Where? On the west wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Originally Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint a fresco about the resurrection, but after the death of Clement VII, Pope Paul III changed the topic of the fresco into the Last Judgment.
What do you see? The painting can be divided into two scenes which are interconnected. On the top half is a scene with Jesus in the middle and on the bottom half is a scene where it is decided whether people go to Heaven or Hell.
The scene surrounding Jesus: Jesus is the central figure in the top middle of the fresco. He stands on a cloud against the background of a golden aureole. He raises his right arm to condemn the people on the right of painting to Hell, and he puts his left hand forward to draw the blessed people on the left of the painting towards him. His figure has been modeled after the Apollo Belvedere which is also in the Vatican Museums.
Jesus is surrounded in the top half of the painting by all sorts of saints and Biblical figures. While many of these figures cannot be precisely identified, some important ones stand out. To Jesus’ immediate left (from our perspective) is Mary with a red dress and a bright blue cloak. She looks to the blessed people on the left of the painting. She has a passive attitude as her role to intervene between the people who pray to her and God is no longer relevant.
The scene at the bottom: In the bottom left, people arise from their graves. In the scene above this one, some of these people are rising through the help of angels or clouds. These are the people that are saved.
In the bottom middle, above the cross of Jesus, there is a group of wingless angels who are blowing trumpets to awake the dead. They carry two books that contain the names of the people who are going to Heaven and Hell. The bigger book on the right contains the people that go to Hell.
On the bottom right, there is a boat full of people who are going to Hell. Charon is standing on the left side of the boat and aggressively forces the people out of the boat. Minos is standing in the right bottom corner of the painting with a snake wrapped around him (and the snake bites his genitals). He is standing in front of the entrance to Hell. Charon and Minos are two figures described in Dante’s poem Inferno, and they are depicted exactly as Dante describes them.
Backstory: Michelangelo initially discussed the content of a large fresco in the Sistine Chapel with Pope Clemente VII in 1533. However, he only started to work on the actual fresco in 1536 under Pope Paul III. Before Michelangelo started his work on The Last Judgment (sometimes spelled The Last Judgement), the wall was covered by three frescos from Perugino.
Michelangelo decided that the wall should be rebuilt using high-quality brick stones and slope slightly inwards such that the wall could not collect dust. The goal of his fresco is to remember viewers of the upcoming day of the Last Judgment, where everyone, including the viewers, will be judged by God on whether they will go to Heaven or Hell.
The painting caused quite some controversy when it was revealed. Controversial elements were the inclusion of mythological figures and the wingless angels in the fresco. Another important debate was about all the nudity in the fresco on the wall of a chapel. Originally the genitalia of many people in this fresco were visible. Around 1564, probably right after the death of Michelangelo, Danielle Da Volterra was ordered to cover some of these obscenities in this fresco.
Symbolism:This fresco contains lots of symbolism, and almost every attribute in the painting has a symbolic meaning. Below are a few examples.
The Last Judgment according to the Bible: The Last Judgment of all people who lived on Earth is an important aspect of the Christian religion. It is described as a moment in which all people will come to life again, and the good people will be rewarded by going to Heaven, and the evil people will go to Hell.
There is a large number of references in the Bible to the Last Judgment (see here for a complete list). The most important and direct reference is in Revelations 20:11-15 in which the judgment day is described in a vision to John the Apostle. Another good source is Matthew 25: 31-46 in which Jesus explains the Last Judgment as the day when he will return to Earth with all his angels.
Several main elements in this fresco can be linked to the Biblical stories. For example, the scene at the bottom left on the opening of the graves is based on Ezekiel 37:1-14. However, many aspects of this painting also differ from the Biblical description. Moreover, some elements are also inspired by non-Biblical sources, such as Dante’s Inferno.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was born in Caprese in the Republic of Florence. He lived most of his adult life in either Florence or Rome. From 1534 till his death he lived in Rome where he not only worked on this fresco in the Sistine Chapel, but he was also appointed lead architect of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Michelangelo was an architect, painter, poet, and sculptor and he is remembered most for his paintings and sculptures. Only a few paintings of him have survived, including the Doni Tondo in the Uffizi Museum. However, he is better known for his amazing frescos such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which includes the famous scene of The Creation of Adam.
His sculptures are also considered to be among the best in the world. A couple of examples are his statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia and his Genius of Victory in the Palazzo Vecchio.
