The term autochthony—deriving from the Greek words “auto-“ (self) and “chthon” (soil)—reverberates with echoes of ancient myths about people or peoples believed to have generated directly from the soil. Notably, Herodotus claimed in his Histories that the inhabitants of Arcadia had arisen in this manner. The connection between soil and human subject inflects cosmological narratives in various cultures. Humans are thought to have been initionally fashioned from earth in Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian, and Islamic traditions.
In “Leonardo’s Hand: Mimesis, Sexuality, and Early Modern Political Aesthetics,” Christopher Pye argues that the early modern period saw the birth of what he terms the “autochthonic work,” which he describes as “the work that systematically articulates itself in relation to the problem of its own constitution,” which is "staked for the first time in an irreducible way on its own historicity. Which is to say that it is an essentially political form” (17). Pye also articulates such an art as emerging ex nihilo (for the Lucretian reckoning with a similar concept in the realm of natural philosophy, see Nothing from Nothing). There is perhaps a peculiar tension between the terms ex nihilo and autochthonic, which Pye seems to use interchangeably. While the former term implies a conjuring out of thin air, the latter connotes that the art is inextricably linked to the material realities of the contexts out of which it arises. He questions the idea that the birth of the aesthetic amounted to a disaffiliation of the work “from the fact of its cultural and material conditions” (2).
At one point, Pye describes Leonardo’s cartoon of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and John the Baptist as having parthenogenic implications. Parthenogenesis directly translates from its Greek roots as “virgin birth.” Pye also seems to invoke the scientific concept designated by this term. Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction in many plant and animal species—such as the all-female lizard species Cnemidophorus neomexicanus—through which eggs develop into embryos without sperm. (See Generative Mother Goddess). Pye references Freud’s work on Leonardo, in which the psychoanalyst reads a story, related by Leonardo himself, about a vulture brushing the artist's lips with its tail while he was nursing. Freud reads this story as relating to (a) the artist's passive, homosexual desire for oral sex, (b) his regressive fantasy of returning to the oral stage and the mother’s breast, and (c) the Egyptian myth that vultures are all female, and are impregnated by the wind. Freud reads the grey vestments in the Louvre painting of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne as a hidden vulture; the body of the mother thus collapses with these various layers of referents in Freud’s reading of Leonardo’s story. Freud’s understanding of Leonardo’s homosexuality may inform the way Pye has constructed his argument in this essay. Freud notes that Leonardo was very close to his mother, while his father was absent. In a similar vein, Pye places the emergence of the aesthetic between a lingering attachment to (maternal) immediacy and a wholly “elsewhere” structure of (paternal) meaning-making.
Freud’s identification of a “vulture” in Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne
Source: Freud, Sigmund. "Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of an Infantile Reminiscence." Translated by A.A. Brill. New York, Moffat, Yard & Co., 1916.