1. The commission and the artist

The Commission

      On the 25th April 1483, the Brothers of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned three artists, Leonardo da Vinci, Ambrogio de Predis and his brother Evangelista to provide the paintings for an altarpiece for their chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan.
     Although Leonardo is referred to in the documents by the title of "Master", indicating his status over the other two, there is no specific breakdown as to which artist was to fulfil which function in the delivery of the commission, or how the payment was to be divided between them. It is presumed that Evangelista was responsible for the gilding and the task of preparing colours while Ambrogio, who is known independently as an artist, acted as Leonardo's assistant in the work of painting.  

An altarpiece of the type commissioned
 by the confraternity.  Footnote 1.
      The paintings were to be completed before the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th of the same year. The sculptor Giacomo del Maino had already been contracted to provide an elaborate carved wooden structure to unite the various sections of the work. The scheme of the altarpiece was an ambitious one, with both painting and sculpture incorporated in an ornate architectonic setting.

      In a society where the artist was perceived as a contracted tradesman, similar to the way modern society views an electrician or a licensed builder, contracts like this were often detailed and, as well as the subject matter of the painting, materials and quality control were stated in writing.
If, for example, a certain amount of gold was stipulated, in halos, borders of garments and ornamentation, then that precise amount of gold should be present in the finished picture, because the patron was paying for it. 

      So the contract between Leonardo da Vinci, the de Predis and the Confraternity indicates that the subject of the polyptych should be that of the Immaculate Conception.  The largest panel at the centre was to represent the Virgin and the Christ Child in the crib, at the moment at which the Immaculate Being is first presented to mankind, with prophets who foretold his birth looking on, all set against a brightly coloured background of rocks and landscape.  Above this, within Giacomo del Maino's elaborate gilt frame was to be set a painted relief panel showing God the Father in a robe of gold brocade and ultramarine blue.  

The Albani Torlonia Altarpiece by Perugino,  c. 1490
The Virgin Mary was to be clothed in a garment of crimson and gold brocade and cloak of ultramarine decorated around the border "in the Byzantine manner".  The two side panels were each to contain four angels, playing instruments on one hand and singing on the other.  There were also to be some smaller panels, depicting the life of the Virgin. 

This is the sort of contract that a highly professional painter such as Perugino, Leonardo's contemporary and the teacher of Raphael, would have fulfilled without trouble.  Perugino would have created an altarpiece which was correct in every detail and a miracle of technical perfection.  But the Confraternity was dealing with Leonardo. 

       Like Michelangelo after him who cast away the Pope’s scheme for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and created a unique masterpiece for the world to wonder at, so did Leonardo abandon the conservative and doctrinally based subject matter that was prescribed by the Confraternity.  In Leonardo's hands the picture became extraordinary, both in setting and symbolism,  the subject usually being interpreted as a non-biblical incident, the Holy Family resting on the Flight into Egypt.

      The Bible tells us nothing of what happened to John the Baptist as a baby.  It does not indicate that he, like Jesus, lived in the town of Bethlehem where all boys under two years were slaughtered by Herod's soldiers. There is no biblical reason to think that his life was under threat.  Yet medieval tradition has it that the infant John left the Holy Land, guided and guarded by the Archangel Uriel and travelled, like Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, to Egypt. Tradition has it that the Holy Family met John and his Guardian Angel on the road.  This is the subject which Leonardo has chosen to paint and which was also painted repeatedly by Raphael and was treated both in sculpture and painting (minus the Angel) by Michelangelo.    In fact for a time, among Florentine painters the Virgin and Child and infant John was to become probably the most common subject of smaller works for personal devotion.  Leonardo’s rendering of this subject made an indelible mark on the history of painting.

The artist  

The Baptism of Christ, Verrocchio and Leonardo,
(c. 1470)
             Leonardo was apparently talented at painting from the time he was a child.  At fourteen he was taken by his father, the notary Ser Piero da Vinci, from their home in the small town of Vinci to be apprenticed to Verrocchio, a multi-media art tycoon who ran the most important workshop in Florence and could turn his hand to painting, sculpture, goldsmithing, armoury and design of all sorts. Very few of Verrocchio’s paintings have come down to us but those that have are masterfully designed, superbly executed and exquisitely detailed. One of his greatest works, the Baptism of Christ includes, according to the biographer Varsari, the left-hand angel painted by the young Leonardo, which, again according to Vasari, was so beautiful by comparison with Verrocchio's that the older master never picked up his brush again! The facts of authorship of the work are hard to determine, but close examination indicates that Leonardo may have painted far more than just the angel- the beautiful torso of Jesus and the background landscape also appear to be his work.