Fun fact: Michelangelo included about 400 figures in this fresco and has included these people in a large number of different positions. This required very extensive knowledge of the human body which is something Michelangelo possessed.
From a young age, Michelangelo participated in the dissection of the bodies of convicted criminals, something that the Pope allowed. The only condition was that the bodies of the criminals would be properly buried afterward. These dissections provided Michelangelo with very valuable knowledge of the human body, which was important for the realism of his sculptures and paintings.
Michelangelo was not the only artists that dissected dead bodies. Multiple artists did this during that period, including Leonardo da Vinci, as the art moved away from unrealistic religious painting during the Middle Ages to more realistic and idealized human bodies during the Renaissance.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Room 8 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Uncertain. Originally, Giovanni de’ Medici ordered this painting to give it to the King of Naples, but this deal was abandoned due to a lack of funding for Filippo Lippi.
What do you see? A praying Virgin Mary. Two angels are holding the child Jesus in front of Mary. Mary and Jesus both seem to be lost in their thoughts. Mary is depicted in a very elegant way compared to earlier paintings. For example, look at her sweet facial expression and the graceful veils and pearls in her hair.
Notice also the halo above the heads of Mary and Jesus. These halos are just a simple circle and mark the transition between the solid gold disks used in earlier work and the disappearance of the halo in later Renaissance paintings. The angel on the right seems to giggle and watch the viewer directly in the eyes. Mary, Jesus, and the angels are depicted in front of a window, which can easily be mistaken for the frame of this painting. In the background, you can see a landscape inspired by Flemish paintings.
Backstory: This painting was one of the first in which Mary and Jesus are depicted in a very human way. Mary is shown as an elegant young woman. This painting has served as an inspiration for many future paintings of Mary, but also for paintings of Venus, such as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (a pupil of Filippo Lippi).
Symbolism: The pearls and veils that are carefully inserted in Mary’s hair and are gracefully draped around her neck are a new element that Lippi introduced to represent the elegance of Mary. The forehead is bigger than usual as the forehead was an object of beauty during that time (see the pearl on Mary’s forehead to emphasize this).
You can see the shadow of Mary in the window frame on the left. This is another example of a physical detail, whereas earlier paintings of Mary focused mainly of the spiritual symbols. However, you can also see a seashore in the landscape, which refers to one of Mary’s titles ‘port of salvation’. The rocks in the landscape refer to the biblical tale of Daniel. Finally, Mary is wearing a blue dress, representing her purity, virginity, and royalty.
Who is Madonna? A Madonna is a representation of Mary with or without her child Jesus. Madonna comes from ‘ma donna’, which is Italian for ‘my lady’. In English, this is often referred to as ‘our lady’ and in French as ‘notre dame’. There are different types of Madonna painting. The ‘Madonna and child’ in Lippi's painting was a very popular subject during the Renaissance. Other types of Madonnas that have frequently been used in the art are, for example, the ‘Madonna enthroned’, ‘Madonna of humility’, ‘adoring Madonna’, and ‘nursing Madonna’.
Why Madonna? The Madonna and child is the most popular theme in Christian art. Often Mary and Jesus are surrounded by angels or saints that pay their respects to them. Jesus and Mary are the most central figures in Catholicism, and their depiction should remind people of their religion.
Who is Filippo Lippi? Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), also called Lippo Lippi, was born in Florence. He was the son of a butcher, but his parents died when he was still young. After his aunt took care of him for a few years, at age eight, he joined the convent of the Carmine where the friars took care of him. The friars discovered his love for art and gave him some great opportunities to pursue a career in art.
His son, Filippino Lippi also became a famous painter (and is thought by some to be the model for the giggling angel in this painting). Sandro Botticelli is the most well-known pupil of Filippo Lippi. Another well-known work of Filippo Lippi in collaboration with Fra Angelico is the Adoration of the Magi in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: Filippo Lippi was a Carmelite monk and was supposed to live a celibate life. However, he did not take the rules too strict as he was an extremely lustful man.
When he was in his 50s, he became the chaplain of a convent of nuns, and he fell in love with one of the nuns named Lucrezia Buti. He asked whether Lucrezia could serve as his model for Mary in this painting. This request was granted on the condition that there was always another nun present during these painting sessions. One day Lippi escaped together with Lucrezia from the convent (some stories tell that he abducted her) to live together with her. Together they got two sons.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 41 of the Uffizi Museum
Created for? A wedding gift of Raphael to his friend Lorenzo Nasi.
