18. The revised dates

The National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks is a smoother, tighter, more formal picture than that in the Louvre. It has the appearance of something created by many hours of meticulous labour. This befits a work that was commissioned by a religious body and had a religious function.  Leonardo had not just himself and a wealthy connoisseur to satisfy, he had a committee. And that committee had high expectations. 

The painting in the Louvre Museum, on the other hand, has the appearance of a labour of love rather than of contract. It has a lightness of handling in the faces, the flesh and the hair as if the brush of the painter had caressed the surface, rather than working over it with care. It leads our thoughts in the direction of Renoir.  It is altogether a much more self-indulgent and sensually pleasing picture than the painting in London.

For many years the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery has been treated in a somewhat deprecating way as a derivative work, and inferior to that in the Louvre.   If, on the other hand, it is perceived as the original painting, then it is afforded its proper status, both within the oeuvre of Leonardo da Vinci and in the history of Renaissance painting. This re-evaluation is possible without detracting from the Louvre painting as a derivative composition, skilfully adapted for a different audience and with very different meaning.

The Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London,
1483 – 86,  with some later work

The Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery,  when understood as the picture done to fulfil the commission of 1483, no longer has to excuse itself in the light of a second work that is perhaps more attractive to modern eyes. 

In 1483, the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks was a radical and unusual solution to the handling of the subject.  The realism, within the formal context of an Adoration or Maesta altarpiece, is highly unusual.  The trapezoid arrangement of the figures establishes a dynamic balance and interaction.   The setting is a break with convention and conveys an unprecedented sense of the grandeur of nature that heralds Romanticism  and conveys a sense of awe at the God of Creation.  The use of light, showing a real understanding of the natural conditions within a real environment, is revolutionary. 

The National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks demonstrates, more than any other of the artist's works, Leonardo's unusual approach to solving pictorial problems.   It combines all the finest skills of Florentine painting with the brilliance of invention and passionate observation of form, expression and nature that are present in the artist's work from his teenage years in the workshop of Verrocchio when he painted not only the angel but also the brown mountain stream and the beautiful torso in the Baptism of Jesus.  The National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks represents all that was most innovative and remarkable about the man whose mind has continued to fascinate others for five hundred years. 

The Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre Museum,
1494 – 95

Nothing can detract from the second version, the Louvre’s Virgin of the Rocks.  It is exquisite beyond measure.  And moreover, it belongs to France.  It didn’t arrive there by a series of accidents, as the possession of someone to whom Leonardo had sold it, in order to pay the bills.  It was created for France.  The infant John the Baptist represents the hope and pride of France.  Not only the pointing hand of the angel, but the Fleur de Lys and the tiny violets make that fact more poignantly clear than any written documentary evidence ever could.

Copyright:  Tamsyn Taylor, 7th November, 2011 
Fleur de Lys