16. A Royal Commission


John the Baptist
  The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre was painted for the King of France.  This much seems certain. 

It has long been accepted that Leonardo left clear signs in his paintings to the identity of the people that they represent.  Ginevra de’ Benci is identified by the Juniper bush behind her, Cecilia Galleriani by her ermine, which is a play on her name, and Mona Lisa by her smile which accords with her Italian name la Joconda, wife of Francesco di Giocondo. So what clues did he leave us in the Virgin of the Rocks?

While in the National Gallery’s painting of the Virgin of the Rocks, the plants are hard to identify,  there is not one shadow of doubt about what botanic species are depicted in the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre. They are painted with all the exquisite observation and skill that appear in Leonardo's botanical studies.  In the very foreground, adjacent to John the Baptist, is a clump of Iris, the Fleur de Lys of France.  And in front of the Holy Mother is a violet.  They constitute the floral emblem of the French Kings and the favourite flower of Anne of Brittany, consort of two consecutive French Kings.  


The positions of the two flowers are significant. It is to be expected that the lily would be located adjacent to the Virgin, but it is not; the lily is adjacent to John the Baptist, for whom it has never been used as a symbol.  Its position is a sure indication that this child represents the Dauphin of France. 


The pointing finger of the angel is another such symbol.  One thing is made clear by it: little John the Baptist represents an important baby.

Which king? 
The angel in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks
points towards John the Baptist
The difficulty here is knowing for certain which one of the two kings might have commissioned this work.   Leonardo was associated to a greater or lesser degree with three French Kings, Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francis.  His association with Francis began in 1515 or 1516 which is almost certainly too late a date for this picture. 

In 1494 Anne of Brittany's first husband, Charles VIII, invaded Italy, passing through Milan where he was urged by Ludovico to attack Naples.   At this time Anne and Charles had a baby boy, their beloved Charles Orland who was kept safely under guard lest anything should befall him.  Unfortunately, he caught measles and died in December 1495, at the age of three. 

A portrait by Jean Hey, Master of Moulins, exists of Charles Orlando as a chubby-faced solemn baby.  There is another drawing, in the Louvre Museum, the delicate likeness of a child with chubby cheeks and wispy hair that appears to be a study for John the Baptist in the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre.  The subject is unknown, and the work may be by one of Leonardo's pupils, but, even taking the latter into account, it is possible that this drawing is a likeness of the little Dauphin, prepared as a study for Leonardo's painting.   

A study in the Louvre associated
 with this painting,
by Leonardo or an associate
There has been observed a certain ambiguity in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks, made much of by Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Files”, and caused by the fact that although the Christ Child ought to be the subject of the painting, the attention of Mary, Jesus and the angel is all turned towards John.  There is a further problem caused by the discrepancy in size, as John seems no older and perhaps smaller than Jesus.   These problems are not apparent in the National Gallery’s painting.  The explanation is almost certainly that the client who commissioned the picture wanted it that way.   This concurs with the theory that the infant John the Baptist is actually a portrait of the Dauphin.  This dates the Louvre's painting to 1494-95. 

The other possibility is that the painting was done for Anne of Brittany’s subsequent husband, King Louis XII.  Louis was in Italy in 1499, a which time his wife gave birth to a girl, whom she named Claude.  It is possible that Louis, who saw and admired Leonardo’s works so much that he wanted the Last Supper taken down from its wall, commissioned the painting as a votive work, in the hopes that his wife would produce the longed-for son and heir to the throne. 


The face of the Virgin Mary is very different to
that in the London painting 
 Ultimately, Anne’s only surviving children were daughters.  Leonardo stated in 1501 that he had a task to fulfil for the French King.  It might have been this painting, but it seems more likely to have been the Virgin and Child with St Anne and that the symbolism entailed in that painting relates directly to Anne of Brittany's perception that her only hope of successors to her duchy lay in her daughters. 

This leaves Charles VIII and Anne as the most likely patron and recipient of the work.  Just as the infant John the Baptist in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks may represent Charles VIII’s Dauphin, Charles Orlando,  so may the delicate Virgin Mary, an ethereal girl in her teens, so different from the more substantial Mary of the National Gallery picture, represent Anne of Brittany who was still herself little more than a child when her prince was born.   The evidence of the lilies and the violets points that way. 


Copyright:  Tamsyn Taylor,  7th November, 2011  




Fleur de Lys



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