What do you see? This painting – also known as Madonna del Cardellino – shows the Virgin Mary (referred to as the Madonna), Jesus, and Saint John. Mary sits on a rock and wears a red dress with a blue mantle on top of it. She protectively watches the two children in front of her. Saint John, the boy on the left with the gold curly hair, is dressed in animal skins. He holds a goldfinch bird in his hand. He wants to give the goldfinch to Jesus who is touching the head of the bird. Jesus is close to his mother and places his foot affectionately on his mother’s foot.
The three figures in this painting are shown in a pyramidal form – known as the Renaissance triangle – a popular composition in the early Renaissance to represent symmetry in a painting. In the background, you can see a blue and green landscape with bushes, trees, hills, a river, a bridge, a castle, and some houses.
Backstory: Raphael created this work for his close friend Lorenzo Nasi, a wealthy wool merchant from Florence. The painting shows the meeting between Saint John, Jesus, and Mary. This scene is based on a medieval religious text, Meditationes Vitae Christi (see a later translation here), which describes the Holy Family meeting Saint John in the desert on their way back from Egypt (a story not mentioned in the Bible).
The composition of the work was directly inspired by the painting Saint Veronica by Hans Memling, which was created between 1470 and 1475. The clothes of Mary, the composition, and the city in the background are all elements that can also be seen in Memling’s painting.
Raphael's painting deteriorated severely over time, and in May 1999 it was taken down for restoration. It took almost ten years to finish the restoration. In the meanwhile, a much-lower-quality copy of the painting was on display in the Uffizi Museum.
Symbolism: The Virgin Mary is dressed in red and blue. Red is a symbol of the passion of Christ and blue is the symbol of the Church and of Mary. It was one of the more expensive pigments and therefore appropriate to use for an important figure like Mary.
The European goldfinch is associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. In this painting, Saint John passes the bird on to Jesus as a forewarning of his violent death. From the book that Mary is holding, experts have identified the words “Sedes Sapientiae”. This is one of the devotional titles given to Mary and means “seat of wisdom”. It emphasizes that Mary gave birth to Jesus (who represents wisdom). When Mary is depicted in the role of the “seat of wisdom”, she is typically shown seated on a throne with Jesus in her lap. However, in this case, the rock on which Mary sits serves as the throne.
Flowers: Several flowers can be seen in the painting. While not all flowers have been identified conclusively, many believe the flowers to be: anemones (representing Mary’s sorrow for the passion of Jesus), daisies (representing the innocence of Baby Jesus), plantains (representing the path to follow Jesus), and violets (representing humility).
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), popularly known as Raphael, was born in Urbino, a small city a few hours east of Florence. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he is considered one of the great masters of the Renaissance. He was a very talented architect, drawer, and painter, but is best known for his paintings of the Virgin Mary (called Madonnas) and his large-scale depictions of humans.
The Madonna of the Goldfinch was created during Raphael's period in Florence and shares many similarities with two other paintings of Raphael: the Madonna of the Meadow in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre. A few years later, in 1508, he moved to Rome where he completed many works for the Pope, such as the Portrait of Leo X with Two Cardinals.
Fun fact: IIn 1547, the house of the Nasi family, which was several feet away from the Ponte Vecchio, collapsed. Two of the occupants were killed and much of its decorations got damaged. Raphael's painting was also badly damaged. Battista Nasi, the son of Lorenzo Nasi, did all he could to retrieve the remainings of this painting as it was a very valuable asset of his father.
The painting had broken into six large pieces and even more smaller pieces. Battista could recover most pieces, except one large piece from the bottom left corner. The painting was restored by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, a good friend of Raphael. He did a great job in restoring the painting as this painting has become a very popular part of the Uffizi collection over the next centuries.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? Room 74 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Elena Baiardi for the funerary chapel of her husband Francesco Tagliaferri in Parma
What do you see? Mary is holding the Baby Jesus. Mary has a very long, swan-like, neck. Notice also the length of her fingers and shoulders, and the oversized Jesus. These extended body features are typical of Mannerism. Mary’s beautiful hair is painted in detail as well as the pearls in her hair. She has bare feet and her right foot is resting on two beautiful green and orange pillows.
