Virgin on the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
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Published: Fri, 04 May 2018
Featured in this gallery are the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks (also known as The Madonna of the Rocks). These two altarpieces are being showcased in particular in this exhibition because they share a location in the same Milanese church, the San Francesco Grande, and most importantly the same artist (although this has been debated), Leonardo Da Vinci, painted both versions of the altarpiece. Further, another reason why they are being portrayed in this exhibition is due to the debates over their authenticity, even though they are 15 years apart in conception. Additionally, the two pieces share the same subject matter, imagery, iconography and pyramidal composition. In both altarpieces, the subject matter is unusual since the Biblical figures are placed in a mountainous pictorial backdrop; also, both paintings depicted were made for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. These two pieces were further chosen because they incorporate many stylistic features – such as sfumatto (blurring of lines) and the exploitation of the gradation of light (chiaroscuro) – that the painter had accumulated and learnt from previous experiments, and which he then applied in this peak period of his career. The two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks also represent the artist’s continuous growth in the art of Italian Renaissance; The Virgin of the Rocks set the base for Leonardo Da Vinci to grow and mature as an artist in his two following infamous commissions, the Last Supper, and the Mona Lisa.
The two altarpieces share the same iconography of the plants painted. Leonardo Da Vinci was a botanist just as much as he was an engineer, or an artist. He paid close attention to details; for these paintings, rather than looking at images of the plants, he looked at the plants in real, and painted from there. The plants depicted in the paintings have been chosen because they symbolize and represent religious meanings. According to the biographer, Charles Nicholl: “the columbine suggests the dove of the Holy Ghost, the cyclamen below Christ have heart shaped leaves which make it an emblem of love and devotion, and by his knee is a basal rosette of primrose, an emblem of virtue. Kneeling below St. John is the acanthus, considered to be a symbol of the resurrection because of its rapid growth; the hypericum which has small dots of red on yellow petals represents the blood of the martyred St. John.” Other hidden symbols are religious in nature: the water, pearls and the crystal, which are used to fasten Mary’s robe, are symbols of her purity. This would make the connection with the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Further, the stone formations, eroded by natural forces are a metaphor for Mary, pointing towards her unexpected, virtuous fertility. Da Vinci wanted the viewer to feel as if they were seeing material Nature spiritually transmuted.
In both versions of the altarpiece, Leonardo Da Vinci portrayed the Virgin together with the infant Christ and St. John, and with an angel. They have been placed amongst a rocky backdrop or a grotto. It is the setting of the Biblical figures against this pictorial background that gives the altarpiece it’s title, the Virgin of the Rocks. The Virgin has been placed in the center of the composition dressed in a blue garment. By having the Virgin as the focal point, the other figures have been placed in a pyramidal composition. Further, the Biblical figures are interconnected not only via the pyramidal composition but also via subtle glances and gestures. The rocky backdrop has caused some debate, as they are different in the style of the brushstrokes. According to the geologist, Anne Pizzorusso, Da Vinci has not painted the second version of the altarpiece, because the rocks – which he would have been familiar with because of his obsession with nature – have been painted incongruently in comparison to the first version.
Other than these evident similarities between the two versions of the altarpieces, there are also many significant differences between them. To start, both pieces are not in their original locations anymore. The first version is now in the Louvre in Paris, and the second version is currently in the National Gallery in London. Further differences lay in the iconographic and stylistic details of the paintings, which aid in making them individually significant and unique. Further, these differences in details are what raise the debate about authenticity – whether Da Vinci was responsible for either painting, or just the first version currently in the Louvre. To extrapolate, if it were Leonardo Da Vinci who painted both, the altarpieces should share the same stylistic features, such as that of exploiting the use of light, which they do not. This raises the hypothesis of Leonardo not being the sole artist for the second version of the altarpiece. Rather, he most likely got help from his two Milanese assistants, the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de’ Predis, as evident in some aspects of the painting. The first version of the altarpiece is generally considered superior as revealing the more mature Leonardo Da Vinci than the second version. Hanging in the Louvre, the first version is thought to be solely by Leonardo Da Vinci, whereas the second is seen as overseen by the artist but having received assistance. Both paintings also share a different mood: where the Louvre version is vibrant, the National Gallery version is more austere; The different mood of the second version may be due to the numerous hands of multiple artists on the painting. Through further analysis of these criteria – the symbolic iconography, stylistic techniques and the debate over their authenticity- we will see that although each altarpiece is unique and mysterious it is still intertwined with the other.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks, 1452-1519, oil on wood/panel transferred to canvas, 78in x 48.5in
In the early 1480s, artists in Milan were beginning to finally prosper and were coming into the city from the rest of Italy due to its growing wealth and Ludovico Sforza’s encouragement. Numerous artists were attempting to get commissions from the court; at the time, the most prominent artist and painter was Donato Bramante, who achieved success with his design of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He was crowned as an architect of the court after he secured his architectural commission for the Basilica. Even though Bramante secured his position as the court’s architect, Da Vinci did not give up and continued to toil in his early years in Milan to receive the title of the court’s painter. Five or six years elapsed before the Sforza court recognized Da Vinci’s talent. It was with his first employment at court that Da Vinci’s career as a painter in Milan started off; the confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned him for the Virgin of the Rocks, making this altarpiece his first artwork in Milan. With this altarpiece, Da Vinci took risks that worked to his benefit, by attempting to incorporate new ideas, and by introducing new themes to the art field. Before this altarpiece, the Virgin and Child were usually placed within an interior setting of a church or a chapel. Therefore, the altarpiece is emblematic of the flourishing of his career, as placing the Virgin and Child amongst a natural setting was a new theme in Italian Renaissance art.
