Vergine delle rocce (c.1483-1486)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Vergine delle rocce (The Virgin of the Rocks)
Oil on wood transferred to canvas 199.5 x 122 cm
Musée du LouvreParis

This painting is mentioned for the first time in 1625 at the Château de Fontainebleau. It was probably acquired earlier, perhaps under Louis XII, between 1499 and 1512, or later under François I. Currently, there are two main hypotheses on the arrival of the painting in France, but neither is demonstrable. It was first proposed to identify the Virgin of the Rocks of the Louvre with the Nativity that Ludovico the Moor, Duke of Milan, sent to the Emperor Maximilian, according to the testimony of Vasari. The painting would then have arrived in France, on the occasion of a marriage between the Valois and the Habsburgs, either in 1530 during the union of François I with Éléonore of Austria, or in 1570 on the occasion of that of Charles IX with Elizabeth of Austria. There is no document to demonstrate this. The second hypothesis proposes the entry of the work into the collection of Louis XII, during the period of occupation of the Milanese by French troops, between 1499 and 1512, or by a seizure in the collections of Duke Ludovic, who would have possessed, either by simple acquisition.

A commission for a chapel in Milan

On April 25, 1483, Leonardo da Vinci signed with the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis the contract for the gilding and painting of the altarpiece of the chapel of the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception in San Francesco Grande. This church of the Franciscan convent stood in Milan, behind the Basilica of Saint Ambrose. The convent complex was removed in 1798, and the sanctuary was demolished between 1806 and 1813. At the founding of this chapel, in 1478, lively debates divided the Catholic Church on the question of the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine according to which the Virgin Mary was preserved from original sin, at the first moment of her conception, by grace of God. The Franciscans defend the immaculist thesis, and the new chapel of their church intended to reveal its truth. Several archival documents, gradually discovered since the end of the 19th century, allow us to imagine the decor of this chapel of the Immaculate Conception. It had been built on the counter-façade, upon entering the church on the left. In May 1479, the painters Francesco Zavattari and Giorgio Della Chiesa were responsible for decorating the vault, and in April 1480, the construction of the altarpiece was commissioned from the sculptor Giacomo del Maino, according to a drawing provided by the prior and members of the brotherhood. Maino completed his work in August 1482, and in April of the following year, the brotherhood entrusted the gilding and painting to the three artists. Attached to their contract is a more precise list of the work to be accomplished which allows us to understand the structure and iconography of the altarpiece built by Maino. On the vault appeared the Eternal Father, surrounded by seraphim and the four Evangelists, thus indicating that the mystery of the Immaculate Conception had been planned by God. The Evangelists spoke of the new testament sealed between God and men, by the sacrifice of his Son incarnated in the womb of Mary. Under this vault, the Maino altarpiece was to be divided into two superimposed registers, with a representation of the Virgin at each level. In the center of the upper part stood a sculpture of Mary, surrounded by seraphim and topped by God the Father and angels, in a setting of rocks and mountains. This image was to illustrate the concept of the Immaculate Conception: God preserving the Virgin from original sin, symbolically protected from Evil by the rocks. The lower register was to be decorated with a large central painting with, according to the contract of April 1483, the Virgin, the Child Jesus, angels and two prophets, and on each side a painting with musician and singing angels. These three paintings are the only surviving elements of this destroyed altarpiece and are now in the National Gallery in London.