On the left, six (somewhat eroticized) angels are all looking at different directions. Can you identify all six angels? In the bottom right, Saint Jerome (a well-known priest born in the fourth century) is depicted as a Greek statue. On the left, you can see the angel holding a large vase with the shadow of a cross painted on it.
Backstory: This painting is also known as ‘Madonna of the Long Neck’ or ‘Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome’. The painting is unfinished as Parmigianino died in 1540, which adds to the mystery of the painting. Quite some people say that Jesus already appears dead in this painting, something that could fit with the purpose of the painting to appear in a funerary chapel.
Symbolism: Mary is wearing a blue robe, representing her purity, virginity, and royalty. On the right, the small figure of Saint Jerome is included, which was required by the commissioner for Saint Jerome’s connection to the worship of Mary.
In hymns from the medieval times, the neck of Mary was compared to an ivory tower or column, which explains the presence of the exaggerated length of Mary’s neck as well as the columns on the right.
Why Mary? Mary had a symbolic role of representing the church. This representation is in line with the analogy between the long neck of Mary and the ivory columns. The columns are also an architectural reference to the church.
Who is Parmigianino? Parmigianino (1503-1540) was born in Parma (where he was named after, though his real name is Girolamo Francesco Mario Mazzola). He is known for his unorthodox and Mannerist painting style. Another well-known painting of Parmigianino is his self-portrait in a convex mirror which can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Giorgio Vasari claimed that Parmigianino was an incarnation of Raphael (they both died at age 37). He is also known for his great etchings and woodcarvings.
What is Mannerism? This painting by Parmigianino is one of the prime examples of Mannerism. This style started in around 1520 at the end of the High Renaissance and lasted until about 1580 when the Baroque movement took over. In Mannerism ideals such as proportions, balance, and ideal beauty are violated on purpose. This style leads to paintings that are asymmetric and out of balance.
Fun fact: Just like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Parmigianino found it difficult to finish his work due to his attention to detail. Indeed, several parts of this painting are unfinished, but we have a decent idea of what he intended to paint from the many surviving preliminary drawings that he created before starting with this painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Room 8 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1435 and 1460. The dating of this painting has been the subject of much debate, but most critics believe it is painted between 1435 and 1440.
Commissioned by? Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, a rich Florentine man who had a strong commercial interest in the battle of San Romano.
What do you see? This painting shows a scene from the battle of San Romano on June 1, 1432. This battle was fought between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies.
The central figure on the white horse is probably Bernardino della Ciarda. He was a former captain in the Florentine army but had recently defected to the opponents. He is fully armored and about to be thrown off his horse by a jousting lance. In the foreground, you can see several fallen horses and soldiers.
The composition of the painting is not very realistic as the horses and soldiers in this painting look like dummies. The reason is that Uccello’s main interest in painting was not to perfectly depict a scene from history, but he was more interested in getting the linear perspective right. Look, for example at all the lances that are in this painting. Some are conveniently dropped on the ground in a geometrical pattern. The lances in vertical direction all point to the same vanishing point which Uccello wanted to incorporate to create depth in the painting. The vanishing point is just above the head of the white horse. In the background, you can see some soldiers and dogs hunting for rabbit and deer.
Backstory: The battle of San Romano (a small place in Italy, near Lucca) was part of the war between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies from Genoa, Milan, and Siena. An important element of the war was about who would get access to the port of Pisa for trade.
The battle of San Romano took place on June 1, 1432, and lasted less than a day. This battle was only a relatively minor battle, but the Florentines remembered it as a turning point in the war. This painting commemorates the Florentine victory in this battle, though Sienese sources disagree with this conclusion.
The battle started when Florentine general Niccoló Tolentino was attacked after he was separated from most of his army when he was exploring the area. Tolentino and his small group of soldiers fought a brave fight and did not give up until another Florentine general, Micheletto Attendolo (who is at the center of the Louvre version of this battle), arrived at the battle scene with reinforcements. Attendolo and his army helped Florence to win this battle. The war dragged on for another year without a clear winner and in the end the war was settled through negotiations.
Other versions of this painting? This painting is a part of a triptych (a work of art divided into three parts) made by Uccello. The three paintings represent different moments in the battle of San Romano. There are two alternative explanations about the order of the paintings. The simple explanation is that the three paintings represent the morning of the fight (the version in the National Gallery in London), the afternoon (the current version), and the evening (the Louvre version).
