The Virgin of the Rocks

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The 500th anniversary year of Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) death has come to an end but not before the National Gallery jumped on the bandwagon and ended the year with the exhibition Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece. Unlike the Queen’s Gallery, which focused on Leonardo’s life, and the British Library, which displayed examples of his notebooks, the National Gallery chose to focus on just one of the artist’s paintings: The Virgin of the Rocks.

The exhibition was split into four sections, each exploring a different aspect. Firstly, by reading quotes from Leonardo’s notebooks in a mirror (he always wrote backwards) visitors learnt about his fascination with rocks and landscapes, which feature in the background of many of his works. Secondly, visitors were introduced to a mock-modern studio, which revealed the secrets that science and conservation have revealed about The Virgin of the Rocks, for example, the colours used and the discarded composition hidden under the paint. The third room allowed visitors to experiment with shadows, discovering the dramatic effects light has on an object. Finally, visitors came face to face with the original painting, hanging on the wall of an imagined chapel to contemplate how the masterpiece looked in its original setting.

The Virgin of the Rocks, sometimes known as Madonna of the Rocks, is the title of two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. They both depict the same scene: the Madonna and Child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel in a rocky setting; however, there are a few significant differences, for example, the direction of the angel’s gaze. The original version, or at least the version considered to be the eldest, hangs in the Louvre in Paris, the other, hangs in the National Gallery and was the subject of the Leonardo exhibition.

Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Virgin of the Rocks shortly after his move to Milan in the early 1480s. Having established his painting career in Florence, Leonardo had moved to search for new opportunities, which he found at the church of S. Francesco Grande. On 25th April 1483, Prior Bartolomeo Scoreline contracted Leonardo to produce painted panels for the new altarpiece in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception that was attached to the church. Leonardo was contracted as the “master” of the project with brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis as his assistants.

The artists were instructed on the colours and subject of the paintings. The central panel was to be of the Virgin Mary and Christ child with two prophets, perhaps David and Isaiah, surrounded by angels. Another panel was to show the Virgin Mary with God the panels to the side of the main painting were to contain angelic musicians. The job was to be completed by 8th December 1483, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.

As can be seen when looking at both versions of the painting, Leonardo did not stick to the instructions. Only one angel is present in the scene and there are no prophets except for the child John the Baptist. The church was not happy with the work Leonardo had produced by the completion deadline, therefore, he continued to work on it for a further five years until they were satisfied. Unfortunately, there was a dispute over payment so Leonardo, whether from spite or the need for money, sold the painting, which has eventually found itself in the Louvre. Leonardo was allowed to begin a second version, which was installed in the chapel in 1508.

The subject of the two paintings, which was not what the church had originally requested, is the adoration of the Christ child by the infant John the Baptist. Although it depicts Biblical characters, the scene is not an event that features in the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew reports that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was warned by an angel in a dream about King Herod the Great who had ordered that “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” were to be killed. (Matthew 2:16 ESV) Therefore, Joseph fled to Egypt with his wife and Jesus.

Several non-Biblical stories explain the flight to Egypt in more detail. One such story claims John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was also staying with his family in Bethlehem where the Massacre of the Innocents was about to take place. Whilst the Holy Family made their way to Egypt after the angel’s warning, John the Baptist was escorted there by the Archangel Uriel, where he met his aunt and cousin on the road. It is this scene that Leonardo painted, therefore, it is assumed the angel he depicted is Uriel. Similar stories, however, claim the angel was Gabriel.

It is not certain whose idea it was to deviate from the original contract but Leonardo had just come from Florence, whose patron saint was John the Baptist. Many religious artworks produced in Renaissance Florence involved the Christ child with John the Baptist, therefore, it may have only been natural for Leonardo to include the future preacher in his painting.

Both paintings contain the same subject matter and similar background of rocks and distant mountains. The Christ child sits on the right of the painting, being supported by the angel, raising his hand as a sign of Benediction towards his cousin. John, on the opposite side of the painting, kneels with his hands together as though in prayer, whilst gazing at Jesus. This, however, is where the similarities end.