The Adoration of the Child Jesus, the theme of the Incarnation

Compared to the initial contract, the artists provided slightly different compositions. The central panel finally represents the Virgin kneeling and collected before Jesus. Her left hand extended towards her Son seems to want to protect him while with her other arm she invites little Saint John the Baptist to adore her. The Child is supported by an angel and blesses his cousin. The protagonists are installed in a sort of cave opening onto a landscape of mountains bordered by a vast river. This fascinating decoration, symbol of the Immaculate Conception, is at the origin of the name “Virgin of the Rocks” which became established from the beginning of the 19th century. On each side was placed a painting with a single musical angel. We keep two preparatory drawings for the central composition (Windsor, RCIN 912560; New York, Metropolitan Museum, inv. 1917.17.142.1) in which Leonardo imagines several arrangements of the Virgin adoring the Child, sometimes with the little Baptist. If the text of the contract remains very descriptive, without giving the subject of the scene, we understand thanks to these sketches and by analyzing the painting, that Leonardo designed an Adoration of the Child Jesus, a completely traditional iconography, very close of the Adoration of the Shepherds on which he had already worked some time previously but in a rectangular format (drawing from the Bayonne museum). Moreover, the Virgin of the Rocks is inspired by an entire Florentine tradition of representing the Adoration of the Child Jesus, such as that of Filippo Lippi painted in 1459 for the chapel of the Medici Palace (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), where we already saw the Virgin kneeling before her Son, with little Saint John in a dark forest filled with rocks. These images reveal the mystery of the Incarnation, God made man. By praying in the chapel of San Francesco Grande, the faithful could therefore understand the divine plan by looking from top to bottom: on the vault, God decides to preserve Mary from original sin shown in the sculpture just below, and this Immaculate Conception is justified by the Incarnation that we admired in the Virgin of the Rocks. Note that the contract of 1483 envisaged the presence of angels and prophets, ultimately reduced to a single angel and Saint John, the last prophet announcing the coming of the Messiah and his sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. As much as the sculpture in the upper register appeared as a conceptual image illustrating the Immaculate Conception, the scene of the Virgin of the Rocks, with its characters interacting in a realistic landscape, could take on a narrative dimension, evoking the childhood of Christ. Historians have often suggested seeing there the episode of the first meeting of the two children, on the Return from Egypt of the Holy Family who had fled the massacres of Herod, as it is reported in texts such as the Meditations on the Life of Christ by Pseudo-Bonaventure or the Life of Saint John the Baptist by Domenico Cavalca. The cave has sometimes been interpreted as an allusion to the miraculous refuge found in a mountain by Saint Elizabeth and her son, who were also pursued by the henchmen of King Herod. An apocryphal text reports that the archangel Uriel took care of them. But the identity of the angel of the Virgin of the Rocks remains uncertain, because if we want to interpret the scene historically, it could also be Gabriel, who watched over the Holy Family.

Two paintings for an altarpiece

Historiography has mainly focused on the great mystery of this order: the existence of two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, the London one coming from San Francesco Grande and the Louvre one, kept in France since at least 1625, but whose older history is unknown. It is impossible to recall here the different hypotheses put forward on this subject, linked to a contradictory interpretation of the archival documents of this order which resulted in a dispute opposing the artists to the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception for more than twenty years. The work of the painters was to be completed on December 8, 1483 for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, against a payment of 800 imperial lire collected by an advance and monthly payments, with the possibility of a supplement. The artists received the sum initially planned, but between 1490 and 1494, Leonardo and Ambrogio de Predis, Evangelista no longer being in this world, addressed a petition to Duke Ludovico the Moor. They estimated that the 800 lire had been largely spent on the gilding and painting of the sculpted elements, and they therefore wanted to obtain at least 100 additional ducats for the large painting defined as a “Our Lady” painted in oil by Leonardo. The brotherhood only offered them 25 additional ducats, while the painters claimed that buyers were ready to acquire it for 100 ducats. They therefore requested the intervention of the Duke, proposing two solutions: either the brotherhood accepted the arbitration of competent people for an objective re-evaluation of the work, or the “Our Lady” should be left to them. At this date, the painting and gilding work as well as the large altar painting and the side paintings of the angels seem very advanced, if not completely completed. However, the rest of the events are unknown until March 1503, when Ambrogio de Predis, now alone, Leonardo then being in Florence, addresses a new petition to the Duke of Milan, then the King of France Louis XII, who repeats the terms of the previous request. This time, the brotherhood opposed any settlement, arguing that Leonardo was absent. It was only in 1506, when the master returned to Milan, that an agreement was reached between the two parties. The brotherhood now agrees to pay an additional 200 imperial lire if the painters complete the work within two years, the “Our Lady” being declared unfinished. Finally, in 1508, new documents attest that the work was finished. Despite the large number of archival documents found, it is impossible to reconstruct the precise history of the events and to definitively explain the reason for the existence of the two paintings. It can be noted, however, that the dispute is strictly economic in nature. We also note a certain contradiction between the petition of 14901494, in which the work seems to be completed, and the agreement of 1506, which indicates the opposite. Wouldn’t this be a clue to think that these documents concern two different paintings?