A more popular alternative is that the National Gallery version represents the beginning of the battle with Niccoló da Tolentino. The Louvre version represents the arrival of Micheletto Attendolo and his army, and the current version shows the last episode where Bernardino della Ciarda from the opposing army was unhorsed. Note that the current painting of the battle in the Uffizi is the only of the three versions that is signed (see the words PAVLI VGIELI OPVS in the shield at the bottom left).
Who is Uccello? Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was born as Paolo di Dono in Pratovecchio in Tuscany. In his teenage years, he was an apprentice of Lorenzo Ghiberti and later he got influenced by contemporaries such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio. He was named Uccello, which is Italian for ‘bird’, because he liked to paint birds. He developed strong scientific interests and was very interested in representing perspective in paintings, something that he and contemporary artists just introduced to painting.
The appropriate use of linear perspective was often more important for Uccello than what the painting should represent. In his paintings, he combines elements of the older Gothic tradition (the decorative parts) and the newer Renaissance movement (which introduced depth and perspective).
Linear Perspective? Linear perspective was developed around 1420 by Brunelleschi. It was a completely new approach to represent space in paintings. The simplest idea of perspective is that the size of objects becomes smaller the further away they are from the observer. Paintings with perspective have one or multiple vanishing points which help the painter to create perspective.
Foreshortening is a specific form of perspective in which an illusionary trick is used to provide the idea of depth. A great example is when someone wants to paint a picture of a person laying with his feet towards you. To create the idea of depth, the painter will paint the feet of the person bigger than his head.
The Lamentation of Christ by Mantegna is a great example of foreshortening. Note that the linear perspective in Uccello’s paintings is not perfect, but it did help to create depth in two-dimensional paintings. His work served as an inspiration for many artists in the next generations who perfected his ideas about linear perspective in paintings.
Fun fact: This painting of Uccello and its two companion pieces in the Louvre and National Gallery originally had an arched top, possibly a Gothic arch. However, these arches have been cut away around the time that Lorenzo the Medici seized the paintings from the commissioning Salimbeni family. The paintings were changed into rectangular formats and some additions were made to the top corners.
There is clear evidence that the top left and right corner did not originally exist, but these additions were made at the end of the 15th century. It is very unlikely that Uccello made these additions, but the unknown artist that made these did a good job as the additions are very hard to notice with the naked eye. An analysis of the different layers for these additions, however, clearly reveals that some different materials and paint compositions are used.
Where? Room 10 of the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums
When? Around 1580
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Saint Helena has a vision of the location of the True Cross (the cross on which Jesus was crucified on Golgotha). Helena is peacefully dreaming about the wooden cross of Jesus which is held in this painting by the winged cherub on the right. The naked cherub stands with his back toward the viewer.
Helena sits on a chair within a palace-like building (indicated by the two big columns, the gold statue in between them, and the large patterned curtain behind her). She has her eyes closed and supports her head with her left hand.
Helena wears an expensive 16th-century silk dress with beautifully-painted folds. On top of the dress is a red cloak which is fastened by a big golden brooch. In the middle of the brooch is a carved image of a cupid. She has a transparent veil on her head and a crown filled with jewels on top of it, indicating that she is the Empress of the Roman Empire (as she was the mother of Emperor Constantine).
Backstory: This painting is also referred to as Vision of St. Helen. In 1565, Veronese painted another version of The Vision of Saint Helena (also called The Dream of Saint Helena). That painting has the same theme as the current painting and is in the National Gallery in London. The style of both versions differs substantially, which is a testament to the versatility of Veronese’s painting style.
Who is Saint Helena? She was born in 250 AD, probably in a low-standing family. She became the partner of Constantius Chlorus who would become the Roman Emperor in 293. However, Constantius divorced her in 289 to find a wife with a status that would better match his future role as the Emperor. Before the divorce, they got a child, Constantine. He would become Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD), also known as Constantine the Great.
Helena is known for the big influence she had on her son. She was an important reason that Constantine became the first Christian Emperor and he subsequently promoted Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. During a trip to Jerusalem, she allegedly discovered the True Cross.
What is the True Cross? The cross on which Jesus was crucified. After the crucifixion, the cross of Jesus and the crosses of the two people who were crucified with him got lost. There are several accounts of how Saint Helena discovered the cross, and they all differ from each other.
