15. The Metropolitan Museum drawings

The Immaculate Conception

A page of drafts for an Adoration,
 Metropolitan Museum,  New York.

The term "the Immaculate Conception" is used in several ways. Firstly, it pertains to the actual moment of Mary’s physical conception of the embryo that was to become the Christ or “God with us”.  The moment of this divine intervention is usually depicted in art concurrent with the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would conceive a son, as described in the Gospel of Luke.  In such paintings we usually see the Holy Spirit of God descending in the form of a flame-like dove.

As an extension of this, Jesus, as the Christ, or God made flesh, was that which had been immaculately conceived.  In other words the earthly person of Christ Jesus was "the Immaculate Conception".  It is in this sense that the paintings, both that drafted and those completed, represent the Immaculate Conception.  They do not represent the moment at which Jesus was conceived by his mother Mary.

Later a tradition arose that, in order for Mary to bear the Son of God, she too must have been conceived without sin and that she, like Jesus, must have remained sinless for the rest of her life.  Her sinless state was achieved at the moment of her conception,  by the process of God's absolution of the burden of the Original Sin (the heritage of Adam and Eve).  Both this tradition, and the Biblical  tradition were honoured by the Fraternity who commissioned the painting.

Developing the theme of the painting

It appears that the Confraternity commissioned Leonardo specifically to paint that moment at which Mary first looked upon her new-born son and saw in him the Christ, the one conceived without sin who, through his humanity, was to offer forgiveness and redemption to mankind.  This was the commission, but Leonardo’s mind raced on to a different idea.  What he ultimately painted was the meeting of the two Holy Children, the Christ Child and his cousin John the Baptist on the road to Egypt.

It does appear that Leonardo began as the Confraternity intended.  When we look at the face beneath the surface we see an eye gazing in reverence and love.  So little remains, yet the expression is clear.  This is the young mother, Mary, gazing in adoration upon the new-born Christ Child, one hand to her heart and the other flung out in wonderment and awe.

St Jerome in the Wilderness  (c.1480),
unfinished, Vatican Museums
The position seems strangely familiar. We have seen it before, in the unfinished figure of Saint Jerome, generally thought to date from the early 1480s, within the same period that Leonardo commenced work on the altarpiece.  But while the position, even the tilt of the head, is very similar, the expression and meaning of the figure is entirely different. Jerome’s gestures are about penitence and self-loathing as he gazes on a Crucifix, mourns and beats his breast with a stone.  Mary, on the other hand, is overwhelmed by love.

The subject of the Virgin Mary adoring the Christ Child was one that Leonardo painted and drew repeatedly.  He left us many sheets of drawings that relate to this subject.  Small devotional pictures of the Madonna and Child were the bread-and-butter of most artists’ studios.   Leonardo left several such paintings along with some more ambitious compositions of which the one that should have been his greatest masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi, begun in 1481, remained, like Saint Jerome, sadly unfinished. (See page 20, plate 9)

When we compare a draft of the Adoration of the Magi with the unfinished painting, it gives a picture of how Leonardo’s mind worked and how his artworks developed. In one study for the whole composition we recognise many elements such as the stairs, the arches, the horses heads and the posture of the Virgin. But in the final concept, the kneeling figure in the foreground took on an entirely different form and the Christ Child became much more dynamic. There are many small studies for groups and individual figures that seem to relate to this painting, as well as a detailed perspective draft. Collectively these images reveal how the painting evolved before the artist began to put it onto canvas. A similar process appears to have occurred with the Virgin of the Rocks.  

The drawings 

In the case of the commission of 1483 for a painting relating to the Immaculate Conception, the drawings which throw the most light on Leonardo s thinking are those on a single sheet in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and a tiny sketch in the Royal Library at Windsor, No 12,560.

The sheet of drawings in the Metropolitan Museum shows four variations on the theme of Mary adoring the Christ Child. None of the drawings is a final model for either the finished painting or the version that can be seen beneath it, yet all of them contain elements which appear to have contributed to both.

detail1. draft for an Adoration

In what appears to be the first image on the page, Leonardo has commenced by defining the arched shape of the proposed picture. (detail 1) He has set the subject within the stable, showing the beams of its gable fitting into the arched top. Mary dominates the space, filling the stable in the hierarchical manner common to paintings of the Madonna in Majesty. However, this is not a Maesta. The Virgin mother is kneeling, and stooping to adore her infant son, whose form is barely indicated. Mary, with her left hand gathers her robes clear of the baby, with her hand near her breast. Her right hand is extended over him towards the outside of the picture space, in a gesture of blessing or awe. The extended right hand was to remain a feature of the work, as was the symbolic gesture of the hand raised above the Christ Child’s head, although the two functions were later taken by opposite hands.

