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Joy of Museums

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“Madonna Litta” – Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci attributed - Madonna Litta

“Madonna Litta” – Leonardo da Vinci

The “Madonna Litta” painting has traditionally been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. However, academic opinion is divided on the work’s creators. Some experts believe this is the work of one of Leonardo’s pupils. The Hermitage Museum, which owns this 1490s masterpiece considers the painting to be an autograph work by Leonardo. Madonna Litta depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Christ child, a devotional subject known as the Nursing Madonna. The figures are set in a dark interior with two arched openings showing an aerial view of a mountainous landscape. Of particular interest, note that in the centre of the painting, in Christ’s left hand, is a goldfinch, which is symbolic of his future Passion.

The painting takes its name from the “House of Litta”, a Milanese noble family in whose collection this painting was for much of the nineteenth century. In 1865 the Russian Tsar Alexander II acquired the panel for the Hermitage Museum, where it has been exhibited to this day. Upon obtaining the painting, the Hermitage had it transferred from wood to canvas.

The Madonna and Child was a common motif in Christian art during the Middle Ages and continued well into the Renaissance. The painting was regarded as Leonardo’s work because of the large number of copies made of it during the Renaissance period.

Nursing Madonna

The Nursing Madonna or Madonna Lactans is the name for the traditional iconography of the Madonna and Child in which the Virgin Mary is shown breastfeeding the infant Jesus. Depictions of the Nursing Madonna are mentioned as early as the 12th century, but few examples survive from before the late Middle Ages. The iconography continued to be found in Orthodox icons, especially in Russia. The Nursing Madonna depiction was part of the general upsurge in the devotion to and thinking about Mary throughout the history of Christianity.

In the Middle Ages, the middle and upper classes usually passed breastfeeding out to wet nurses, and the depiction of the Nursing Madonna was linked with the concept of the Madonna of Humility. The appearance of a large number of such representations in Tuscany in the early 14th century was something of a visual revolution for the theology of the time. After the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, clerical writers discouraged nudity in religious subjects, and the use of the Madonna Lactans iconography began to fade away.

Transfer from Wood to Canvas

Upon acquisition of the Madonna Litta, the Hermitage had it transferred from wood to canvas. The transfer of panel paintings is a practice used for conserving an unstable painting on a panel by transferring it from its original wood support to canvas or a new panel. Improved methods of wood conservation have superseded this method; however, many famous paintings have undergone this process during earlier periods of maintenance. This approach was widely perfected and practised in the second half of the 19th century.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, scientist and an engineer who was already famous in his lifetime and is today considered a genius. Leonardo’s masterpiece had considerable influence during his lifetime and continued to influence and attract lovers of history and art in our life.

Historians regard Leonardo as the prime example of the “Universal Genius” or “Renaissance Man”, an individual of unsatisfied curiosity and inventive imagination, who is considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived.

Leonardo was born out of wedlock to notary Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman named Caterina in Vinci in the region of Florence, and he was educated in the studio of Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna, and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by Francis I of France.

Madonna Litta

  • Title:             Madonna Litta
  • Artist:           Disputed attribution to Leonardo da Vinci
  • Created:       c. 1490
  • Periods:        High Renaissance
  • Media:         Tempera on canvas (transferred from panel)
  • Dimensions: 42 cm × 33 cm (17 in × 13 in)
  • Museum:      Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Leonardo da Vinci

Reflections

  • Leonardo da Vinci or not?
  • How nervous would you be if you were responsible for transferring a masterpiece from wood to canvas?

Explore the Hermitage Museum

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“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
– Leonardo da Vinci

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Photo Credit 1) Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain]

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