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La Vierge aux rochers

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

Paintings
Italian painting

Author(s):
Séverine Laborie

Leonardo’s emblematic and complexly symbolic The Virgin of the Rocks celebrates the mystery of Incarnation in portrayals of the Virgin Mary, Christ and Saint John the Baptist. For the first time, these holy figures, bathed in a gentle light, are set in rocky landscape. The many contemporary copies of the picture attest to the immense popularity of this new vision of the theme.

A complex history

The Louvre version of the picture was to have been the central part of a polyptych which the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception commissioned Leonardo and the de Predis brothers to paint for a chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan in 1483. The other version, now in the National Gallery in London and known to have formerly been in this chapel, and several archive documents indicate that the Louvre painting was never installed there. Its presence in the French royal collection is attested from1627, but several clues suggest it may have been acquired much earlier.

The most convincing hypothesis is that the picture, painted between 1483 and 1486, did not meet with Leonardo’s clients’ full satisfaction, which enabled Louis XII to acquire it around 1500−1503. The second, replacement picture, now in London, may have been painted by Ambrogio de Predis under Leonardo’s supervision between 1495 and 1508.

Ambiguous iconography

Comparison of the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks clearly shows the ambiguous iconography of the first, about which much has been written. The identity of the figures may indeed appear unclear due to the absence of attributes and the pre-eminence of the infant Saint John, placed alongside the Virgin Mary, indicated by the archangel Gabriel’s pointing finger and Jesus’s sign of blessing. The desert in which the meeting between the two immaculately conceived children is traditionally depicted has been replaced by a supernatural rocky grotto, water and plants. The mystery of the Incarnation is celebrated by the role of Mary and the precursor John, who in Florentine tradition was one of Jesus’s childhood playmates and already aware of his future sacrifice for mankind. This prefiguration of Christ’s Passion seems to be echoed by the precipice on the edge of which the Infant Jesus is sitting and the vegetation surrounding him (aconite, palms, iris).

A totally innovative composition

The Virgin of the Rocks is the first picture Leonardo is known to have produced in Milan and has stylistic similarities with works painted towards the end of his stay in Florence such as The Adoration of the Magi (Florence) and Saint Jerome (Rome), whose aesthetic concepts it develops. The rigorously ordered pyramidal composition does not hinder the movement of the figures, and the painstaking orchestration of their gestures (the superimposition of hands and interplay of looks) takes on a new intensity in the diffuse light which softens outlines without weakening the modeling of the figures.

The figures’ natural poses and the omnipresence of the predominantly mineral landscape are highly innovative compared to the affected architecture and hieratic poses of the altarpieces of the period. Yet it was not until 1501, when the cartoon of Saint Anne was first shown in Florence (see INV 776) that these principles were put into practice by other artists.

Bibliography

- Léonard de Vinci, Traité de la Peinture, trad. André Chastel, Club des libraires de France, Paris, 1960.

- BEGUIN S., Léonard de Vinci au Louvre, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1983.

- ARASSE Daniel, Léonard de Vinci, Le rythme du monde, Hazan, Paris, 1997.

- MARANI Pietro. C., Léonard de Vinci, Gallimard/Electa, Paris, 1996.

- VIATTE Françoise (dir.),  Léonard de Vinci. Dessins et manuscrits, catalogue de l’exposition, Musée du Louvre, 5 mai-14 juillet 2003, éd. Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2003, pp. 127-132.

Technical description

  • Leonardo di ser Piero DA VINCI, dit Léonard de Vinci (Vinci, 1452 - Amboise, 1519)

    La Vierge aux rochers

  • Bois transposé sur toile en 1806 par Hacquin

    H. : 1,99 m. ; L. : 1,22 m.

  • Collection de François Ier

    INV. 777

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Grande Galerie
    Room 5

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