has rendered each apostle’s reaction to the declaration with great attention and precision, their postures rise, fall, extend, and intertwine as they appear to whisper, grieve, wail and debate around Jesus, who is sitting serenely in the center adorning the traditional blue and red robes. 

3. The Virgin of the Rocks

Based on stylistic evidence, many historians and academics consider the painting ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ in the Louvre the first of two paintings that Leonardo made of an apocryphal legend in which the Holy Family (Virgin Mary, Jesus) meets Saint John the Baptist as they flee to Egypt.

The dispute and the years of litigation with the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, which commissioned the artwork, eventually led Leonardo to paint another version of the same subject in around1508, which is now placed in the National Gallery of London.

This is the first painting that represents the ways in which Leonardo ushered in the High Renaissance through a totally innovative composition and developed aesthetics unlike altarpieces of this period with hieratic poses. In ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’, the figures of the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child, the infant John, and archangel Gabriel are depicted in natural poses and arranged in a pyramidal composition, who are not only occupying space but interacting with one another through gestures and glances.

Leonardo has excluded the use of traditional holy signifiers such as halos for Mary and Christ and staff for John so that the Holy Family appears less divine and more human.

4. Vitruvian Man

Influenced by the Roman architect, Vitruvius, ‘Vitruvian Man’ (image below) is one of the most recognizable symbols of Rennaisance and is now housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice in a climate-controlled archive. This simple pen and ink drawing comes from one of the many notebooks that Leonardo kept handy during his mature years, along with other notes, written in mirror script dealing with the concept of ideal human proportions that the Roman architect Vitruvius elaborated in a book on architecture from the 1st century BCE. This artwork illustrates Vitruvius’s theory that the ideal human could fit within a contour of a circle and a square, two irreconcilable shapes, in a comprehensible manner.

Leonardo resolved the concept by drawing a male figure in two superimposed postures, one with his arms outstretched to fit in a square and another with his legs and arms spread open in a circle. The work shows not only his effort to understand baffling texts but also his attempt to further expand on them. Though he was not the first to illustrate this complex concept his drawing later became the most iconic, because of the combination of the theories of mathematics, philosophy, and art.

5. Annunciation

Leonardo's early painting of the ‘Annunciation’ (image below) owes much to the influence of his first master, artist Andrea del Verrocchio. However, it is considered to be his first major artwork which he finished in his early twenties.

Presently housed in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence, Italy, this painting captures many of the most common and symbolically charged themes of the well-known Biblical story, the Annunciation.

In the Christian tradition, the Annunciation describes the moment when the angel Gabriel went to the Virgin Mary to inform her that she would soon conceive to become the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God whose reign would never end. Indeed, this is an important moment in the story of the New Testament, as it marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ — the moment that Christ was conceived and that the Son of God became Mary’s child. It is narrated in Luke 1:26-38 in the Bible as:

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Leonardo’s painting depicts this scene where Mary is visited by an angel as she sits inside a walled garden before a Renaissance palace, evoking the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) that alludes to her purity. Leonardo has painted the angel with strong, solid wings and corporeal vigor, taking inspiration from his studies of a bird of prey. However, Mary seems taken aback displaying a combination of disquiet and serious reflection of the angel’s appearance.

During that period as the reverence of the Virgin Mary grew within the Church, The Annunciation became a favorite subject of artists across Europe with every artist representing the event in his own unique style. However, the painting by Leonardo capturing this moment is the most loved and admired across the world.