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Work The Adoration of the Magi

Department of Prints and Drawings: 14th-15th centuries

Adoration des Mages

Prints and Drawings
14th-15th centuries

Author(s):
Forcione Varena, Grollemund Hélène

This drawing is an overall plan for The Adoration of the Magi, a painting commissioned in March 1481 for the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto. Left unfinished on Leonardo's departure for Milan, the painting is now in the Uffizi, Florence. This outstanding work, a highly personal treatment of a subject often encountered in 15th-century Florentine painting, is the basis of the artist's later work on rhythm, movement, and especially the representation of emotion.

Uninterrupted development

Preparatory work for The Adoration of the Magi took seven months (March-September 1481) but the painting remained unfinished. There was no break between the ideas sketched out on paper and their execution in the painting: it is as if the resources of drawing and of painting could not have been more closely matched. This drawing, an overall plan for The Adoration of the Magi, consists of two distinct parts, not yet been entirely integrated. They reflect Leonardo's early approach to the piece, before he had arrived at the idea of the painting as an open space, from which the Virgin and the adoring assembly would stand out clearly, to be echoed in the background by ruins and cavalcades. The dramatic character of the scene would later find itself further emphasized, but the essence of the artist's intentions is already evident in the poses and gestures of the figures, whose diversity underpins the narrative force.

Investigating the representation of emotional states

In his Adoration, Leonardo has chosen to represent not an episode from the mythical tale of the journey of the Magi, but rather the revolution brought about by the birth of Christ. He abandons any reference to earlier works, establishing in the transparency of the planes and the seemingly almost random grouping of figures and ruins, the basis for his later work on rhythm, movement, and more particularly the representation of emotional states. The movement of the figures crowded around the central point prefigures the effect of "gestural amplification" seen fifteen years later in the emotion that spreads like a wave through the apostles of The Last Supper. Here already one sees the flexing of the hands and the exchange of looks, which like the tense faces and impatient hands standing out against the dark that fills the whole foreground, convey an anxious fervor.

A basis for later drawings

Even if the drawing reflects a relatively early stage in the planning of the painting, it can be seen as a predecessor of the sketch for the background, now in the Uffizzi in Florence, so very much more definite in its indication of perspective. It also underlies a whole series of drawing of figures taken individually, now in different museums: in Paris (Louvre, Edmond de Rothschild Collection, INV 781 D.R. and École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts), Cologne (Wallraf-Richartz Museum), London (British Museum), Venice (Gallerie dell'Accademia), Hamburg (Hamburger Kunsthalle), and Cambridge (Fitzwilliam Museum).

Bibliography

E. Galichon, "Un dessin de Léonard de Vinci pour le tableau de l'Adoration des mages", in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, tome XXIII, 1867, pp. 530-536.
B. Berenson, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters Classified, Criticised and Studied as Documents in the History and Appreciation of the Tuscan Art, with a Copious Catalogue Raisonné, Londres, 1903, tome I, p. 152, planche CI, II, n 1068.
L. Demonts, Les Dessins de Léonard de Vinci au musée du Louvre, Paris, 1921, n 8.
Reale Commissione Vinciana, I manoscritti e i disegni di Leonardo da Vinci pubblicati dalla Reale Commissione Vinciana sotto gli auspici del Ministero dell'Educazione Nazionale. Disegni , a cura di Adolfo Venturi, Fascicolo II , I disegni di Leonardo da Vinci dal 1478 al 1481, Rome, 1930, n 46.
C. Pedretti et G. Dalli Regoli, I disegni di Leonardo da Vinci e della sua cerchia nel Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe della Galleria degli Uffizi a Firenze , Florence, 1985, p. 57 sous n 8.
D. Arasse, Léonard de Vinci. Le rythme du monde, Paris, 1997, p. 297, fig. 207.
P. C. Marani, Léonard de Vinci, une carrière de peintre, Milan, Arles, 1999, fig. pp. 107, 108, 109.
F. Viatte, in "Léonard de Vinci, dessins et manuscrits", cat. exp. Paris, Musée du Louvre, n 22, 2003.

Technical description

  • Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci, 1452-Cloux, 1519)

    The Adoration of the Magi

    1481

  • Pen and brown ink over leadpoint underdrawing

    H. 28.4 cm; W. 21.3 cm

  • Émile Galichon sale, Paris, 1875, lot no. 162; bequeathed to the Louvre by Louis Galichon in 1894

    401978

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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