LEONARDO da Vinci
(b. 1452, Vinci, d. 1519, Cloux, near Amboise)

Virgin of the Rocks

1483-86
Oil on panel, 199 x 122 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

There are two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, one (the earlier) in the Louvre, Paris and another in the National Gallery, London.

The first work that Leonardo executed in Milan is the so-called Virgin of the Rocks, which actually expresses the theme of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma that affirms Mary was conceived without original sin. The name of the picture reflects an iconographical peculiarity: the religious figures are depicted in a rocky grotto, in which they are sitting on a stone floor. The figures are subjected to a strict spatial arrangement called a pyramidal composition. The painting had a considerable influence on Leonardo's artistic colleagues in Lombardy.

This canvas was to decorate the ancona (a carved wooden altar with frames where paintings were inserted) in the chapel of the Immacolata in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. On 25 April 1483, the members of the Confraternity of the Conception assigned the work of the paintings (a Virgin and Child in the center and two Angel-Musicians for the sides), to Leonardo, for the most important part, and the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista De Predis, for the side panels. Scholars now feel that the two canvases on this same subject, one in the Louvre and the other in London's National Gallery, are simply two versions of the same painting, with significant variants.

The Paris Virgin of the Rocks, entirely by Leonardo, is the one which first adorned the altar in San Francesco Grande. It may have been given by Leonardo himself to King Louis XII of France, in gratitude for the settlement of the suit between the painters and those who commissioned the works, in dispute over the question of payment. The later London painting replaced this one in the ancona.

For the first time Leonardo could achieve in painting that intellectual program of fusion between human forms and nature which was slowly taking shape in his view of his art. Here there are no thrones or architectural structures to afford a spatial frame for the figures; instead there are the rocks of a grotto, reflected in limpid waters, decorated by leaves of various kinds from different plants while in the distance, as if emerging from a mist composed of very fine droplets and filtered by the golden sunlight, the peaks of those mountains we now know so well reappear. This same light reveals the gentle, mild features of the Madonna, the angel's smiling face, the plump, pink flesh of the two putti.

For this work, too, Leonardo made numerous studies, and the figurative expression is slowly adapted to the program of depiction. In fact, the drawing of the face of the angel is, in the sketch, clearly feminine, with a fascination that has nothing ambiguous about it. In the painting, the sex is not defined, and the angel could easily be either a youth or a maiden.