In the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks, the Christ Child's hand,
delivering a Benediction, has been carefully blocked in, but left unfinished.
Setting aside the question of when the two side panels containing angels were completed, there is a petition from Leonardo and the de Predis of the early 1490s saying that the central panel of the altarpiece had taken all the money and that if another payment was not forthcoming, perhaps the work should be returned. This indicates that the Confraternity already had the picture in their possession. If the painting was returned, and ultimately one picture was substituted for another, as is accepted by many art historians, then money was a major reason. The Confraternity would have been most reluctant to part with their artwork on any other grounds. If money was the reason for taking back the "original" painting, that is, the one in the Louvre as is often argued, then the "replacement", that is, the National Gallery painting would have had to be a substantially cheaper version. But it isn't.
How could the artists have afforded to replace the Louvre painting with the very highly finished London painting without the funds to create the second work? It seems certain that the painting that was ultimately set in place in 1508 was the very same work that sparked the argument over money in the first place. The notion that the other painting was first delivered and then the two were swapped seems highly improbable!
There is a strong case to suggest that by the time of the first known petition, perhaps ten years after the delivery date specified in the contract, the Confraternity already had their centrepiece. If the painting had not been delivered, then rather than the artist petitioning for payment, the legal actions would have been going the other way, that is, the Confraternity, having paid their first 800 Lira, would have demanded the delivery of the work.
If, however, they had received the work, to the deadline in 1483, but not quite finished, and perhaps missing the side panels, then they might well have refused to negotiate the further payment, thus provoking legal action from the painters. The case for the early delivery date is supported by Angela Ottino della Chiesa who suggests that this petition to the Duke Lodovico Sforza was an extreme move and that it was probably preceded by negotiation of a more regular kind, the records of which no longer exist.* When the side panels were provided, they were not by the "Master". It is clear that ultimately Ambrogio did some finishing to the central panel as well, in order to get his final 200 Lira.
Despite the high finish of much of the painting, there are areas of the National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks that have never been completed. One is the left hand of the angel. Was this an oversight or was it deliberate?
The left-handed reminder
|The left hand of the angel|
Leonardo made great use of gesture in his paintings. Despite its deplorable condition, we can read the whole narrative of the Last Supper by a study of the hands. Jesus has his left hand turned upward in a gesture of acceptance, his right hand is turned downwards towards Judas, his betrayer. The right hand and the left hand were seen as having different functions. There remains today a superstition that if your right palm itches you will pay out money and if your left palm itches you will receive it. Can it be that in the Virgin of the Rocks, by leaving the left hand of the angel incomplete, Leonardo was saying to the Brothers of the Confraternity, "We have some unfinished financial business here?"
Another area of the painting which has been left unfinished is the right hand of the Christ Child - the hand that is raised in Benediction. This is a strange thing at a time when the creation of such a work of art was considered an act of worship and the artwork itself, by nature of its holy subject, took on mystical properties and liturgical function. This painting was an object of veneration that was destined, like countless icons and images before it, to be invoked in times of plague and strife.
One would expect that Leonardo or even a lesser artist like Ambrogio de Predis would have lavished much care on the depiction of that chubby little hand that is raised in so majestic and meaningful a way, as the sign of the Christ's power to heal, to judge and to save. But it was left incomplete, and with a mere suggestion of the light that touches the Christ Child's face and shoulder. So it was that after twenty-five years of wrangling, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception got, for its money, a most extraordinary and valuable artwork, but what one thousand Lire could not buy was the full blessing that it should have delivered!
*The Complete Paintings of Leonardo" L.D. Ettlinger and Angela Ottino della Chiesa, Penguin Classics of World Art. (1967)
Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor, Sunday, March 11, 2001
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