Salvador Dalí once made a comparison of great painters. He rated each for his colors, drawing, invention, and other qualities. For “mystery” he gave Leonardo da Vinci a 10. Isn’t that one of Leonardo’s fortes?
The landscapes in his paintings have much to do with the mystery. Some are troubling—spooky—fantasy worlds. (The philosopher Kant makes schrecklich–terrifying–one of the qualities of the sublime.) Others are outright paradises.
The dreamlike landscapes are in nearly all of Leonardo’s works. This may be his first one–the scene behind Jesus in Verrocchio’s Baptism picture. Legend says Leonardo painted the angel on the left.
Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio, c.1475 (public domain photo)
Look at the strange port with the ghastly high mountains in this Annunciation.
Detail of the Annunciation, Uffizi Gallery, Florence (public domain photo)
Or the strange rocks of the cavern and lagoon in the Virgin of the Rocks.
Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London (public domain photo)
The winding road , the bridge, the lakes and the mountains behind the Mona Lisa have intrigued people for five hundred years.
Gioconda or Mona Lisa, Louvre, Paris (public domain photo)
See the high mountain fantasies in the Leningrad Litta Madonna:
Madonna Litta, Hermitage, Leningrad (public domain photo)
And the still water behind the prickly tree of the Benci portrait:
Ginevra de’ Benci, National Gallery (public domain photo)
There is even a placid meadow out the window in The Last Supper:
The Last Supper, Milan (public domain photo)
How are these different from other landscapes? What gives them a mysterious or sublime quality?
Leonardo’s own uniquely deep and complex personality.
They are not scenes that he went out and copied from a mountaintop or valley. He did draw that way—there are plein-air chalk and pen-and-ink drawings of his, like this one which he made at 21:
Study of a Tuscan Landscape, Uffizi (public domain photo)
But he didn’t put them into his paintings. For those he invented landscapes. He made them up. That is why they are so personal, why they are not quite real. The lines that make them are all out of his head, which transformed the facts he had learned while sketching outdoors.