     Leonardo was a Florentine by training.  He knew about Verrocchio's angelic faces with limpid eyes and golden ringlets. As a boy he must have marvelled at Masaccio’s display of realism and three-dimensionality in the unfinished frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel. He would have benefitted from Brunelleschi's experiments in geometric perspective and Piero della Francesca's  studies of natural light.  He knew Fra Angelico's masterly compositions and majestically simple symbolism through gesture.  He would have seen Fra Fillipo Lippi's depiction of beautifully nourished babies adored by Madonnas and angels in detailed landscapes.  He also knew from his teacher Verrocchio's intense and beautiful statue of David, for which he himself may have been the model, the power of psychological insight. 

Leonardo was the contemporary of Perugino, painter of pious saints, renowned for their sweetness of expression; Botticelli, master of elegance and refinement; and Ghirlandaio, painter of fresco cycles of holy lives which were set in perfectly constructed interiors, bathed with light, and filled with portraits of his patrons, their business associates and friends. These three painters, along with Cosimo Roselli and his assistant Piero di Cosimo, had in the early 1480s received the mighty commission to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel, where in the next century Michelangelo was to paint the ceiling.  

The unfinished Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo, (1480-82)

           Leonardo had received a commission, documented in March 1481, to paint an altarpiece of the "Adoration of the Magi" for the main altar of the church of  S. Donato a Scopeto, with two years to finish it.  It was an ambitious work for which Leonardo made numerous small sketches and a number of detailed studies. The composition showed the Virgin and Christ Child at the centre of a square panel, seated in front of a hillock or rocky outcrop, and beneath a tree, surrounded by the Magi and their entourage, with the figures divided so as to place the most compositional emphasis on the Holy Mother and Child.  Behind them was to be a magnificent backdrop of landscape and decaying Classical architecture.  But the project so well begun was left unfinished and remains only as the few drawings and the outlines and tonal underpainting on the panel that was to be the finished picture. 

The team of Florentines had moved to Rome to work on their joint commission at the Vatican.  Leonardo also left Florence, not for Rome but north to Milan, to take up a position in the court of Ludovico il Moro, for whom he carried a gift of his own design, to be presented in the name of Lorenzo dei' Medici, and offer his services as musician, stage-director, set-designer, engineer and sometime painter.  

       The city of Florence was Leonardo's nursery, the hive of production of the thousand art works that surrounded him in his teen years.    He would also come to know of 
the work in oils of the Northern European mastersof Antonello da Messina's sometimes starkly realistic paintings, of Mantegna's rocky landscape settings and of the burgeoning use of intense colour and tonality in the works of Giovanni Bellini. (See page 20, plates 7 and 8)

Leonardo, more than any other artist of his age, was able to pull together all the strands of this artistic activity and weave them into a cohesive style of his own designing, revealing the patterns of his own particular passions- chiaroscuro, anatomy, geology, botany, hydrology and how the mind reveals itself through expression and gesture.

The subject of the Confraternity's altarpiece
      When the Confraternity commissioned Leonardo to paint an altarpiece, it is probable that they had heard of his fame but that they hardly realised quite what they were getting. Whatever Leonardo did, it was not likely to be what they expected. The first thing that he did was to chuck out the proposed scheme for the central panel in favour of something quite different. Gone are the prophets. Gone is the stable. The centrepiece has long been known for its most distinctive feature as the Virgin of the Rocks. As for the two side panels of four angels each, well, they simply never happened! The angels provided by Ambrogio's workshop are a pair of ill-matched afterthoughts. 

St Jerome in the Wilderness by Leonardo
da Vinci, c. 1480

     Leonardo's concept of the Virgin in a grotto is not an entirely new theme. In Medieval art the cattle shed in which the birth of Jesus took place is often depicted as being half cave, suggesting a womb. On the other hand, with the rise of Neo Platonism, it was common from the mid 1400s to depict the stable as being a rustic structure within a Classical ruin, thus showing the Pagan order being replaced by the Christian, and decadence giving way to faith. Moreover, the sight of rustic buildings nestling within ornate ancient architecture was once commonplace and may still be seen to some extent in Rome. (See page 20. plates 8 and 3)
      Leonardo tried out this theme in the unfinished work of the Adoration of the Magi, commissioned by the monks of S. Donato a Scopeto. He also tried out the grotto theme in his unauthenticated, but universally accepted, unfinished painting of St Jerome.
      Leonardo reproduces the St Jerome setting in the Virgin of the Rocks. This grotto is not the dry and cosy cave under the hill shown in Medieval Nativity scenes.  This grotto is deep and dark and wet. Mist hangs in the air.  The tumbled, precipitous and eroded rocks show a landscape in a state of flux, a subject that had fascinated Leonardo from his earliest days.  One of the clearest memories of Leonardo's childhood was of finding a dark cave in the Apennines and exploring it, despite his fear, because of his "burning desire to see whether there might be any marvellous thing within".  

