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

Madonna and Child with St Anne and the Young St John

Charcoal with white chalk heightening on paper, 141,5 x 106 cm
National Gallery, London

The cartoon of the Madonna and Child with St Anne and the young St John is also referred to as Burlington House cartoon. In 1986, a vandal shot at the cartoon and severely damaged it around the area of Mary's chest. Restorers had an opportunity to examine the cartoon while repairing it. They could discover no sign on it that it was used either by Leonardo or any other artist at a later date for transferring the design to another medium. In the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is a Holy Family attributed to Bernardino Luini. It corresponds precisely to the figural composition of the London cartoon, with the exception that Joseph is added in the background on the right.

One of the most precious and fragile works in the National Gallery, the cartoon now hangs in a specially built recess in the wall of a darkened little room. The drawing covers eight sheets of paper glued together. A reduced light level is necessary to prevent the chalk and charcoal from fading, but the reverential atmosphere it creates seems appropriate. As in the Virgin of the Rocks Leonardo has represented four figures in rapt communion charged with theological significance and intense human emotion. Shared glances and introspective smiles play across their faces, enigmatic expressions which Leonardo made famous.

The open triangle formed by the figures in the Virgin of the Rocks is here condensed into a pyramid of interlocking forms; the figures increase in scale and the rocky landscape recedes into the distance, leaving only pebbles in the foreground. Despite the gain in monumentality nothing is conclusively resolved. Potentially awkward areas where the bodies touch and overlap were left blurred and smudged. Saint Anne's forearm, prophetically raised to Heaven, is barely sketched in. We begin to see why Leonardo found such great difficulty in bringing projects to completion, for the indeterminacy of the design and the lack of finish are integral to the significance of the work, pictorial mystery evoking divine mystery: God made flesh in the womb of a woman herself conceived without sin, the Passion foretold and accepted with melancholy joy.

Cartoons were full-size drawings made to be transferred to panel, wall or canvas to serve as a guide to painting. The National Gallery drawing was surely preparatory for a painting, but was never used for transfer, since the outlines are neither pricked nor incised. Like the Virgin of the Rocks, it is a variation on a theme which occupied Leonardo for some years. In 1501 Florentine `men and women, young and old, as if they were going to a solemn festival', had flocked to see an earlier drawing by Leonardo of similar size on a similar subject, probably made for an altarpiece to Saint Anne, one of the patrons of republican Florence, for the church of Santissima Annunziata. That altarpiece was never executed, and the drawing for it was lost.

Sometime later Leonardo was commissioned to revise the composition for King Louis XII of France, whose second wife's name, Anne, would have made the subject especially attractive. The French king's painting, begun in about 1508, was left unfinished at Leonardo's death and is now in the Louvre. It shows Anne smiling down at the Virgin on her lap, who bends over to restrain the Child playing with a lamb, symbol of Christ's sacrifice and attribute of Saint John the Baptist. Both the Paris painting and the National Gallery `cartoon' demonstrate what an eyewitness marvelled at in the lost drawing of 1501: `And these figures are all as large as life, but they exist within a small cartoon, because they are either seated or in curved poses and each is a certain amount in front of the other...' It was Leonardo's supreme gift to resolve a formal problem in many different, but equally evocative, ways.