4. Dating the paintings: an opposing view


There is an alternative, and much simpler,  way of interpreting the documented facts, explaining the existence of the two similar paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery and the Louvre, and dating them.  This interpretation is supported by the documentary evidence, the stylistic evidence, the symbolism, by basic mechanics and simple logic.  

The Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London


1.     The Virgin of the Rocks now in the National Gallery is the earlier work. It was designed by Leonardo and painted by him with the assistance of Ambrogio de Predis to fill the contract made with the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception.  It was done to fit the frame as per contract. It was installed to meet the contract deadline of December 8th, 1483, in time for the feast day of the Immaculate Conception,  but in a somewhat unfinished state.  Perhaps the two side panels were not even begun.

2.     The periodical payments continued until February 1485 as per contract but the larger payment, the amount of which was to be determined upon delivery of the work, was never forthcoming. This left Leonardo and the de Predis brothers out of pocket, hence the plea to the Duke Lodovico Sforza in the early 1490s.  Angela Ottino della Chiesa suggests that this petition was an extreme move and that it was probably preceded by negotiation of a more regular kind, the records of which no longer exist. * 

3.     Although one of the suggested options stated in the petition was that the painting should be returned to the ownership of the painters, there is no evidence that this took place.  It was a negotiation strategy.

4.     When in 1506 the work was assessed as being incomplete, it was Ambrogio de Predis who completed it, to the satisfaction or otherwise of the Confraternity, and he who, with the agreement of Leonardo, in 1507 and 1508 received recompense for his troubles and for the 20 years of negotiation.  

5.     The simplest explanation for the existence of the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks is that Leonardo created it especially for a patron who had admired the painting in the Chapel.

6.     The person for whom this painting was done may have been Florentine.  The emphasis upon John the Baptist leads to this interpretation, as John was the patron of the city of Florence. Leonardo was in Florence in 1500-01 when he was guest of the Servite community.  He seems to have been based mainly in Florence from then until 1509.  It was during this period that he had a commission to paint the Battle of Anghiari and was a member of the committee to decide on the placement of Michelangelo's David.   The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre may date from this period and have been produced for a Florentine customer.

7.     On the other hand, Leonardo’s patron for the Louvre painting may have been a French King.  

detail, the Christ Child, National Gallery 




* Angela Ottino della Chiesa, "Leonardo da Vinci", Penguin Books, (1967) 





Next page: 5A comparison of style