Madonna of the rocks

(1483-1486; Paris, Louvre)
   Leonardo da Vinci painted this work for the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan and received the commission from the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. Two of his pupils and an independent sculptor were also involved in the project, which was to include side panels depicting musical angels and a sculpture of the Immaculate Conception to be placed either above or below the altarpiece. Leonardo's figures form a pyramidal composition with the Virgin in the center embracing the young St. John the Baptist and holding up her foreshortened hand in a protective gesture above her son's head. The Christ Child, in turn, blesses his cousin, the Baptist, while the angel on the right points to St. John and looks in our direction. The scene takes place in a grotto, a reference to the Holy Sepulcher where Christ was buried after the Crucifixion. The light that seeps through the rocks in the background denotes the salvation Christ will bring to humanity, made possible by Mary, the immaculate vessel who brought on his incarnation. Here, Leonardo adds a sense of mystery to the work by using his characteristic sfumato technique, while his interest in botany is reflected in the accurate rendering of the plants in the foreground. A second version of this painting exists (fin. c. 1506; London, National Gallery) that lacks the subtleties of the earlier composition, betraying the heavy intervention of assistants. The Madonna of the Rocks presents the poetic beauty for which Leonardo is so well known and reflects his keen observation of the nuances of nature and desire to replicate them faithfully on the painted surface.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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