Published on February 8th, 2019 | by Sam Rose

Crack the Code with Leonardo da Vinci Special Stamps

February’s Special Stamps release from the Royal Mail marks 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci and coincides with a special exhibition taking place in the UK.

To put it simply, Leonardo da Vinci is a world subject. His drawings are universally recognised as among the most technically accomplished of any artist. The full collection of around 600 of his drawings at Windsor Castle is among the most important in the world and has been pre-eminent in the study of Leonardo for centuries.

In fact, one of the greatest collections of his work is owned by Her Majesty the Queen within the Royal Collection Trust, housed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Some of his finest works housed within the Royal Collection have now been reproduced in an elegant issue of twelve Special Stamps.

The twelve Special Stamps in this prestigious set feature a selection of his drawings from the collection acquired for the Royal Collection by King Charles II at around 1670.

1st Class – The skull sectioned

Leonardo Skull sectioned stamp

As he first began to study anatomy, Leonardo da Vinci didn’t have much access to human material. However in 1489, he managed to obtain a skull. He cut this into a variety of different sections in order to fully examine its structure. In this design, the skull is shown sawn directly down the centre, then across to the front of the right side. Leonardo was said to have wished to accurately determine the proportions of the skull and the paths of the sensory nerves. His reason? He believed that the two parts must conjoin at the site of a human’s soul.

1st Class – A sprig of guelder-rose

Leonardo Guelder-rose stamp

This stamp design features the intricate study of a guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus). Drawn in red chalk on paper also containing powdered red chalk, it serves as quite the eye-catching painting. The leaves in this painting are shown as curling and sagging, as da Vinci was interested in its living form and not just its shape. It is said he was attempting to identify any effects that the natural forces of growth and gravity would have on the guelder-rose in particular.

1st Class – Studies of cats

Leonardo Studies of cats stamp

Considered as one of his most sensitively observed drawings, his study of sleeping cats wasn’t known to be scientifically motivated. The only words present on the original drawing sheet are “of flexion and extension” and “The lion is the prince of this animal species, because of the flexibility of its spine.” Due to this, it’s of the assumption that Leonardo da Vinci created this drawing in line with his study papers on ‘the movements of animals with four feet.’

1st Class – A Star-of-Bethlehem and other plants

Leonardo Star of Bethlehem stamp

Da Vinci was known to regularly draw plants and flowers as studies for the decorative details in many of his paintings. It’s also suggested that he drew plant life whilst working towards his study on the growth of plants and trees. The focus of this design is a clump of star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum). The swirling leaves of this object are seen in the studies for and in copies of, da Vinci’s infamous lost painting.

1st Class – The anatomy of the shoulder and foot

Leonardo Anatomy stamp

Captivated by the mechanism behind the human shoulder, Leonardo da Vinci also showed great interest in how the arrangement of muscles and bones in the human body allowed for great depths of movement. This drawing details the shoulder and arm during progressive states of dissection. At the lower right of the piece, da Vinci demonstrates how the ankle articulates, with the fibula and tibia lifted away from the foot itself.

1st Class – The head of Leda

Leonardo Head of Leda stamp

During the last 15 years of his life, da Vinci worked on the production of a painting on the myth of Leda, the Queen of Sparta. Here, he pictures her being seduced by the god Jupiter who has taken the guise of a swan. Interestingly, the original painting of this design was one of the highest valued items found at his estate after he passed away. The painting was then entered into the French Royal Collection but according to experts, was destroyed during the 1700s.

1st Class – The head of a bearded man

Leonardo Head of a bearded man stamp

Notably in his work, Leonardo da Vinci grew fascinated in the male profile. He had great interest in studying and drawing both the attractive and hideous. Heads like the one featured in this drawing also appeared in paintings such as ‘The Last Supper’. Later in his life, da Vinci created several carefully finished drawings of classical profiles with great form and draughtsmanship for his own enjoyment and satisfaction.

1st Class – The skeleton

Leonardo The Skeleton stamp

Regarded as his most brilliant anatomical study, this drawing and insight of the skeleton was conducted during the winter of 1510-1511. At this time, da Vinci was known to be working in a medical school within the University of Pavia, near Milan in Italy. This drawing in particular is considered to be his most complete representation of the human skeleton, viewed from the front, back and side in a similar style to an architectural drawing.

1st Class – The head of St. Philip

Leonardo The Head of St Philip stamp

Very few drawings and concepts made from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest piece of work, ‘The Last Supper’, have managed to survive the test of time. However, this drawing and study of the head of St. Philip, is rumored to have been based on a live model of the person depicted. Leonardo idealized many of the features of the face in this design in order to put them into a much more surreal context.

1st Class – A woman in a landscape

Leonardo A woman in landscape stamp

This drawing relies on two of Leonardo da Vinci’s favourite things to include in his paintings – a pointing hand and a mysterious smile. Whilst many find it difficult to accurately interpret, many theorize that the woman in the drawing is the maiden Matelda, gathering flowers as she appears to Dante on the far side of a stream in Purgatory.

1st Class – A design for an equestrian monument

Leonardo Equestrian monument stamp

While many consider da Vinci to be a man who relied on paintings and drawings in order to carry out studies, he also used some of his practical skills in order to build a full-sized clay model of a horse. The horse in question was commissioned by the ruler of Milan at the time, Ludovico Sforza. In order to pay tribute to his father, Francesco, Ludovico wished for da Vinci to create a bronze equestrian monument showing Francesco on a horse standing over a fallen foe. The monument was never finished, and invading French troops used it for target practice, destroying it in the process.

1st Class – The fall of light on a face

Leonardo The fall of light on a face stamp

During the 1480’s, Leonardo da Vinci wished to experiment and greater understand the geometric principles behind light and shade. Noted beside the illustration, da Vinci’s notes explain his theory of light and the effects varying depending on where it falls on the face. Even at this point of history, his paintings, such as the ‘Mona Lisa’, contained sophisticated examinations of how shadows and shade work.

Revel in the Enigma of Leonardo da Vinci

These finely designed versions of twelve of Leonardo da Vinci’s most important drawn studies make for an essential addition to any historian’s collection.  Available in a sleek Presentation Pack from the Post Office Shop, this fascinating pack includes a selection of drawings that demonstrate the diversity of objects and subject matters such as human anatomy, animals and maps that fascinated Leonardo and highlight his creative genius. Behind each stamp is the title of the drawing featured and the approximate year in which it is believed to have been produced.

Also released as part of this issue are a set of twelve Stamp Cards featuring an enlarged image of each of the individual illustrations contained within this fine collection and a Prestige Stamp Book which explores the many facets of Leonardo da Vinci – his drawings, the materials he used, his paintings, his sculptures and his work as an anatomist.

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