da Vinci – Virgin of the Rocks (High Renaissance)

Location: Louvre, Paris / Artist: Leonardo da Vinci / Date: 1480 / Medium: Oil on panel

A somewhat unorthodox representative of high renaissance religious art.

da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks has more intricate meaning and structure than most simple religious depictions of Mary tend to have. Reading into the history behind it provides some interesting insights.

The Virgin of the Rocks is not as unique as the definite article in the title might imply. Two different versions of the painting actually exist—one in the Louvre, Paris, and another in the National Museum, London. The one I am examining is found in Paris, and this is the painting unanimously agreed to be by Leonardo da Vinci himself. The work in London, due to various stylistic elements, is under suspicion as being only partially Leonardo’s labour. If one examines the two paintings side by side (fig. 2, below), it is easy to see a flatter, less delicate style present in the textures, and the rough, uneasy shading that gives the entire painting a harsher, less pastoral feel (Louvre).

The entire purpose of this painting, after all, is geared towards the idea of Mary’s perfection and the harmony she embodies. The patrons of the painting specifically requested it for the purpose of portraying the Immaculate Conception, as they were a brotherhood dedicated to defending this very theological point and were celebrating the papal edict that made it into official Catholic dogma (Kettlewell). The prominence of Mary in the picture (as opposed to Jesus, who is off-center) is indicative of this very topic. (Note: the idea of the Immaculate Conception is, ironically, subject to a Common Misconception. The Immaculate Conception was Mary’s conception, not the divine conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. At the moment of her coming into being she was filled with the Holy Spirit and made perfect, or so the story goes). One can see this theme without having to look too far: the beautiful and chaste appearance of both Mary and the Angel next to her; Mary wearing her traditional blue, a colour denoting purity; and Mary is surrounded by soft light and falling water, both implications that she is gentle and undefiled by the harshness and uncleanliness of sin.

The medium for this message is the now-familiar scene of the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt, paired with the less-common situation of them resting in a grotto. While the larger story is not readily apparent from the painting itself, it is in fact based on a popular mythology of the time which told the tale that John the Baptist was carried by an angel to meet the Holy Family as they rested on the way, and there he paid homage to his infant savior (Kettlewell). Thus you have the two infants and the angel, as well as Mary—the center of the painting due to the nature of da Vinci’s commission as explained above.

Compositionally this is one of the most fascinating paintings one can analyse. Leonardo’s unique style bleeds through in many ways, from his soft, classical lines enhancing the naturalistic beauty of the subjects to the shadowing imbuing the entire atmosphere of the painting to the lack of haloes over the heads of the divine figures. None of these are necessarily unique to this painting, but the manner in which he blends his trademark stylistic elements is exceptional, even for da Vinci.

To pass over these for a moment, however, we should examine the most obvious feature of the painting’s composition: the triangular structure, an exceptionally subtle execution of a common method. The apex of the triangle is Mary’s head, with the orientation of the praying John and the pointing of the finger forming the base. Leonardo accentuates the triangle not necessarily with hard lines, but by forming clear interactions between the characters. This gives the painting a much more dynamic feel than it might otherwise have. Any static, slow, or heavy feel left over from Byzantine or Early Renaissance art is completely gone; even though the characters are mostly stationary, there is a world of action going on between them. From left to right on the base, John kneels to Jesus. From right to left on the base Jesus gives John a sign of blessing even as the angel points to John. From Mary at the apex two hands come down, one resting on John’s back and another resting over Jesus’ head.

The foreground of the picture has such a complex interplay of emotions and actions that it almost completely overshadows the background which, actually, has a great deal to it as well. It is almost the most impressive part of seeing the work, as Leonardo’s revolutionary use of aerial (or atmospheric) perspective is perfectly exemplified in the slowly fading, misty background.  The primitive, yet enchanting backdrop to the gentle scene is a perfect compliment to the soft, gentle spirituality that the foreground displays. Leonardo seems to have been attempting to capture the complete harmony that existed in Mary from the very moment of her conception, not only in the pacific expressions and soft movements of the foreground, but in the quiet beauty and solitude of the background.

This style of painting was not widely accepted in Leonardo’s time: religious paintings were typically brightly coloured, well-defined, and dramatic; the muted tones are opposed to most of the paintings that dominated the genre Leonardo was working in. He even strayed slightly outside the lines of his original commission, using only one angel rather than the four musical angels that had been called for (Kettlewell), and painting something that strayed outside the sharp, certain lines that most religious artists of the time tended to remain stolidly within.

Leonardo chose an odd moment to emphasise Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Why did he depict her on the road to Egypt with the infant John? Was da Vinci suggesting something about John as well? Was he merely looking for a convenient moment to show Mary in a different context? Was he looking for an excuse to paint one angel instead of four? We may never know. Da Vinci fulfilled his commission and was paid. His work spawned one copy, which may or may not have been his work, and the story since then has been a combination of historical evidence and anybody’s guess. The only certain thing about such a painting is that one needs to know almost nothing about it for it to have all the desired impact. It is a masterpiece, and regardless of the facts behind it, viewers everywhere have considered and will consider it a work of beauty for centuries.

Sources Used

“Work The Virgin of the Rocks.” The Virgin of the Rocks. Web. 07 Apr. 2012. <http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/virgin-rocks&gt;.

“Visual Composition.” – Essential Humanities. Web. 07 Apr. 2012. <http://www.essential-humanities.net/supplementary-art-articles/visual-composition/&gt;.

James, Kettlewell. “Rethinking Classic Themes in Art History.” James Kettlewell. Web. 07 Apr. 2012. <http://www.jameskettlewell.com/virgin.html&gt;.

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