According to some, in 326-328, Saint Helena traveled to Palestine, and she found the three crosses in Jerusalem. One of the crosses carried the name of Jesus. However, real evidence came when a miracle occurred. A very sick woman arrived at the crosses. She touched the first two crosses and nothing happened, but when she touched the cross of Jesus, she got cured immediately. Nowadays, many Catholic and Orthodox churches claim to have a small fragment of the True Cross.
Who is Veronese? Paolo Caliari (1528-1588) was born in Verona which explains that he is better known under the name Paolo Veronese. He spent most of his adult life in Venice. He is considered to be one of the three masters of the Venetian School of Painting, together with Tintoretto and Titian.
Veronese usually created colorful paintings, full of drama, often with beautiful architectural elements. The people in his paintings are often painted quite realistically, elegant, and dressed in luxurious clothes. Veronese is most famous for some of his larger paintings, such as The Wedding at Cana in the Louvre and The Feast in the House of Levi in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
Fun fact: This painting shows a calm and peaceful scene. However, most of the work by Veronese shows a considerable amount of drama. One typical aspect of Veronese’s style that is present is the use of vibrant colors, especially for the clothes of Saint Helena. The dress mainly contains gold, blue, and white and the large folds of the dress and the way the light falls on it, really make it stand out. The combination with the red cloak makes this a very warm, yet vibrant, painting. The clothes of Saint Helena seem to confirm the claim by the French poet Gautier that Veronese was the greatest colorist who ever lived.
Where? Room 66 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Prior Bartolomeo Scorlione and the Confraternity for the Chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Francesco Maggiore in Milan.
What do you see? The Virgin Mary, the children Jesus and John the Baptist, and an angel are pictured in a triangular composition in a rocky environment. The Virgin Mary is sitting on the ground, which is referred to as the Madonna of Humility. She is the center of attention in this painting. The right hand of Mary is on the shoulder of John the Baptist (who is the child on the left). The left hand of Mary is right above the head of Jesus, which can be interpreted as a protective gesture. John the Baptist is folding his hands and is praying towards Jesus. At the same time, Jesus, who is directly to the left of the angel, is raising his right hand to bless John the Baptist.
The angel most likely represents the Archangel Gabriel, even though the angel looks quite feminine (the painting of androgynous figures was a trademark of Leonardo da Vinci). In the background you can see the rocky grotto and a river, most likely inspired by the Dolomite Mountains, which are to the northeast of Milan. In the foreground and the grotto, various flowers and plants are depicted (including irises, lilies, and ivy).
Backstory: The commissioner of this painting wanted Leonardo da Vinci to paint the Immaculate Conception (a Catholic dogma that Mary was born without sin) to serve as the center of an altarpiece for the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. This chapel is part of the Saint Francesco Grande church in Milan, and the chapel has been founded before 1335 by Beatrice d’Este, who was the wife of Galeazzo I, the Duke of Milan.
On the left and right of this painting would be two paintings of angels playing a musical instrument to complete the altarpiece. On the left is An Angel in Green with a Vielle painted by an associate of Leonardo, possibly Francesco Napoletano. On the right is An Angel in Red with a Lute by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis.
Leonardo da Vinci has painted the biggest part of this work but he has some help from his assistants. One important argument, according to The Guardian, which supports the involvement of some assistants is that some of the flowers and rocks are not accurately depicted (whereas one of the trademarks of Leonardo is that he was always very accurate in depicting natural elements in his work).
Symbolism: The rocks and caves represent sanctuary. The rocks also refer to Jesus, who is often called the rock of the Christian religion. The flowers and plants are also carefully chosen. For example, the palm leaves, which can be seen behind the head of John the Baptist, are a symbol of Mary and a symbol of Jesus victory over earthly temptations.
The angel is clearly identified based on his wings. Mary is directly visible by her blue clothing and the halos help us to identify who is sacred/holy. John the Baptist can easily be identified by his cross of martyrdom.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in the Italian village of Anchiano, which was very close to Vinci, which is where he got his name from. He was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. Leonardo da Vinci is known to be one of the biggest multi-talented people that the world has ever seen.
Leonardo was notorious for being substantially late in delivering his paintings and was not afraid to abandon projects halfway. Most of the surviving paintings of Leonardo have become famous, including The Annunciation (in the Uffizi Museum) and the Mona Lisa (in the Louvre).
Fun fact: Interestingly, there are two versions of this famous painting. The other version of The Virgin of the Rocks is in the Louvre.