detail 2. draft for an Adoration

Of the four drawings, the central one may have been drawn second. (detail 2) The figure of the Virgin is more upright and more symmetrical.  While gazing at her infant son, who has now moved to the right of the image, she extends her hands above both Holy Children, as the infant John the Baptist bends forward in adoration.  The Christ Child raises his arm, the first sign of the blessing which is a feature of the final work.   The face of the Virgin has become a three-quarter view tilted downwards.  The  gesture of the extended arms of the Virgin is not one that is usually associated with Adoration images.  This particular piece of iconography has been transposed from paintings of the Madonna Misericordia,* help in time of trouble, and here given a new meaning which was ultimately to find its way into the finished work. (see page 20. plate 5.)

detail 3. draft Adoration 

 In the less-finished sketch to the right  of the page Leonardo has drawn the Christ Child in a very similar position to that of the central drawing, but with his head tilted to gaze towards his mother rather than at John.  Mary is in profile, both hands to her heart. (detail 3)

There are also on the page several sketches showing Leonardo experimenting with a number of different angles for the baby. (see complete page, above)

detail 4. draft Adoration

What is probably the last drawing on this page shows Leonardo developing a number of the themes. (detail 4)  The figure of the Mary is balanced like the central one, but much more dynamic, both in its action and in the formal qualities of its silhouette.  The drapery of the robe is stretched taught over an outstretched arm and droops in arcs and triangular swag at the front of her body, emphasising the stooping posture. The Christ Child, although in a very different position, presents his back to the viewer, as he is to do in the final painting.   The stable is no longer symmetrical and has an arched doorway opening onto a landscape to the left of the painting, where it is to occur in the final work. A strong vertical line has been set directly behind the figure of the Virgin, where it is to remain. One of the outstretched hands is now placed directly above the Christ Child's head in a gesture that is to take on great significance in the final work.

In a faded sketch on blue paper in the Royal Library at Windsor, we see the composition taken one step further still.   In this drawing we have a rough draft for the Adoration that Leonardo commenced and then abandoned on the panel that ultimately became the Virgin of the Rocks.

The composition is very close to the left-hand drawing on the Metropolitan Museum’s page of studies. (detail 4. above)  Mary leans from left to right, balanced by the hand that is stretch in an ecstatic gesture towards the edge of the picture. Her face is turned towards the child who reaches up his arms to his mother. Neither the Virgin Mother or Holy Child reacts with the viewer: they are totally wrapt in each other.  Leonardo is still working out the position of Mary’s left hand, which appears to have been drawn above the child but scribbled out. 

In the composition revealed beneath the London Virgin of the Rocks by the infrared refloctogram,  Mary has her right hand on her breast, and her head tilted up and sideways. The particular figure composition of the hand on the breast, and the head tilted so as to be seen slightly from below was to become a standard device that indicated ecstasy.  It appears to have been a fairly new device at this time, occurring in Leonardo’s unfinished St Jerome and also in the figure of the angel in the National Gallery’s Madonna and Child with Angels ascribed to Verrocchio and Lorenzo di Credi.  (As both angels are reminiscent of Leonardo's work it is possible that he provided a study for them) (See page 20. plate 4.) The angle of the Virgin's head in the infrared image indicates that the Christ Child was probably positioned higher in the composition than in the blue sketch.

The little blue drawing has a feature that was to emerge in the finished work.  The background is clearly a landscape.  Immediately behind the figures Leonardo has placed several trees, indicating that his thinking was to have a backdrop that was in two stages, the nearer objects screening the figures and providing breaks through which the distant landscape could be viewed.  In this sketch Leonardo has abandoned drawing the details of the drapery and in a few lines has blocked in the anatomy of the figure with mass, weight and tension.

Mary, from the Virgin of the Rocks,
National Gallery

All these images, the four on the page from the Metropolitan Museum, the sketch from the Royal Library and the composition beneath the present Virgin of the Rocks, when taken together, form a series that indicate that Leonardo was trying out a number of ideas for a composition.  We see, through this progression,  Leonardo playing with two distinctly different ideas as to the Virgin’s involvement. 

She is to be a central figure, either with arms outstretched and encompassing both the Christ Child and John the Baptist,  or else she is to be in a state of ecstasy and adoration.  Elements of both the ideas are interwoven in the Metropolitan Museum’s drawings.  In the little blue sketch, which is plainly derived from them, the ecstatic sentiment has won the day, and is to become the basis for what Leonardo initially drew onto the panel as his final composition. 

But it was not to be.  For some reason Leonardo abandoned this idea and returned to the composition at the centre of the Metropolitan Museum’s page.  In doing so, he also retained that hand which was held above the Christ Child’s head in the initial stable scene, as well as something of the elegance of the left-hand drawing.  The trees of the little blue sketch became a rocky cavern, and thus a composition was devised not quite like any that had gone before it.

* This iconographic detail, and its implication in making John the representative figure of humanity was previously noted by Clark, "Leonardo da Vinci, an account of his development as an artist", (1961)

Document: 4th November, 2005,  completed Sunday 6th November 2011
Copright:  Tamsyn Taylor 

Next page: 16.  A Royal Commission