The hypothesis of two distinct orders

Historians have offered contradictory explanations for this affair and only agree on the dating of the Louvre version, prior to the London version for stylistic reasons. The Parisian painting indeed offers strong affinities with the Adoration of the Magi, from the Uffizi Gallery, the Benois Madonna from the Hermitage or Saint Jerome from the Vatican. The anatomy of the characters presents a gracefulness characteristic of Leonardo‘s Florentine period, the faces are thin and elongated, the fingers long and thin, the drapery treated in more abundant and broken folds. In the London painting, the shapes, while having the same proportions, appear rounder. The contrasts of light and shadow are more marked and the color has a metallic tone. This style fits best with works from the 1490s, such as the Last Supper, and is also similar to several paintings from Leonardo‘s circle in Milan, mainly those by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. The attribution of this painting is often discussed between the master and his workshop. To resolve the enigma of the two versions, some historians have imagined that they were simply not intended for the same altarpiece. The National Gallery panel undoubtedly coming from the San Francesco Grande church would have been the only panel commissioned by the brotherhood, while the Paris painting would have had another destination. Recently, Alessandro Ballarin strongly supported the hypothesis of provenance from the chapel of San Gottardo, the church of the ducal palace called the Corte Vecchia, next to the Duomo, on the site of the current royal palace. The Gothic church built in the 1330s by Azzone Visconti still exists, but its interior has been largely restored in the neoclassical style. According to Ballarin, the Virgin of the Rocks of the Louvre would have decorated the high altar. In support of this hypothesis, we have no document but the testimony of Carlo Torre in Il ritratto di Milano, published in 1674, according to which the painting of the altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception in San Francesco Grande comes from the chapel San Gottardo. Of course, if this is true, it would therefore be the painting of London that would have first hung in the church of the ducal palace. But Ballarin presumes a confusion between the two versions, revealing the fact that originally there was another altarpiece in San Gottardo comparable to that of San Francesco, namely the painting in the Louvre. Furthermore, this distinct destination would explain the main iconographic difference between the two versions, the designation of the Baptist by the angel, which would illustrate the devotion to the saint, very natural to San Gottardo, which was built on an ancient baptistery. Several arguments, however, go against this hypothesis, and first of all the sources which are late and only concern, on a strict reading, the London painting. Furthermore, one might be surprised that a destination as prestigious as San Gottardo for the Virgin of the Rocks of the Louvre has not left any evidence dating from its time.

The probable hypothesis of substitution between the two versions

The majority of specialists have favored another explanation for the existence of the two versions, that of a substitution of the Louvre painting by that of London. This idea is supported by the very strong resemblance of the two works, stronger in fact than their current appearance suggests. The Louvre panel is today about 10 centimeters higher, but it was transposed from wood to canvas in 1806. The precise analysis of the edges and the measurements given to the painting in old inventories, before the transposition, allows to establish that the work has been slightly enlarged. The original dimensions should have been around 195 centimeters high and 119 centimeters wide. As for the London panel, examination of its assembly of wooden planks suggests that it was slightly cut at the bottom. The current height of 189.5 centimeters could originally be closer to that of Paris, i.e. around 193 centimeters high. These almost identical dimensions are important, to the extent that the proportions of the altar painting had to adapt to the architecture of the altarpiece already built by Giacomo del Maino. If these two panels were indeed painted for the same altar, it remains to be seen why the Louvre version, which everyone recognizes as the first, was never installed there. Some historians have imagined that this must be for iconographic reasons. It has sometimes been pointed out that in the London panel, the protagonists are endowed with a halo and that Saint John the Baptist holds in his arms a staff in the shape of a cross and a small phylactery on which we can read “Ecce agnus”, in reference to its mission of announcing the coming of Christ. According to some, these elements were added in order to clarify the image of the Louvre which was too ambiguous, Jesus and John not being differentiated enough. However, their absence could not justify the execution of a new version because these attributes could easily be added to the Louvre panel. Moreover, it is more the look and the gesture of designation of the angel of the Louvre which could have been considered inappropriate to the desired iconography and which would have encouraged the sponsors to refuse the work and to demand a second amended version. But again, it would have been easy for Leonardo to modify these two details.