The version in the Louvre was the first to be completed and is much less conventional. For example, the current version in the National Gallery contains halos on top of the heads of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Mary, and John the Baptist is carrying a cross with him (these elements are not present in the version in the Louvre). You can also see a clear difference in the face of Jesus. Also, in the National Gallery version of the painting, the angel is not pointing at John the Baptist and seems to gaze in the distance (as if the angel is dreaming/imagining this scene, instead of participating in it).
The reason that there are two versions of this painting is that the Confraternity rejected the first version of Leonardo. It was not traditional enough (for example, no halos and a lack of symbolism) and thus did not suit the purpose of representing the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (which was the sole purpose of the Confraternity).
Leonardo da Vinci considered the Louvre version of the painting a real masterpiece in which he could perfectly express his artistic ideas. After the Louvre version of the painting was rejected, Leonardo created another version of this painting (the current version), which included all elements that the Confraternity asked for.
Interested in a Copy for Yourself? Poster
Where? Room 41 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Agnolo Doni to celebrate his marriage with Maddelena Strozzi (from the powerful Strozzi family).
What do you see? Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus are shown in the center. Mary is sitting on her knees and looks up to Jesus while handing Jesus to Joseph. On the right, a young John the Baptist is depicted and in the background a group of five young and naked people. Look at the body of Mary, which is partly turned around in a somewhat unnatural pose. This painting has been influential for future work and has been labeled as one of the foundations of Mannerism, which is an art style in which ideas such as proportions, balance, and ideal beauty are violated on purpose.
Look also at the frame, which contains five carved heads. The head of Jesus is on top, and the other four heads represent the four prophets that told about the coming of the Messiah. This painting stands out because of its bright colors, which are due to the tempera pigment used by Michelangelo. This pigment typically keeps its color over time.
John the Baptist (the patron saint of Florence) is strategically posed in between the Holy Family and the pagan people in the background to bridge the gap between both worlds.
In front of John the Baptist, there is a plant that is a combination of a hyssop (a symbol of the humility of Christ and baptism) and a cornflower (a symbol of Christ symbolizing heaven). The clover in the foreground represents the Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).
The carvings on the frame include crescent moons, lion heads, stars, and vegetation, and are believed to refer to the Doni and Strozzi families.
Who is Doni Tondo? Agnolo Doni was a wealthy Florentine banker. The word ‘tondo’ was used to refer to a circular work of art. Tondo is derived from the Italian word ‘rotondo’, which means round. The term ‘tondo’ is typically only used for large round paintings (over two feet in diameter).
Why the Holy Family? The Holy Family is a model for Christian families. The Holy Family is depicted in two different ways. Most commonly, it consists of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother, the Virgin Mary, and his foster father, Saint Joseph. However, there are also other versions in which Saint Joseph is replaced by Saint Anne, the mother of Mary.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was an architect, engineer, painter, poet, and sculptor. He is considered to be one of the greatest artists ever and was considered the best artist of his time. He is probably most well-known for his sculptures (think about the David and the Pietà) and his frescos at the Sistine Chapel.
Fun fact: This is the only finished panel painting by Michelangelo that exists nowadays. In the National Gallery in London, there are two other panel paintings of Michelangelo, The Entombment and The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels, but he did not finish these paintings. Michelangelo was quite good in not finishing his work, as can be seen by the fascinating series of unfinished sculptures in the Galleria Accademia. Of course, Michelangelo has also painted frescos, like the famous ones in the Sistine Chapel.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 41 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Pope Leo X
What do you see? The portrait of Pope Leo X, shows the Pope sitting in his study. He is depicted realistically in a three-quarter profile. He wears the papal robe and the papal camauro, a cap traditionally worn by the pope. A cardinal is on both sides of him. Their silence helps to establish the authority of Pope Leo X in this painting. All three are wearing velvet (a woven fabric with evenly distributed patterns), and the Pope is also wearing a so-called, damask undergarment that shines in the light and has fur linings.
Backstory: Raphael was the lead painter for Pope Leo X and he had already made quite some portraits of Pope Leo X in fresco scenes. He also painted several portraits of Leo X to distribute throughout Italy. The current painting is the most well-known of these different portraits. The idea behind distributing these paintings was to promote the Medici regime throughout the country. This was important as a lot of things were happening in those years that created uncertainty for the common people and their leaders. One of these things was that Martin Luther (a famous German theology professor) publicized his famous list of complaints against the Roman Catholic Church.