The figures in the second painting are slightly larger than the original and everything is more defined. In the first, the angel’s hand is raised as though pointing at John, whereas in the second, he rests his hand on his lap. The pointing angel also looks out towards the viewer, almost as though it is saying, “Look, it is John!” Leonardo’s second angel, on the other hand, looks down in a contemplative manner. Other notable differences include the halos, which are omited in the first painting, and the cross held by John, which only features in the second.

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A study of the fall of light on a face, about 1488

The style of the second painting appears to be remarkably different from the former. The sharpness of the outlines is one thing but there is also a lot of attention to shadow and shade. Notebooks belonging to Leonardo reveal he approached his paintings in a scientific way. Being a polymath, Leonardo was interested in the natural world and human anatomy, therefore, paid great attention to detail. He was aware of the effects light had on an image. When lit from above, shadows fall in a different direction to when lit from below, which can create a vastly different appearance. In the first painting, there is a distinct lack of shadow, however, it features heavily in the second.

The effect of contrasting light and shadow in art is known as chiaroscuro, which is derived from the Latin words for clear/bright and dark/obscure. The term was first used during the Renaissance period, coinciding with Leonardo’s career. Since it was a new idea, Leonardo may not have been educated in chiaroscuro painting but rather developed the style himself. This could explain the difference in style between version one and two, however, some people also suggest the second was painted by someone else under Leonardo’s instruction.

The rocky background blocks out a lot of the natural light, the only daylight coming through a small gap to the left of Mary. As a result, the opposite corner is in shadow and only parts of the four figures are lit by the light. Rather than making it difficult to view the characters, the gloomy light creates an unnatural illumination, which highlights and emphasises their features.

Another technique Leonardo used is sfumato, which means “shaded off”. This is a method for softening the transition between colours and tones, making parts of the painting appear out of focus. It is also useful when painting backgrounds, mimicking an area beyond what the human eye can see. Leonardo described sfumato as blending colours, without the use of lines or borders “in the manner of smoke”.

Leonardo used sfumato around the edges of delicate forms, such as the Virgin Mary’s facial features. Rather than drawing the nose, eyes and mouth with stark outlines, Leonardo made them seem to emerge gradually from the darkness. By using graduated smoky tones, the figures appear three-dimensional.

Leonardo also used sfumato in the background where the tips of the mountain reached the sky, creating the illusion that the land continues on further than the eye can see. Just as he had studied how the light fell on the human figures, Leonardo concentrated on the shadows on the rocks that framed the light source, making the background as interesting to look at as the figures in the foreground.

As well as being a prolific painter and biologist, Leonardo had a lifelong passion for the natural world. Many of his surviving sketches feature his observations of nature, including rivers, rock formations, trees and plants, including a star-of-Bethlehem, which features in the foreground of Virgin of the Rocks. The majority of these drawings were observations of the areas he lived or travelled through. It may be due to this fascination that Leonardo used a dramatic rock formation for the background of both versions of the painting. It certainly does not represent the Egyptian deserts of the land to which the Holy Family fled.

Although the rock formation is a natural landscape, it creates an other-worldly landscape when placed behind the Virgin Mary. The broken rocks thrust upwards from the ground and downwards from the roof of a cave, creating energy that contrasts with the peaceful meeting of John and Jesus as well as the calm water between the rocks and the mountains in the distance.

The landscape feels primaeval, as though it had remained untouched since God created it thousands of years before Christ’s birth. The presence of the Holy Family makes the environment come alive, plants blooming beneath John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Although one plant appears to be a star-of-Bethlehem, the other plants have been invented by Leonardo.

Whilst The Virgin of the Rocks (second version) is impressive to look at, science and technology have revealed hidden details that create a mystery about the painting and commission. Many paintings have underdrawings, showing the preliminary sketches of the artist before they began applying paint to the canvas. When conservators examined The Virgin of the Rocks in 2005 for the underdrawing, they were surprised to find a different sketch to the final composition.

