11. Collaboration: the flowers

A study of Star of Bethlehem and
other plants by Leonardo da Vinci
      If Ambrogio de Predis’s collaboration on the altarpiece went further than the provision of the two angelic musicians, on what part of the central panel did he work?   On examination, the whole painting of the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre shows a lightness of touch that would be difficult for a lesser artist to imitate.  It is obviously the more formally and tightly painted surface of the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery that would lend itself to collaboration in the minor details. 

      So what was it that was left unfinished and was completed by Ambrogio de Predis?  The answer to this lies in an examination of the non-figurative parts of the painting, the natural setting that surrounds the Virgin and two Holy Children and accompanying angel. 

      One aspect  of the National Gallery's picture that almost certainly indicates the hand of someone other than Leonardo is the painting of the flowers in the foreground.  At first glance the sprouting narcissus look very charming, and are reminiscent of a well-known study of Star of Bethlehem by Leonardo. 

Narcissus from the London
Virgin of the Rocks
       But on closer examination it becomes clear that each flower is as flat as a saucer, and while real narcissus all have six petals each,  many of these are very precisely painted with only five.  Moreover, the thick fleshy leaves with a deep central vein are nothing like narcissus leaves whatsoever.  The flowers behind these are something like alpine geraniums, but with over-developed stamens.  The beautiful flower, of pale pink colour, on a little shrub is not a rose or a gardenia or a peony, even though the blossom has a similar shape and the leaves are a dark glossy green.  The confusing thing here is the floral spike with buds on it, a botanical form that doesn’t occur on any of these plants. 
       There remains for consideration the strange purplish flower that is sometimes described as a “day lily”.  Whatever it is, it isn’t that.   Day lilies come in a great variety of shapes and colours, but they all have petals that are pointed rather than round, and, apart from the recent hybrids, they don’t have thick clusters of petals around the centre.  Moreover, the conical form of the pistil is nothing like that of a day lily, generally occurring only in very tiny flowers.   And the thick clump of leaves around the base is nothing like a lily. 

An endangered species? 

     The plant has also been identified as an aquilegia or columbine.  This cannot be correct either. Once again, the number of petals is incorrect. Although the full number of lower petals cannot be seen, it is clear from the proportion that there are six, not five, and that they are rounded, not pointed. The inner petals, on a wild columbine as against a modern cultivar, should also number five. Once again the pistol is oversized and the leaves entirely wrong. Moreover, the heads of wild columbine generally droop on their stem.

    When one looks at Leonardo’s botanical drawings, some of which appear to date to about the time of the commission, it is easy to identify the species.  There are violas, hellebore, narcissus, columbine and a beautifully drawn stem of lilies of the variety usually carried by the Archangel Gabriel on a mission.  One must conclude that Leonardo da Vinci was not the author of the flowers in the London Virgin of the Rocks.
       Once again, it must be kept in mind that the original commission did not go to Leonardo alone.  Collaboration is to be expected in the original painting. 

NOTE:  I may be being particularly obtuse here.  Perhaps I am failing to recognise some wildflower well known in Europe, but completely invisible on the Internet.  I have to confess that I hadn’t seen a fritillary until I was forty-seven.  Perhaps someone will assist me in this matter.   In the meantime, I will state, with tongue in cheek, that the “little purple flower” appears to come straight out of the pages of the   Voynich Manuscript.   

Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor,  2011 

Next page:  11. Leonardo and Geology