Between 1513 and 1605, four popes came from the Medici family. An important reason for this is that popes liked to appoint their family members as cardinals, making it more likely that they would eventually become pope. The cardinal on the left of the painting is Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici (a cousin of the Pope who would become Pope Clement VII from 1523 until 1534). The cardinal on the right is Luigi de’ Rossi (another cousin of the Pope).
Who is Pope Leo X? Giovanni de’ Medici (1475 – 1521) is the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the ruler of the Florentine Republic. He became a cardinal at 13 years old. An important reason that Giovanni became a cardinal at such a young age was that his sister was married to Pope Innocent VIII. He became pope on March 9, 1513, until his death on December 1, 1521.
During his rule as pope, Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther from the church, and he granted people who donated to the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica a reduction in the amount of punishment they would have to undergo for their sins (called indulgence). He was a big spender and ruined the papal finances under the motto: “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), popularly known as Raphael, was born in Urbino, a small city a few hours east of Florence. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a painter with a good reputation, but Raphael had already lost both his parents at age 11.
Raphael is best known for his depictions of the Virgin Mary (Madonnas), and his large-scale depictions of humans. His work is widely appreciated for the clarity and magnificence with which he could paint people and his simple compositions. In 1508, he was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II, the predecessor of Pope Leo X, to become the lead court painter. He stayed there until his death, which was one year before the death of Pope Leo X. He is buried in the Pantheon in Rome.
Backstory: This painting is called the Madonna Litta because of a previous owner of the painting, the art collector, count Antonio Litta, from Milan, Italy. Tsar Alexander II acquired this painting in 1865 for the Hermitage Museum.
It is not known when Leonardo da Vinci made this painting exactly as he liked to do multiple projects at once and he often took a long time to complete a painting. What is known is that, in 1479, he already completed the first sketch of a nursing Madonna (now in the Royal Library at Windsor, England). After that, he completed more preparatory works for this painting, including a sketch of the face of Mary which is now in the Louvre. It is assumed that Leonardo started this painting in 1481 and that he stopped working on it for a while because of other commissions.
Symbolism: The scene of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Baby Jesus shows motherhood and motherly love. The blue mantle of Mary symbolizes the Church and her red dress is a symbol of the passion of Christ. The goldfinch is a symbol of the future crucifixion of Jesus. The mountain landscape in the background represents the greatness of the Creation of the world by God.
What is Madonna Lactans? The Virgin Mary breastfeeding Baby Jesus is the perfect example of motherly love. This theme is referred to as Madonna Lactans or Nursing Madonna. Madonna Lactans has been the subject of quite some paintings from the 12th century until the middle of the 16th century when the Council of Trent discouraged the use of nudity in religious paintings.
Madonna Lactans was also a frequent theme in the Orthodox Art in Russia, and this theme is better known as Mlekopitatelnitsa. This may explain why the Russian Tsar Alexander II bought this painting for the Hermitage Museum.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) was an expert in a large number of different fields, including astronomy, geology, mathematics, music, and painting. He was born in Vinci, near Florence, and received his artistic education in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. During that time, he already created Ginevra de’ Benci, which is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
After he finished his apprenticeship with Verrocchio in 1478, he moved to Florence, and in 1482 he moved to Milan where he stayed until 1499. There he worked on many different projects, and he often moved on to the next project leaving the previous one unfinished. Over the next decade, he lived in several different places in Italy. During this time, he created his famous Mona Lisa.
Fun fact: There is a lot of debate whether this painting should be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci or one of his assistants. In 1482, Leonardo mentioned that he had completed one Madonna (probably the Benois Madonna, which is also in the Hermitage Museum) and had almost finished another one. This other Madonna can either be the Madonna Litta or the Madonna of the Carnation, which is in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
The main reason that people doubt whether this painting is entirely created by Leonardo is the plain landscape, the somewhat dull outfit of Mary, the shadows in this painting, and the lack of details in her face (compare this to Leonardo’s drawing in the Louvre above). People argue that these aspects are not of the quality that we could expect from Leonardo.
However, experts agree that the design of the painting and especially the complicated pose of Mary and Baby Jesus could well be from Leonardo. So, it is not unlikely that Leonardo has started this painting, but that an assistant, maybe Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, finished the painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.