By Ashley Burden
No figure of the Renaissance period is more recognizable in his work and thought than that of Leonardo Da Vinci. His devotion to portray and discover the world directly in front of him rather than conform to the classical values of his predecessors, led his art, engineering concepts, and scientific discovery in a direction that would come to define the works of those who followed him. One of the early examples of this new concept and a classic example of his non conformity to theological paintings that preceded it, is the Virgin of the Rocks, also known as the Madonna of the Rocks. There are actually two versions of this painting in existence today. The first is housed in the Musee du Louvre ( Louvre Musuem ) in Paris, France. This version is the earlier of the two (1483 to 1486) and is the subject of this analysis as it is widely accepted as the work of Da Vinci alone. The other is housed in the National Gallery in London, England and is believed to have been completed mostly by Da Vinci’s assistants due to many reasons including the inaccurate geological representations that likely were not Da Vinci due to his painstaking desire to paint the world in its natural and scientific state. Both versions depict the Virgin Mary, an infant John the Baptist, and infant Jesus and the angel Gabriel. The Louvre version is in good condition and stands as one of the best preserved of Da Vinci’s 17 surviving paintings.
Originally an oil painting on wood panel (it was transferred to canvas in the 19th century), the Virgin of the Rocks is tribute to Da Vinci’s creative genius both in its precision of features, both on the subjects and in the surrounding landscape, and its innovative use of shadow and softened lines to make the subjects prominent and defined. His use of sfumato, or a fine haze around the subjects, softened traditional lines used by his predecessors and gave a unique quality to the figures displayed.
The form, or visible elements of the painting, are intertwined with the focal area and spacial elements of the painting. These are pronounced contrast between the subjects of Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Gabriel against the gloomy backdrop of a created (apparently created from Da Vinci’s amazing creativity since it does not appear to be of any biblical or historical location) grotto and the use of precise scientific representations of the biological and geological features of the plant and background. The background of the eary and elegant rock formations lend to the name of the painting while the figures present are representations of the Immaculate Conception. The placement and action of the figures is example of Da Vinci’s non conformist ways. They stand against traditional locations in theological paintings depicting the infant Jesus in the left frame of the painting, while John the Baptist and Mary hold the more powerful and prominent positions of center and right. Analytical theory is that Da Vinci did this to portray the intent of the painting and its subject matter of Immaculate Conception, since Mary and John the Baptist are said to have been born without original sin and carrying the Holy Spirit. Further theory suggest that the placement of the figures in a pyramid form ( which would be copied by future painters due to its striking visual effect) suggest that Mary was conceived without original sin, whereas John the Baptist was washed of original sin upon encountering Mary and the unborn Jesus when Mary visited her sister Elizabeth who was pregnant with John. This gives Mary the powerful center focal point of the pyramid, John at a lower level , but still elevated above Jesus on the right and the infant Jesus on the left and lower point with the angel. This is countered by the gestures of the subjects which focus on the infant Jesus as the blessed and praised one.
The dramatic color contrast as previously stated between the background and the figures almost has them bathed in a soft light. This, coupled with the unique perspective that places the figures up front in a deep and dark background, evokes even more visual focus on the subjects and their actions.
My initial reaction to the painting is one of religious respect but confusion. I am sure this was shared by the original commissioners of the work due to the placement of the figures. We are taught to hold Jesus and God as the focal point of most things. However, after discovering the finer points and truly examining the details of the piece, I find myself riveted by the genius of its artist. He manages to portray deep relationship between the subjects and their interaction and place in religion, while giving prominence to many figures at once. The background and contrast leave you feeling almost like you are witness to a holy and special event. Yet it does not feel overbearing or overtly powerful. It is more of a comfortable and soft feeling. This piece is touching and powerful and I am glad I chose to look into it for this discussion.
Bambach, Carmen C. “James Kettlewell: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin Of The Rocks: The Subject Matter Explained.” James Kettlewell: Rethinking Classic Themes in Art HistoryRethinking Classic Themes in Art History. Web. 20 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jameskettlewell.com/virgin.html>.
Matthews, Roy T., and F. DeWitt. Platt. The Western Humanities. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007. Print.