Infrared reflectography (IRR) revealed Leonardo had begun a drawing of the Virgin Mary then abandoned it. A detailed eye could be seen on the scans but little was thought of it at the time other than the artist had not been happy and started again.

More recently, the painting has been examined again with new technologies and more details have been discovered. Macro X-ray fluorescence scanning showed up elements under the painting that had been drawn in a material that contained zinc. This showed up an alternative composition of the angel and Christ child. With wings slightly open, the angel appears to be looking tenderly down at the baby, holding him in a tight embrace.

Hyperspectral imaging (HSI) provided clearer images of the angel and baby, revealing that the Christ child’s arm is raised. Whether Jesus was interacting with the angel or reaching for his mother or John is unclear.

When examining the rest of the painting, an entirely different scene was revealed. The angel appears to be holding the Christ child on his lap, who is reaching out for his mother. Rather than sitting comfortably as she is in the finished version, Mary is on her knees in mid-movement, facing her son with one arm thrown out and the other on her chest as though in adoration. John the Baptist does not appear at all.

No one knows why Leonardo changed his original composition so drastically. Perhaps there was an intervention from the church who may have wanted Leonardo to paint a replica of the first painting. Nonetheless, this second version is by no means a reproduction. The use of lighting and attention to detail shows Leonardo had conducted more research into optics and human physiology, resulting in a more realistic interpretation of the Holy Family.

There may be more hidden under the painted layers of The Virgin of the Rocks, however, until technology is enhanced further, there is no way of knowing. Unfortunately, it is 500 years since the artist died, therefore, it is impossible to answer the many questions these revelations provoke.

Using lights and animation, the National Gallery recreated how Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks would have looked in its original setting. Today, Leonardo’s work hangs as a stand-alone painting in the gallery, however, it was originally made to be inserted into a pre-existing sculpted altarpiece, carved by Giacomo del Maino (1469-1505), in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Over the following centuries, the altar was modified several times and eventually dismantled in 1780. The chapel in which the altar stood had also been demolished, and the rest of the church was torn down by Napoleon (1769-1821) to make way for barracks in 1806.

Following the dismantling of the altar, the Scottish painter and antiquarian Gavin Hamilton (1723-98) purchased Leonardo’s painting and brought it to England. Two paintings of angels that featured on the altar, although not painted by Leonardo, were also sold, however, the rest of the altarpiece is now lost.

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The Contract

Some evidence remains that helps us picture what the chapel once looked like. The commission for a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin can be traced to the spring of 1475 when the Franciscan friar and theologian Stefano da Oleggio proposed the idea during one of his sermons. Italian painters Francesco Zavattari (active 1417-1453) and Giorgio della Chiesa were commissioned to paint the decorative touches to the dome of the chapel, which included stars and the images of God, seraphim and the four Evangelists.

The contract states that the chosen sculptor of the altar had previously produced altarpieces in other churches in places such as Ponte, Sernio, Morbegno and Ardenno to the north of Milan. It is likely the church requested something similar from the sculptor.

As well as the paintings, Leonardo and his two assistants were contracted to paint and guild the entire altarpiece. In total, sixteen items were included in the contract. A statue of “Our Lady” was to have an outer coat of gold and ultramarine blue brocade and a dress of gold and crimson. The seraphim were to be painted red, but the other angels were to be decorated “in the Greek manner, painted in oils.” The place where the Christ child lay was to be painted to resemble a straw basket. “All the faces, hands and legs that are bare should be painted in oil to perfection.”

It is from the description of the contract and the existing examples of altarpieces from other churches in the area that the National Gallery managed to recreate an interactive version of the altar at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Of course, no one can ever be certain how it looked but to see The Virgin of the Rocks in situ was a breathtaking experience.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece has been extended until 26th January 2020, therefore, there is one week remaining in which to view The Virgin of the Rocks in a unique setting. Tickets are £18 and it is recommended that a timed ticket is purchased in advance of the visit.