The case for the Louvre's version of the Virgin of the Rocks being earlier than the National Gallery, London's Virgin of the Rocks, and being the painting done to fulfil the commission of the Fraternity of the Immaculate Conception in 1483 is based on the notion that it represents an earlier style, that it is a more appealing picture and "highly original" in its subject and treatment. The theory is dependent upon an hypothesis involving a complex series of events in which Leonardo delivered the confraternity a painting and then took it away, sold it and created another to replace it.
The case for the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks being the earlier is that any other theory defies logic.
The highly realistic and exquisite painting of the flowers in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks indicates the hand and mind of a man who spent many hours in botanical research. The fanciful specimens in the London painting are plainly the work of an assistant, who did not bother to count the petals on a jonquil, but put on as many as would fit on each flower, and who invented a slightly sinister hybrid to represent the lily associated with the Immaculate Conception. This evidence of another hand supports rather than contradicts the notion of it being the earlier work as the contract gave the work to Leonardo and two assistants. Moreover, the precise nature of the species so perfectly represented in the Louvre painting is symbolical. And the symbol of the Fleur de Lys, used where one would expect the "Madonna Lily" Lilium candidum, is a clue to the patron of the painting that can hardly be ignored.
|The Immaculate Virgin, the Virgin of the Rocks|
National Gallery, London
Firstly, there is no evidence whatsoever for the convoluted series of events that is used to explain how the National Gallery painting happened to be in Milan, where it ought to have been, and the painting belonging to the Louvre, has, from the time it was first recorded, been in France.
Contrary to the statements made by a couple of generations of art historians, the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery does not represent a later stage of Leonardo's artistic development. The clarity of definition and the slightly bumpy surface contours of the Virgin's face are a clear indication that, at the time it was painted, Leonardo had not completely broken free from his training in Verrocchio's workshop. The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre is much more in the style of the Last Supper and is a clear development towards the much looser style of the Virgin and Child with St Anne in the Louvre.
The clarity with which the bodies of the Virgin and the angel are defined in the National Gallery painting indicate that they were drawn from detailed studies, probably from life. The draped figures in the Louvre painting have no sense of being drawn from life. On analysis, they have the hallmarks of figures that have been copied and have always had reality in two, rather than three, dimensions. The artistic license that is inherent in the process of creation on a painted surface, with reference to models only for the details, has also been applied to the removal of the cross of John the Baptist, the change of position to the angel's hand and the length of the Virgin's outstretched arm.
|The Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre|
There is a perfectly good and logical explanation for the facts that the first positive record of the National Gallery's painting locates it in Italy in the 18th century, and the first positive record of the Louvre's painting locates it in France in the 17th century. The explanation is that the National Gallery painting was begun on time, was delivered unfinished, and was the source of the financial dispute. As the "original" painting, it simply never left Milan until it was purchased by Gavin Hamilton. The painting in the Louvre was intended, from the start, for a French customer and was not begun until at least ten years after the other.
The composition and symbolism of the Louvre's Virgin of the Rocks is extremely unusual. Why the upraised hand, the challenging gaze, the emphasis on John, and the discrepancy in the sizes and apparent ages of the babies?
If we accept the notion that the Louvre painting is the earlier of the two, then we must also believe that Leonardo began, painted and delivered a most perplexing and challenging artwork, a painting with an obscure emphasis that only dimly related to the commissioned subject. Can we really believe that the confraternity accepted this extraordinary and challenging painting, demanded its completion and asked no questions about its subject matter? We must also believe that Leonardo, who, previous to that point in time, had been working on an Adoration of the Magi which fitted all the iconographical requirements of church and tradition, had suddenly gone slightly mad and branched off at an inexplicable tangent.
To believe that Leonardo da Vinci painted the Louvre version of the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception defies all logic. It stretches the perception of Leonardo's eccentricity and perversity to the maximum. It leads to convoluted and sometimes ridiculous theories ranging from substitution to heresy to an all-encompassing conspiracy by the Roman Catholic Church.
To believe that Leonardo painted the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks for the adoring parents of a little Dauphin satisfies any perception of irregularities in its subject matter and symbolism entirely.
That Leonardo battled with the design for the commissioned painting of the Immaculate Conception is to be expected. The remaining evidence tells us that he tried out his ideas on a sheet of paper, commenced on the canvas with an adoring Virgin and changed his mind to an adoring John and a majestic Virgin with the outstretched arms and cloak associated with her role as the iconic Madonna della Misericordia, help in time of strife or plague.
In his final composition, Leonardo included an angel supporting the Christ Child. This was in the Florentine tradition, typical of the small Madonnas of Fra Filippo Lippi and Botticelli. The angel may be considered to be Uriel who, by tradition, accompanied John on his flight to Egypt. The Christ Child in this painting sits with imperious grace. Nothing detracts from him, not a gesture, not a gaze. All attention is on the Christ Child and his sign of Benediction. One needs to imagine that chubby little hand complete and touched with the same light that bathes the Christ Child's face. Except for that detail, small but very telling, this painting is all and everything that it should be.
This is not to say that it is ordinary. The setting, using the tumbled rocks not as a background but as an internal space, is extraordinary. Filling the entire picture with these rocks to form a cavern, in the manner that Jan van Eyck might use the interior of great cathedral, is unprecedented in Renaissance painting. The use of the cool filtered light found in grottos by mountain streams is also unprecedented. The National Gallery's painting is altogether an extraordinary, magnificent and very important work.
The only sensible way of viewing the existence of and the differences between the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks is to understand the National Gallery version as being that designed to fulfil the commission of 1483, and the version belonging to the Louvre as having been created about ten years later specifically for the King of France.
Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor. November 2011