Leonardo : Experience a Masterpiece – The National Gallery, London 2019 – 2020
Leonardo : Experience a Masterpiece – The National Gallery, London 2019 – 2020


At the age of five, Leonardo moved from Vinci to Florence where he spent a good amount of time in the surrounding Arno Valley, observing nature. This kinetic drawing of The Arno Valley is Leonardo’s first known artwork. Perhaps this landscape was the inspiration for “Madonna of the Rocks.” In April of 1483, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned Leonardo to paint The “Virgin of the Rocks” as part of an altarpiece for its chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. This painting was to be surrounded by four angelic musicians on one side and four singing angels on the other. A number of sculptured relief panels were to depict the life of the Virgin Mary. Leonardo was a student of light, and according to this exhibition an early adopter of chiaroscuro, though not as extreme as this device more identified with Caravaggio. I think he may have been trying to copy what he had seen in the observable world, rather than use it to dramatic effect. In the original painting, now in The Louvre, the angel on the right glances out at the viewer while pointing at St. John. This breaking of the “fourth wall” and the finger pointing upset the commissioners. He then painted the second version, which you see in this exhibition. Here you see infra-red reflectography stripping its layers down to the original drawing. Notice the impasto of the cross being held by The Baptist. Leonardo utilized oil paint, newly introduced to Italy, to create the Virgin of the Rocks, one of the great early masterpieces benefiting from this media in Italy. This allowed him to paint in layers, controlling each layer’s translucence, more so than with tempura paint. We now step back into the chapel of San Francesco Grande in Milan. In 1576 the altarpiece was removed from the chapel, which was demolished. Here is a reimagining of what the alter would have looked like. Leonardo is the first Italian Renaissance artist to completely abandoned halos. As in the original, he has painted a scene where all the figures interact through gestures and glances to create a unified whole. In the distance, the forms become less distinct as they get lost in a haze of fog, which illustrates his signature atmospheric perspective. Leonardo placed several figures in a basic pyramidal arrangement. His “Adoration of the Magi” was the first of his paintings to use this pyramidal structure. This would influence artists from Raphael all the way up to Gericault. Of course, Leonardo’s trademark sfumato (or smokiness) is one of this painting’s greatest attributes. And by elongating the portrait to ¾ height, he was able to use a pyramidal structure for our smiling lady here.

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