The landscape, left,  the London Virgin of the Rocks 

The grotto in which the figures are placed has a sense that something ominous is looming. 
The painting contains a feeling of the might of God in Nature that is nowhere better expressed in Renaissance art than here. This is the world that the Lord created in Genesis, before the Fall of Man. This is the world celebrated in the Psalms by King David, a world in which the sea claps its hands and the mountains skip like lambs; a world in which Moses struck the rock and brought forth water and Elijah was fed by ravens in the wilderness.     

     But all this is not to say that the grand theme of classical antiquity is entirely abandoned. The altarpiece into which the painting was to be set was already in existence and possibly was right there in the de Predis studio where Evangelista was working on the priming and gilding. Unfortunately it has been destroyed. But there still exists an altarpiece created by Angelo del Maino, the son of Giacomo, which gives us an idea of how it may have looked. It is located in the church of San Lorenzo in Morbegno and is a large complex structure of approximately 5 metres in height and 3 metres wide having a painted Madonna and Child in the centre, large sculptured saints on either side where the angels may have been placed in the Confraternity's altarpiece, a relief above the central painting and a range of smaller reliefs below the major compartments. The pictorial scheme is set into an architectonic frame of a loosely triumphal arch conformation with columns, pilasters, cornices, arches and a wealth of sculptured detail. 

The Virgin of the Rocks, London

      To fully appreciate the concept behind the Virgin of the Rocks one must visualise the scene as being viewed through an elaborate classical proscenium and surrounded by rich ornament.  The grandeur of nature, the powers of empire combine to make a stage on which the Christ Child, master and judge of creation, God's perfect incarnation, sits in naked simplicity protected by his immaculate mother, conferring his blessing on the one who thirty years later will baptise him with water.
      Although Leonardo's painting with its phallic rock formations, womb like openings and misty atmosphere is a departure from the subject of the contract, he has not ignored the traditional attributes of the Christ Child's birth.  It is revealed in the flowers and plants that spring from the damp soil and rocky crevices. The narcissus in the foreground are the symbol of death and resurrection, the single flower in front of the Virgin symbolises the immaculate conception, the sword shaped leaves near the Virgin's left side remind us of the Biblical passage "Yea and a sword shall pierce thy breast also" which indicates the heartache of a mother who sees her child die. Behind John also are sword shaped leaves; he was to be executed by decapitation. 2.
      This is the symbolism of the painting that was put in place, more or less complete by Ambrogio de Predis in August 1508 in order that he and his brother's heirs might receive the payment of 200 Lira which was accorded them. It would be a wonderful thing to be able to see the Virgin of the Rocks in its setting, with the massive and ornate gilt structure rising around it, the candlelight glowing on the gold leaf and picking out the halos and the edge of the Virgin's robe and falling on the faces and limbs with their strong definition of light and shadow. Unfortunately it has all gone, the chapel, the altarpiece, the candles and the petitions that were humbly offered to the Virgin in front this painting.  

The Virgin of the Rocks,
      What remains are two centrepieces, very similar and yet very different. What is known beyond doubt is that the painting now in the Louvre was in France by 1625 and that the painting now in the National Gallery London was sold by the successors of the Confraternity to Gavin Hamilton in 1785. 
      How there happens to be two versions of the same painting and which is the earlier of the two are questions the answers to which are unknown and have been subject to much speculation.  In general it is considered by art historians that the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre is the earlier, that Leonardo sold it to a private client and painted the London version as a substitute. 

I am in disagreement with this opinion.  I believe that the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks which was in the hands of the successors of the Confraternity in the 1700s and is now in the National Gallery is the earlier work; that it was painted to fulfil the contract and that no substitution ever took place.  I believe that the painting now in the Louvre was painted by Leonardo at a later time, based on the original, to please a patron, almost certainly the King of France.  

Follow the page links as listed to discover why.

Next page:  2. Documented dates and facts 

1. The Morbegno Altarpiece (1516) designed by Giacomo del Maino's son Angelo.  Reproduced from: Jack Wassermann, " Leonardo da Vinci", Abrams, (1975) ISBN 08109 0262 1 
2.  A study has been done of the plants in the Louvre painting, which are quite different from those in the London painting. I am unaware of a detailed botanical study of the plants in the Virgin of the Rocks in London. 

Doc created: March 11, 2001, updated November 6, 2011