The findings of scientific examinations

The new infrared reflectographies carried out on the two works, that of the National Gallery in 2005 then that of the Louvre in 2009, made it possible to definitively reject this idea of a substitution due to heterodoxy of the Louvre version. Under the London Virgin, part of a first composition of a Virgin in adoration was discovered, in an attitude quite different from that finally painted, with her body turned to the right, her face almost in profile, her right arm outstretched and the other folded over the heart. Once traced, this composition was finally covered with a new layer of printing in order to transfer a second preparatory drawing corresponding to the current visible composition. In the Louvre painting, reflectography did not reveal a different composition under the painting, but very significant modifications. Apart from the slight pentiments intended to improve the arrangement of the figures, it was discovered that the angel had first been painted as seen in the London painting, with his gaze turned towards John and without his right hand raised. It was only towards the end of the pictorial execution that the master changed his attitude. The idea of correcting the image of the Louvre in the London version must therefore now be completely abandoned, and that of the heterodoxy of the Louvre painting forgotten. In the current state of our knowledge, we could propose the following reconstruction. Leonardo first designed, on the Louvre panel, the composition of the Virgin of the Rocks as we see it today in the painting in the National Gallery. Following a financial dispute with the brotherhood, he perhaps decided with Ambrogio de Predis to give up this first version after having modified the attitude of the angel, to draw more attention to little Saint John, undoubtedly at the request of the new recipient, and for an unknown reason. Indeed, to the extent that this change made to the angel will not be included in the second version hung in the church, it is very likely that this variant was desired by the first owner of the work and not by the brotherhood, satisfied with the initial composition. It was on the occasion of this transformation of the angel that Leonardo traced one of his most beautiful drawings, the Head of a Woman from the Turin Museum, in order to study the natural pivoting of the figure and the emergence of the smile. Subsequently, between the years 1490 and 1508, Leonardo executed a second panel, first seeking to change the composition of the Adoration of the Child, then he finally returned to the initial cardboard used for the Louvre panel. We can legitimately be surprised to note that the London painting reproduces quite faithfully the cardboard used for the Louvre version, without taking into account the numerous changes that the master had made to the arrangement of the figures during the execution. However, we notice variations in the arrangement of the folds of the Virgin’s mantle and the angel’s clothing. A beautiful drapery design kept at Windsor (RCIN 912521) is often considered to be Leonardo‘s new thinking for this part. There are also some simplifications in the London version, for example the head of Jesus which appears in a much more static profile. Several details, such as the rocks of the cave or the flora, are painted in a more schematic way. The morphology of several characters resembles the manner of certain students more than that of the master, notably the Baptist, so close to the art of Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, documented in Leonardo‘s workshop in 1491. All this justifies the questions of a good part of the criticism on the autography of this second version in which Leonardo‘s Milanese workshop seems to have participated. Moreover, it must be remembered that the side paintings each representing a musical angel were painted by two other artists, most often identified with his colleague Ambrogio de Predis and his probable collaborator Francesco Napoletano. Certain details, such as the face of the angel, present transitions of light and shadow and more refined work on the hair than those of the Child Jesus, which could be explained by an intervention by the master. Furthermore, some parts are barely sketched, almost unfinished, the right foot of the Baptist, the back of Jesus, the hand of the angel and perhaps also the ground in the foreground, according to a practice more characteristic of the master than of his students. This heterogeneity encourages us to see it as a work largely executed by the workshop, under the control and with the intervention of Leonardo. The theme of the Adoration of the Child Jesus allows Leonardo to free himself from all architecture and the construction of a geometric perspective, as was still found in the Adoration of the Magi. The order, however, remains skilfully elaborate, with the figures arranged in a harmonious pyramid. The shapes of the cave, supported by a large central rocky peak, echo this arrangement. With this composition centered on the Virgin, Leonardo invites the gaze of the faithful to a vertical reading of the altarpiece, from the Child Jesus seated on the rock to the Eternal Father on the vault, that is to say of the Incarnation at the Immaculate Conception. The pyramid layout, on the other hand, involves a horizontal reading, from the angel towards the Baptist, through which a narration developed animated by gestures and expressions. The angel and the Virgin each support a child whom they invite to meet, with gentle kindness. Each character expresses with seriousness and depth the feelings born from this event: the melancholy melancholy of the Virgin who observes the Baptist and senses the announcement of the death of her Son, the worthy resolution of John who undertakes to announce the coming of the Messiah, the grave blessing of Jesus conscious of his future, the dawning smile of the angel which reveals the promise of the salvation of humanity through the sacrifice of Christ. The subtlety of these emotions and the naturalness of the attitudes owe a lot to the chiaroscuro atmosphere of the cave, whose stratification and flora Leonardo describes with precision. (Text by Vincent Delieuvin, July 2021) (Louvre)


Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Vergine delle rocce
National GalleryLondon



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