PRINT January 2012


Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks

The greatest achievement of the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan,” currently on view at the National Gallery in London, has been to bring together for the first time the two versions of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. Marking the occasion, Artforum invited art historian Martin Kemp to trace the genealogy of the paintings and to discuss the nature of the differences between them.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, ca. 1483–85, oil on wood transferred to canvas, 78 3/8 x 48".

THEY FACE EACH OTHER across the room, about fifteen paces apart. One is normally resident at the National Gallery itself, while the other is visiting from the Louvre. They are the same shape and very nearly the same size, and they contain the same pictorial elements: the Virgin, Child, infant Saint John, and archangel Uriel (who had rescued the baby saint from the Massacre of the Innocents, according to apocryphal texts, and escorted him with his mother into the wilderness). They are all located in a moist grotto with fertile plants and a distant waterscape from which arise atmospheric mountains. The most conspicuous difference between these two versions of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks is that Uriel points in a literal way to his infant charge in the Louvre picture, which was commissioned in 1483, but this gesture was deemed unnecessary in the London version, which was probably begun in the 1490s.

There is also a palpable difference in feel between the paintings. The contender from Paris is penumbral and mysterious, painted with a flickering delicacy and elusive subtlety. The “home” picture is more ample in its definition of form and more declamatory in its colors. Some quotient of the difference is explained by condition. The version in the Louvre is on canvas, brutally transferred from panel in 1806, and is shrouded by a veil of surface discoloration. Its companion remains on its wooden support and has recently been restored with considerable tact by Larry Keith, the National Gallery’s director of conservation. The spotlighting is differentiated in this show, so the illumination is substantially more intense on the Paris painting, serving to soften the coloristic and tonal disjunction between the two altarpieces. (The exhibition’s curator, Luke Syson, and his designers have also sensibly avoided putting the paintings directly beside each other.)

The obvious question, for historians and the public alike, is why Leonardo painted two closely similar versions of one picture when he produced so few works in his whole lifetime. Or, as has been advocated, is one of the pictures not entirely or even partly by the master himself?

In 1483, not long after his arrival in Milan, Leonardo was commissioned in company with two local brothers to complete the painted decorations for a large architectural and sculpted altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. It seems likely that the Louvre panel was completed, but it was never to inhabit its designated place in the confraternity’s altarpiece in S. Francesco Grande: We know that the London version actually came from the altarpiece. It is probable that Duke Ludovico Sforza snaffled the earlier painting as a wedding gift for Bianca Maria Sforza and the Emperor Maximilian—leaving Leonardo and his collaborators to begin all over again.

Scientific examination, above all by infrared reflectography, and a study of related drawings show that Leonardo, whose boredom threshold was very low, initially thought of revising the composition radically in the second painting, freeing up the interaction between the three primary protagonists via more dynamic poses. At some point he decided, with unusual pragmatism, to revert to something close to the original composition. When Leonardo left Milan in 1499, the new painting was under way but far from complete; it was justifiably taken hostage by the confraternity. On his return to the city in 1507 he responded to legal action by bringing the painting to its present finish. One of the two brothers, Ambrogio de Predis, was involved in the final settlement. This emphasizes the question of the extent to which Ambrogio or other accomplished collaborators participated in what was now more or less a copying job.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, ca. 1491–1508, oil on poplar, 74 5/8 x 47 1/4".

Technical evidence helps a bit, but not comprehensively. We can see signs of Leonardo’s characteristic handprint method of blending paint boundaries, not least in the head of the angel. Detailed photography also discloses marginally unfinished areas, as in the back of Christ, that suggest the artist’s own work. But much of the answer comes down to quality. The succinct forms of the flowers and leaves, the flow and curl of hair, the rebounds of light, all speak of Leonardo’s direct participation. The assertive definition of shape in the foreground of the London painting shows how his description of nature had become more synthetic in character and less freshly naturalistic over the years. In the second version there is more calculated scienza and less instinctive fantasia at work. On the other hand, there are areas that seem to fall below what he could accomplish. The configurations of rocks, for example, are less well informed geologically than in the Louvre version. Would Leonardo have deliberately forgotten what he earlier understood?

Amid such debates, we should not forget the extraordinarily original magic of Leonardo’s two masterpieces. Virgins had knelt with children in landscapes before in Florentine painting, but never in such mysterious and elusive spiritual dialogue with each other and the living forms of what Leonardo called “the body of the earth.” There is a sense in which the mother and babies, speaking microcosmically of new life and, by implication, of deaths to come, are one with the cycles of death and renewal in macrocosmic nature. The phrase “the womb of the earth,” coined by Bernard Palissy, the great French potter of the later sixteenth century, comes to mind. For all his conception of art as a scienza, Leonardo knew that there were realms of immaterial power that remained inaccessible to all human minds, even his own.

“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” is on view at the National Gallery, London, through Feb. 5.

Martin Kemp is Emeritus Professor in the history of art at Trinity College, Oxford University.