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The Virgin of the Rocks (Madonna of the Rocks)

Leonardo da Vinci • Painting, 1486, 199×122 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Religious scene
Style of art: Renaissance
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas, Wood
Date of creation: 1486
Size: 199×122 cm
Artwork in collection: Leonardo da Vinci Olga Potekhina
Artwork in selections: 88 selections

Description of the artwork «The Virgin of the Rocks (Madonna of the Rocks)»

Probably, every painting by Leonardo da Vinci is invested with an air of mystery and enigmas. The altar image The Virgin of the Rocks is not an exception. Why are there two versions of it, one of which is located in the Louvre, Paris, and the second one is in the London National Gallery? Why is one of them painted almost a quarter-century after the other one? Read the description of the picture The Virgin of the Rocks by Da Vinci to know these and then some.

Who ordered the Virgin?

In the early twentieth century, a contract signed on April 25, 1483 was discovered in Italian archives. According to the contract, one party represented by Leonardo da Vinci and two more artists, brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis, undertook to fulfil an order for painting an altarpiece for the church of San Francesco Grande, the second largest religious structure in Milan after the cathedral.

They had specified a certain deadline for this work: December 4, eight months later, the day of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, according to the Gregorian calendar of the Catholic liturgical year. The second party were members of the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception, which included representatives of the most respected families of the city. They undertook to pay 800 lire to the artists for the work done.

However, in the end something went wrong, as it often happened to Leonardo. The result was not confined to the terms set out in the contract. Thus, customers expected to see the Madonna with Jesus surrounded by angels and two prophets in the central panel, and four angels with musical instruments on the side panels, who were singing laudatory hymns.

As you can see, the client’s only wish that was satisfied were the Madonna and the baby. Instead of a host of angels and prophets, he painted another baby – John the Baptist, plus Archangel Uriel. Even the side panels, which are believed to be made by Ambrogio de Predis, do not comply with the prescriptions: only one angel instead of four is playing music on each side 1, 2). Needless to say, Da Vinci missed the stipulated deadline, as usual, for a couple of years.

Why did Leonardo fail to complete the Virgin of the Rocks within the contract deadline?

Some scholars suggest that the artist just decided to continue working on an already started picture, because he believed it would perfectly satisfy the conditions stipulated by the brotherhood. The artist might also hope that the customer would never reject the masterpiece upon seeing it, even if the disagreement might occur.
However, he did not take into account that the altarpiece is not just a picture to impress the imagination with its artfulness and beauty. The altar must perform very specific functions and reflect the dogmas of the church community that ordered it.

Eventually, Leonardo even had to seek help from his influential patron the Milanese Duke Ludovico Sforza, in order to collect the royalties from the clients. It is noteworthy that despite the lawsuit with the brotherhood, the plot and characters of the second picture, which nevertheless took its proper place in the altar of the church of San Francesco Grande in the early 16th century, was almost identical (now this version is in London).

The differences are in nuances: apparently, having made concessions, Leonardo made the faces of the Madonna, the babies and the archangel beatific, as if filled with moonlight, and drew the halos. At the London version, the Virgin looks detached, faces of both babies are unusually adult, and the mysterious pointing finger of the archangel Uriel disappeared.

Probably, the brethren considered the colder, more serious and less earthly The Virgin of the Rocks more compliant with their ideas of about the altarpiece. Probably, they believed it had more power to inspire people to pray. The Louvre version, warm, tender and pastorally charming, dropped off the radar until 1625. Its location and fate was completely unknown until the moment the picture glowed in the royal collection in France.

The botanical symbols in The Virgin of the Rocks by Da Vinci

The painter was interested in almost all spheres of science and nature. He investigated human and animal anatomy, geology, forms of vegetation. All this knowledge added to the artistry and realism of his works, consequently you can easily identify the plants he painted around the characters of the picture.

In the tradition of religious painting, different colours often had certain meaning, so they rarely appeared in pictures in a random way. Believers were well acquainted with the dictionary of plant symbols, and it was not hard for the enlightened to read them.

Thus, to the right of the Virgin’s head is the columbine, whose popular name suggests “the dove of the Holy Ghost”. “Just above her right hand is a species of galium known in English as Our Lady’s Bedstraw and traditionally associated with the manger”, said historian Charles Nicholl. “Below the foot of the infant Christ are cyclamen, whose heart-shaped leaves make it an emblem of love and devotion, and by his knee is a basal rosette of primrose, an emblem of virtue (as in Verocchio’s sculpture of the Woman with a Bunch of Flowers). Another familiar plant, seen below the kneeling St. John, is the acanthus (Acanthus mollis), traditionally planted over graves, and considered a symbol of the resurrection because of its rapid growth of brilliant glossy green leaves in spring. Also in the painting, in the cornices of the rock, is the hypericum, or St. John’s wort, its small dots of red on yellow petals representing the blood of the martyred St. John.

As for topographical nuances, such as rocks and the grotto in the background, their perfection was noted by a geologist and Renaissance art historian Ann Pizzorusso, who studied the painting in 1996. She said in her verdict about the skill of Da Vinci that this painting is the geological masterpiece, in which Leonardo reproduces complex geographic formations with particular accuracy.

Why is Archangel Uriel next to the Virgin but not Joseph?

The plot of the picture is based on the life story of John the Baptist, compiled in the 15th century by friar Domenico Cavalca. It tells that during the meeting of the infants John and Christ in the desert, the latter was under the auspices of Archangel Uriel.

Concerning Joseph, Charles Nicholl in his book Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind notes that absence of Joseph, the husband of Mary, does not look accidental, since the painter excludes Joseph from all his paintings involving the Holy Family. For example, on different versions of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne Leonardo replaces Joseph with Jesus’s grandmother, mother of Mary. The author said that the deep psychological underpinnings of this approach is clearly seen even if you are not a Freudian. It probably implies the special status of Leonardo in the family of his father Ser Piero, who participated in his life, although he did not recognize the illegitimate son as his heir.

Another researcher of Da Vinci’s life and work, writer Ross King draws attention to the femininity of the appearance of Archangel Uriel. He believes that the model for his painting was “almost certainly a woman”. At the same time, he does not jump to conclusions about the model for Madonna. King said that the question of the model’s gender became even more confusing after they had discovered a previously unknown painting under a layer of paint in the other work by Leonardo, the London version of Virgin of the Rocks. It was a portrait of the Virgin Mary, and her features are exactly the same as those of St. Philip from The Last Supper. It is reasonable to conclude that Leonardo used the same sketch and the same model for both images of Mary and the apostle. Although, we still do not know, whether the model was a man or woman.


Author: Natalia Azarenko