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.
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Written by Eelco Kappe