9. The changes

    There are three more factors that support the logic of the argument that the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks is the earlier of the two, and that the painting in the Louvre is the derivative one.  In a comparison of the two pictures it is clear that the design is basically the same, except for two obvious changes, the face and right hand of the angel.  These two changes give a radically different and more dynamic character to the whole painting.  The other significant change is to John the  Baptist.

The beguiling pointing Angel of the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks
    Those who believe the Louvre painting to be the earlier describe Leonardo as altering the face of the attendant angel from the outward gaze to that with the meditative downcast eyes of the London angel. Likewise, it is commonly said that the pointing hand is "removed". It seems patently obvious that the process was the other way around. 

     The painting that Leonardo and the de Predis were commissioned to produce was for a fraternity with a very particular focus, the Immaculate Conception of Christ. The subject of that commission, an adoration of Christ, was in line with the specific dedication of the fraternity. The painting in the National Gallery fulfils the commission. The Louvre's painting does not. 

   In the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks, the attention is not on the Christ Child. The two details which constitute the major differences between the two paintings combine to form a very strong distraction away from Jesus and towards John the Baptist. The eyes of the angel command "Look at this!" while the pointing finger directs our gaze. Mary's gesture, which in the London painting places emphasis on the Christ Child, is interrupted and looses some of its significance. The Christ Child's blessing is also lessened by the commanding gesture of the angel. It becomes simply another factor that turns our attention towards John.

Why would Leonardo devise such a composition, for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception? Within the religious climate of the day where every possible nuance of Catholic belief was coming under scrutiny, would not the production of such an artwork invite suspicion and rumours of heresy? When the two paintings are compared, it defies logic to believe that Leonardo produced so eccentric a painting for the Confraternity, when the alternative painting clearly fits the bill perfectly. Are we really to believe that Leonardo actually designed the painting with those distracting elements, when a logical consideration of the commissioners, the commission itself and the religious environment in which the artwork was created informs us that it was not the case?  

The physical evidence for believing that the angel originally had her hand on her knee has been discussed. There is further evidence that these two changes were made in the creation of the Louvre painting and not the other way around.  

Study for the Angel in the Louvre
Virgin of the Rocks
There are a few drawings by Leonardo that are loosely associated with these two works. There is a page of small drawings in the Metropolitan Museum and a quick sketch on blue paper in the Royal Library at Windsor, which appear to be preparatory sketches for the London painting. A study of a kneeling figure turned at quite a different angle to the angel and a charming botanical study are sometimes linked to these paintings, but neither is directly related.  

On the other hand there are several drawings which are directly related to the Louvre painting.  There is an expressive study in silverpoint in the Royal Library of Turin of youthful face with the beguiling outward gaze of the Louvre angel.  There exists also a study of the angel's pointing hand in the Royal Collection at Windsor.    

How strange that there exists detailed figure studies for both these sections of this painting? The logical explanation is that Leonardo drafted the changes that he was about to make to the existent design, when he began work on the second version of the painting, that is, the Virgin of the Rocks now in the Louvre.  

    The pointing hand became a motif of Leonardo's later artworks. It also occurs in the cartoon of the Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John in the National Gallery and in the strange and discomfiting picture of John the Baptist in the Louvre. Likewise, the gaze of the angel challenges the viewer in the same way as does the gaze of the Mona Lisa and St John.  The veiled gaze in the early painting of Ginevra de Benci, on the other hand, looks self-absorbed and disinterested in the viewer. 

Study for John the Baptist
The third relevant drawing is a study of the head of a baby which appears to be a draught for the face of St John in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks. St John, in the Louvre painting, appears smaller and younger than the Christ Child, even though John was born some months before Jesus. There is, presumably, an explanation for this oddity. Is this drawing the likeness of a real child whose portrait was celebrated in this painting?    

The drawing is the same size as the the head of John the Baptist in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks and has been pricked so that the image can be transferred. When the drawing is digitally overlaid on the head in the painting the coincidence of the form is apparent. Details such as the precise curve of the eyelids, the position of the ear and the thinness of the hair with bare temples are the same. In neither the drawing nor the painting do the form and features coincide closely with those in the National Gallery painting. It is clear that Leonardo wanted the face of the child to be distinctly different from the face of the child in the National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks. 

If the painting in the Louvre is indeed the first and original version, then one must question why it is that Leonardo made detailed studies for those parts of the painting, and only those parts of the painting that differ from the painting in London.

The drawing overlaid on the head of John the Baptist
in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks.

Copyright:  Tamsyn Taylor, 2005, 2011 

Next page :  10Collaboration: the angels