8. The problems of balance

National Gallery
    The form of the clothed bodies in the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery suggests that they were drawn from life, while those in the Virgin of the Rocks from the Louvre were copied. Further evidence that the bodies in the London painting were drawn from life and are therefore the originals are found in the positions of the angel and St John the Baptist.  

    In both pictures the angel kneels on the left knee and has the right knee raised to lean forward slightly, with the left arm extended downwards and outwards to support the Christ Child who is quite dangerously near the rocky edge of a pool. 
   In the London painting the right hand of the angel can be seen, with the wrist resting on his (her?) knee. 

In the Louvre painting the right hand has been raised to point at John. This is the most major difference between the two paintings. Now, the London painting makes anatomical sense.  That right wrist which lies across the knee gives support to the whole upper body and allows it to pivot on its axis. Raise the arm, as in the Louvre painting, and the angel will topple over like Brother Obadiah in the Victorian parlour game.   

It is impossible to imagine that Leonardo started out with a model in a posture that could not be held, as in the Louvre painting. It is impossible that he made this his prototype and then cleverly resolved it in the second picture. This does not happen. It is clear that the artist started out with a figure drawn from life, but once it had become a drawing, on a two dimensional surface, then any change was possible at the hand of the artist and the real mechanics of the human body could be ignored.

John the Baptist

National Gallery
        John the Baptist is a similar case. Like the angel in the Louvre painting, John has a little problem with balance.

        In the London painting, he leans on his crossed staff, his traditional emblem.  It appears that this gilt cross was a later addition, along with the haloes.  Were they added by Ambrogio de Predis as part of his finishing of the work in order to get payment?  One thing is certain, they were part of the original design.   When Leonardo got a little chubby boy to pose for him as a model for John the Baptist, then that child posed with the staff, not without it, as he is shown in the Louvre painting.  

       To have posed the child without the cross would have been to defy the laws of gravity.  In the London painting, as the child leans forward, his weight is supported by the rod acting as a lever between the downward pressure of his arm and the upward thrust of his shoulder.  

       Take away that rod and little John the Baptist is left leaning so far forward without support  that, in life, he would fall flat on his face.   But again, once the figure had only a two-dimensional existence, any such changes could be made. 
There is no way that the figure of John could first have been drawn without the cross, as it is in the Louvre painting.  John's posture only makes anatomical and mechanical sense when the cross is there, as in the National Gallery painting.  But in the realm of a magical painted surface, it makes no difference at all. 

In both these cases the indications are that the National Gallery painting preceded that in the Louvre, and that Leonardo, in painting the Louvre version, made the various changes.  

Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor, 2001

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