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Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci (The National Gallery, London)

Leonardo da Vinci Virgin of the Rocks (National Gallery London)
“Virgin of the Rocks” by Leonardo da Vinci

“Virgin of the Rocks” by Leonardo da Vinci depicts the Madonna and child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel, in a rocky setting which provides the painting with its unusual name. This painting is in the National Gallery London and is one of two versions of this picture which have the same name and similar composition but with several differences in the detail. The earliest version of the two paintings is in the Louvre, Paris and has been transferred to the canvas, whereas this painting is on the original wooden panel.

The composition shows a grouping of four figures, the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, the infant John the Baptist and an angel arranged into a triangular formation.  The setting is a background of rocks and a distant landscape of mountains and water. Mary occupies the apex of the pyramidal figure group, stretching one hand to include John and raising the other above the head of the Christ child in a blessing. John is kneeling and looking towards the Christ child with his hands together in an attitude of prayer. The Christ child is supported by the angel and is raising his right hand in a sign of Benediction towards the kneeling John.

The subject of both paintings is the adoration of the Christ child by the infant John the Baptist. The critical differences in the two pictures are in the gaze and right hand of the angel. There are also differences in the colours, the lighting and the flora. In this painting, the angel is looking at John, in the Louvre version the angel is looking at Jesus and pointing at John. This story is not in the Bible, but it became part of a tradition of medieval stories about encounters between the young Jesus and John. Leonardo was familiar with legends of Saint John the Baptist which were popular in his native Florence, where he was the patron saint. Other famous artists who have portrayed this story in art, include Raphael and Michelangelo.

Leonardo Da Vinci - Vergine delle Rocce (Louvre)

The Louvre version

This painting was part of a sculpted altar commissioned in 1480’s for a chapel attached to the church of Saint Francesco Grande in Milan. Final execution of the commission was prolonged as the first version of this painting was not completed until 1486 and it was then sent to France, and today is on display in the Louvre. Leonardo then painted a replacement for the chapel in 1508 which is this painting. Eighty years later the altarpiece was removed from the chapel, which was demolished and the artwork eventually found its way into the National Gallery Collection.

Prime Version

If an artwork exists in several versions, the one believed to be the earliest is called the prime version. Many artworks which are unique are sometimes repeated by artists, often several times. The prime version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” is believed to be the Louvre version.

Transfer of Panel Paintings

The transfer of panel paintings is the 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 conservation. This approach was widely practised in the second half of the 19th century. This version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” has not been transferred; however, the Louvre version has been moved from wood to canvas.

Exploring Leonardo da Vinci

Reflections

  • Why did Da Vinci select this background for his composition?
  • Why did Da Vinci send the first version to France?
  • Which version do you prefer?

Virgin of the Rocks

  • Title:               Virgin of the Rocks or Madonna of the Rocks
  • Artist:             Leonardo da Vinci
  • Created:         1506-8
  • Periods:          Renaissance
  • Media:            Oil on poplar, thinned and cradled
  • Dimensions:  189.5 x 120 cm
  • Museum:       The National Gallery, London

Leonardo da Vinci

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“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
– Leonardo da Vinci

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Photo Credit 1)Leonardo da Vinci and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons