Leonardo’s Versions of the Rocks

by Sarai David

Faculty mentor: Dr. Marjorie Och

Leonardo da Vinci’s two paintings entitled the Virgin of the Rocks, currently located in the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris, depict nearly identical subject matter in two different styles. Recent conservation confirms the authorship of the London version, allowing researchers to compare the styles of the two paintings. This presentation examines stylistic elements such as sfumato, chiaroscuro and compositional changes of the two paintings. It also considers the contractual requirements for the altarpiece and how those requirements may have influenced Leonardo’s stylistic choices. Finally, this presentation concludes that, in an attempt to create a cohesive design, Leonardo modified the style for which he is best known.

Leonardo’s Versions of the Rocks

11 Replies to “Leonardo’s Versions of the Rocks”

  1. Congratulations, Sarai, on a wonderful project and a really great presentation. It’s such a pleasure to be led so smoothly through this remarkable painting. I especially appreciated the care you took in making sure that we understood the nature of the original project and the surviving documentation on which that understanding is built–and the way the presentation handles reminding us of the dimmed lighting conditions in which the painting would have been seen. Great job! I wonder, too, how candle light might have picked out and flickered across those lighter faces to which you so rightly draw our attention.

    A few questions for you:
    –In the end, with all that was and is going on: were you able to travel to see either of Leonardo’s versions? And if so, how did that experience impact your project and understanding?
    –Do you have any sense of how this project for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan might have served the activities of the confraternity by which it was commissioned?
    –It looks as if either some surface damage or ‘ultramarine sickness’ may have affected the blue of the Virgin’s drapery. As someone interested in conservation of paintings, do you have any sense of how that area might have looked originally? Might that have changed the overall impact of the painting?

    Thanks again so very much and congratulations again on a great project and a wonderful presentation. Brava!

    1. Hi Dr. DeLancey! Thank you so much for watching, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

      1. I was able to go to both Paris and London to view these paintings before the pandemic began seriously impacting England, France, and the United States. I had read about how yellow the Paris version was and I was surprised, that in person, the painting doesn’t appear as yellow as it does in pictures. This includes the pictures I took. I also began to see how Mary’s face resembles those from the early Renaissance while the babies at her feet look more like the traditional Leonardo figures. Being able to see a vast collection of Leonardo’s work in the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition was incredibly helpful in being able to better understand how his figures differ from those of his students or contemporaries. It helped build a foundation for when I traveled to London to see the second version. The London version didn’t have the general blue hue to it that I have read about. The color composition seemed more balanced than it has been given credit for, but the colors were bolder than those in the Paris version.

      2. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find information on what kind of activities would have taken in the original chapel where the altarpiece was housed. It is my understanding that the chapel was built specifically to house this altarpiece but it’s unclear if everyday worship took place there or if it was reserved for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, I believe that the altarpiece would have been decorated, possibly in the relief scenes, to reinforce the legitimacy of their version of events: that Mary was conceived immaculately as well. Among those who believed in the Immaculate Conception, there was debate about how Mary had the ability to carry an immaculate child. The thought at the time was that she would have either had to been absolved of Original Sin after she was conceived, or she was also conceived immaculately as well.

      3. In reading the conservation report to help answer your question, the conservationists reporter that there was a dark modeled in between the azurite layer and the final ultramarine layer. They also mention that ultramarine blanching did occur, but it seems to have been covered as Leonardo made adjustments to the composition. I believe that if the ultramarine sickness, or the fading of the ultramarine blue, were no longer present then the blue of the fabric would be even more vibrant than it currently is. The additional vibrancy would make the fabric stand out in the low light setting within the church.

      I hope I answered your questions, but please let me know if you have anymore!

      1. Thanks so much for your wonderful answers, Sarai! I so appreciate the care you too in responding to my questions. I’m so glad that you were able to travel to both London and Paris to see the works in person. How exotic a trip like that one seems right now so I’m thrilled that you were able to make it.

        Thanks again for wonderful responses, a great project, and a great presentation. Well done!

  2. Sarai, I enjoyed your presentation very much. It was informative and well produced.

    My husband and I live close to Wahington DC and the Smithsonian. We miss our trips to the museums and lectures we have seen there during this time of quarantine. Your presentation gave us a nice diversion. We hope to get to London as soon as it’s safe and will look for this remarkable painting when we’re there.

    Best of luck to you, Carolyn

    1. Thank you for watching Carolyn! I’m glad I could give you a little diversion with everything that is going on. I hope you are able to get to London soon. It’s an incredible city and the art is beautiful.

      Safe travels and thank you again!

  3. Sarai, This was a great presentation! I had known nothing about this before I saw it and I thought it was very cool and interesting to see Leonardo’s stylistic choices!

  4. Congratulations Sarai! I thoroughly enjoyed learning about The Virgins of the Rocks through your brilliantly insightful presentation. Amazing work!

  5. Thanks so much for your wonderful answers, Sarai! I so appreciate the care you too in responding to my questions. I’m so glad that you were able to travel to both London and Paris to see the works in person. How exotic a trip like that one seems right now so I’m thrilled that you were able to make it.

    Thanks again for wonderful responses, a great project, and a great presentation. Well done!

  6. Sarai, congratulations. It was a pleasure working with you this semester on these paintings, and especially to talk with you about them in front of the London version!

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