Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
Interpretation of Madonna of the Rocks, High Renaissance Oil Painting

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Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
Virgin of the Rocks
By Leonardo da Vinci.
A masterpiece of Christian art
it is regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Virgin of the Rocks (c.1483-5)


Analysis of Other Works by Leonardo da Vinci


Painting: Virgin of the Rocks
Date: (c.1483-5)
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Religious art
Movement: Early Renaissance painting
Location: Louvre, Paris; and National Gallery, London.

For explanations of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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Interpretation of Virgin of the Rocks

One of the greatest Renaissance paintings, this work by Leonardo da Vinci exists in two versions: an earlier one, sometimes called Madonna of the Rocks, now in the Louvre; and a later one in the National Gallery, London. The original picture was undertaken by Leonardo not long after entering the service of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. The commission was for several panel paintings to decorate the ancona (a carved wooden altar designed to accomodate pictures) in the chapel of the Immacolata, in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. In April 1483, the members of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception divided the project between Leonardo (responsible for a central Virgin and Child), and the brothers Ambrogio De Predis (responsible for eight musical angels on the two side panels) and Evangelista De Predis (responsible for redecorating the ancona). The Virgin of the Rocks was duly completed by about 1484, and may have been installed in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception, as intended. However, within a short time it was sold for 100 ducats to King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) who may have then presented it to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519). The second, London version (c.1495-1508) was then commissioned as a replacement for the church of San Francesco Grande, painted by Leonardo and his assistants, and installed as planned. Both of these religious paintings are masterpieces of Renaissance art, not least because they are among only a handful of known works painted by the hand of Da Vinci.




The commission for this altarpiece art was awarded to Leonardo on the basis that he portrayed the Virgin in honour of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception - the dogma proclaiming Mary was conceived without original sin. As the name indicates, the iconographical setting is a rocky grotto, where four figures are sitting together on the stone floor in a pyramid-like arrangement which seemingly holds all four figures in a tight exchange of looks and gestures. To the right the Archangel Gabriel welcomes us to the scene with an enigmatic gaze, whilst pointing to the child-figure of Saint John. With his other hand he supports the Christ Child sitting next to him. At the apex of the pyramid sits the Virgin or Madonna whose hand is raised, palm-down, over the head of the infant Christ, as if giving him a blessing. Gabriel's hand, which is pointing to the infant John, forms a horizontal line in the space between the Virgin's hand and the head of Christ, as if completing an invisible cross. Meanwhile the Christ Child tiny right arm is raised in a gesture of benediction, aimed at the infant Saint John, who clasps his hands in prayer. The circle is completed by the Madonna who extends her arm to encircle the head of the infant John.

Light and Shadow

Leonardo's handling of light and shade - arguably his greatest single contribution to High Renaissance painting - is almost faultless. The figures project out of the darkness of the grotto, illuminated by light falling from the top-left of the picture. The resulting chiaroscuro enhances the solidity and three-dimensionality of the figures, whilst Leonardo's mastery of sfumato ensures that the edges between the illuminated and shadowy areas of the figures' faces and bodies are rendered with the greatest possible reality. This naturalism marks a highpoint in Leonardo's painting, but signals his abandonment of the style of Renaissance art in Florence - that is, the expressionist method championed by Botticelli (see La Primavera (c.1482-3) or the Birth of Venus (1484-6), both in the Uffizi), in which anatomical accuracy is sacrificed for artistic effect.

Perspective and Depth

The raised linear perspective, by which the illusion of depth is given to the painting, is created by means of a contrast between the jagged black rocks in the grotto and the hazy profiles of the mountain tops in the far distance - a not inconsiderable feat, given the narrow tonal range of the monochrome background.

This work of Biblical art, which - unlike the London Virgin of the Rocks - was painted entirely by Leonardo, and for which he made numerous studies, had a considerable impact on High Renaissance art in both Lombardy and Rome, (see, for instance, The Sistine Madonna by Raphael) - not least for the painterly way in which the artist succeeds in unifying the images of water and rock with the Holy Virgin and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The setting of a rocky den is a perfect image by which to evoke the notion of natural motherhood. In the candlelit church of San Francesco Grande, the glittering frame together with the dark rocks of the picture, from whose shadows the holy figures emerge, would have combined to suggest a primordial cave, an ideal setting for the mystery of the Immaculate Conception.

The London Version

The Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery contains some details generally overlooked by the artist in the Louvre version, including the haloes of the figures, the child Saint John's cross of reeds. Other differences include: Archangel Gabriel no longer points towards the infant John, and is turned inward instead of partly towards the viewer; the drapery is lighter and more revealing; there is greater illumination in the cave, it is more diffused and comes from a variety of sources; and so on. Sadly, the intervention of assistants has made the portrayal altogether more banal than the peerless version in the Louvre.

Leonardo Da Vinci

A sculptor, architect and engineer, as well as one of the greatest ever masters of drawing (see in particular his outstanding chalk drawings and pen and ink drawings), Leonardo was a master of portrait art (see his Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine and his immortal Mona Lisa), as well as history painting (see his Last Supper).



Analysis of Other Paintings by Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper (1495-7)
Lady with an Ermine (c.1490)
Mona Lisa (c.1503-5)

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