As with all other altarpieces, Da Vinci had to agree to a contract for the altarpiece, which was dated at April 25, 1483. According to the contract, the patrons asked for a triptych with the Virgin and Child in the midst of a host of angels attended by two prophets, while the side panels were to feature four angels each, singing or playing musical instruments. Although contracts are written in stone, and followed, Da Vinci diverged from the client’s specifications. Apart from the Virgin and Child, none of the other requirements are met. The composition is comprised of ” the Virgin, the infant Christ, one angel, no prophets, and an unstipulated infant St. John, a divine quartet organized by a pyramidal structure with the Virgin’s head at the vertex; the side panels are also deficient, having only one angel each.” The Virgin’s right arm is draped over the shoulder of St. John, and her left hand poised over the figure of the infant Christ. On the lower right portion of the panel, the kneeling angel is pointing toward St. John. Other than the subject matter, the contract also specified details concerning the composition and choice of colours, which Da Vinci did not completely adhere to:
“Our Lady is at the center, her cloak [is to] be of gold brocade and ultramarine blueâ€¦the gownâ€¦gold brocade and crimson lake, in oilâ€¦the lining of the cloakâ€¦gold brocade and green, in oilâ€¦Also, the seraphim done in sgrafitto workâ€¦Also God the Father [is] to have a cloak of gold brocade and ultramarine blue. The mountains and rocks shall be worked in oil, in a colourful manner.”
A possible reason for this may be that Da Vinci was already working on some kind of painting, and just carried on with the composition regardless of the details of the contract. This may be because the deadline allowed them only 9 months, so to save time; Da Vinci may have taken this path to complete the painting on time.
The Virgin is depicted as a young woman in this version of the altarpiece. The “introspective solemnity” that Da Vinci used to express the Madonna in his earlier works (The Adoration of the Magi, The Benois Madonna) develops delicately and gracefully, making evident Da Vinci’s concern with the intermingling of spiritual and devotional qualities with human feelings of tenderness in the Virgin in this altarpiece. Although there are inconsistencies with the Virgin’s face, such as in the bulging slanted eyes, the outline of the face of the Virgin has been regularized and lengthened (in comparison to his previous attempts to drawing Virgin’s), giving Her a more naturally unified appearance. A stylistic feature that develops from this starting point is the artist’s new treatment of light. In the present altarpiece, light exists and an independent and mobile part of nature. The surfaces of the painting “vibrate gently through the subtle interpenetration and gradation of lights and shadows.” Therefore, by using the technique he used to exploit the quality of light, he was able to achieve the tranquil, fluent, delicate, and tender emotions conveyed by the Virgin’s face.
The angel in the painting is compelling and looks out at the viewer. The goal of placing the angel in such a way was to use the angel to catch the viewer’s attention, and to draw it to the center of the painting – specifically towards St. John- by means of pointing his finger. The pointing of the finger has many other functions other than to point out the infant St. John: “it fills the interval and clarifies the vertical accent that result from the foreshortened hand of the Virgin, which she extends to crown the Christ Child. This helps to reestablish the prominence that Christ is in danger of losing by his subordinate location in the composition.”
Leonardo Da Vinci was highly influenced by Verrocchio, his trainer, and by Flemish styles and techniques. These influences are evident in the infant Christ and St. John, whom are in round and fleshy forms. The infant’s have been directly taken from Donatello and Verrocchio’s sculptural style. Da Vinci continued to take from his early predecessors and teachers, and apply their stylistic forms to his works.
The second version of the Virgin of the Rocks is the painting that had to be created due to a lawsuit against the previous version of the altarpiece. The patrons bestowed a lawsuit on the previous altarpiece because it had not been completed within the timeframe given to them of 9 months. While the lawsuit was in progress (lasted for 10 years), the Confraternity asked for another painting, which would follow the same contract; thus the second version of the Virgin of the Rocks was born. The fact that Da Vinci was not able to complete the first version was not surprising, because he had difficulties meeting deadlines – a childhood problem that matured with him into his adulthood. The second version was commissioned to be painted for the same chapel of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Due to many inconsistencies throughout the painting, there have been debates on whether Da Vinci painted the altarpiece wholly. Many scholars believe that due to the lack of attention paid to the exploitation of light, the different moods and due to the changes in the softness of lines, Da Vinci received help from his assistants Ambrogio and Evangelista de’ Predis.
The Virgin of the second version of the Virgin of the Rocks is in most ways – facial features, arrangement of hair, and set of her head – similar to the previous version in the Louvre. Although Da Vinci usually does not repeat himself in this way, it may have been necessary because the London painting was meant to replace the Paris painting in the ancona of the Confraternity. The Virgin in the second version of the altarpiece looks older because her facial forms are heavier and larger, and she has a serious expression. The Virgin in this altarpiece is also much more voluminous, occupying a greater area of the panel; lacks crispness and spontaneity in execution. Further, “the Virgin’s drab and lusterless hair and sharp-edged forms, the mechanical way light and shade are distributed in separate areas, the loss of radiance in the light and the loss of the atmospheric veil” suggest that the Virgin was not painting by Da Vinci, but by Ambrogio de’ Predis.
The head of the angel may be the only part of the altarpiece where Da Vinci’s artistic hand is evident, although it was not solely him responsible for it. It has some of his vivacity and sensitivity of handling, and the spotted light over the delicate curls in the angel’s hair is surely his invention. Ambrogio de’ Predis’ hand is evident in the head of the angel as well, as there is a lack of crispness in the facial expression. In this altarpiece, the angel is no longer pointing to the infant St. John. This collaboration between the two artists is clearly identifiable and comparable to the first version in which Da Vinci was the single artist.
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