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Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci

Today we look at Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci, for Artwork in Focus. Join me Divvya Nirula as I explore and present my experience of the selected artwork.

Artwork in Focus

Title: Virgin of the Rocks
Artist : Leonardo da Vinci
Year : 1483-85 circa
Medium : oil on panel
Dimensions : 199 cm × 122 cm (78.3 in × 48.0 in)
Location : The Louvre, Paris and The National Gallery, UK

Virgin of the Rocks, 1483-85 circa by  Leonardo Da Vinci 
image courtesy : National Gallery, London
Virgin of the Rocks, 1483-85 circa by Leonardo da Vinci
image courtesy : National Gallery, London

Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks is a classic emblem of High Renaissance art, representing a humanistic approach to Divine studies. There are two versions of the painting – one housed at the Louvre in Paris (1483–1486) and the other at the National Gallery in the UK (1495–1508). The version in Paris is considered as the unrestored one and the one in UK was restored between 2008-2010.

There are several points of difference, though the central concept remains the same.  Enthroned as the queen of heaven, here in the painting, Mary is shown seated on the ground. This particular representation of the Holy Virgin is referred to as the ‘Madonna of Humility’.

With her right arm, she encircles the infant Saint John the Baptist, who is depicted as making a gesture of prayer to the Christ child. And the Christ child, is shown as blessing St. John. In the naturalistic style, mother Mary’s left hand hovers protectively over the head of her son while an angel looks out and points to St. John.

The landscape is no less mystical and particular. The rivers and water bodies are quiet and vast, seeming to lead nowhere and strong rock formations that recall the Dolomite mountains of north eastern Italy, loom over the circlet that has gathered. More specifically, in the foreground are see carefully observed and precisely rendered plants and flowers, Da Vinci’s homage to nature.

Patterns of Light & Dark

As we look at the painting we see that the figures are engaged with each other. As they create gestures there is an animation here which is highly uncommon for the period. In fact there is an intimate atmosphere that da Vinci creates. Another point that always catches my attention is the artist’s choice to group the figures together in a geometric shape of the pyramid. It is well known that the pyramidical composition was da Vinci’s favourite. Allowing for a three dimensional window to open-up on the canvas. For Plato too considered the pyramid as one of the ‘ideal perfect forms’. This innovation serves to unify the composition, bringing it to a close. This is an important departure from paintings of the Early Renaissance, where subjects looked loosely separate from one another.

I adore the aspects and patterns of light and dark heightened in the work. With every application of the paints da Vinci makes the subjects glow. Thereby invoking their intrinsic Divinity while remaining and retaining, a human fervour.

“The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased. Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for shadow.”

Leonardo da Vinci

Other Details

Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks – a highly revered work from the Renaissance, came under spotlight in 2019. Using advanced techniques including infrared and hyper-spectral imaging, the National Gallery was able to reveal Leonardo’s original design, which is vastly different than the final product.

15 years ago the assumption was that the Virgin Mary’s pose had been changed by Leonardo as he completed the work. This led to a laborious dive into reconstruction and research. This in turn revealed that in the initial sketch, an angel wraps an infant Jesus Christ tightly in her arms, while she and Mary gaze at him lovingly from a distance. Furthermore the presence of zinc in the drawing material is what made the discovery possible. This discovery was made only visible through the macro x-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) maps that revealed its outline. However, what remains a question to researchers is da Vinci’s motivation to rework the canvas. I guess we’ll never know, but my theory is that da Vinci wants us to see Mary as that Angel, as part of the Divinity she became a channel for.


Want to read more of my views on artworks that hold my attention ? Visit the archive for Artwork in Focus.

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