Two hundred and ninety three

The Virgin of the Rocks

Between 1483 & 1486 by Leonardo da Vinci
Musée de Louvre, Paris; National Gallery until 15th January 2012

If you can manage to queue in the wee hours for tickets to the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, do — and with barely a week left, be quick about it. A feast for the eyes is in store, as this exhibition reminds us of the sheer quality of beauty in da Vinci’s painting, as well as the brilliance of his inquisitive and scientific mind, shown in his remarkable drawings of the human body. One of the particular treats of this exhibition is the opportunity to see both versions of The Virgin of the Rocks; for those who have seen da Vinci’s later painting at the National Gallery often, seeing it face to face with its sister is both intriguing and beautiful. The later version, see postcard 82, takes da Vinci’s perfection of beauty through nature and the reflection of internal goodness to the point of surrealism, with crisp detail in the background of the Dali-like rocks to the cool alabaster of the Grecian skin of the stone-still figures. The earlier painting, begun some eight years before, is warmer and appears more natural, with a visual warmth glowing from Mary’s skin rather than the ethereal chill we see in the later. The figures appear slightly larger in the later painting, swollen perhaps with da Vinci’s intended sculptural three-dimensionality. In the earlier painting the group appear more like people, with softly dark golden hair and modestly coloured clothing — Mary’s cloak and dress in the later painting positively glows with the symbolic blue. The Angel in the earlier painting wears red, heated with the blood of life, that hides the darkness of her wings; in the later painting, the wings are much clearer — carrying the status of Heaven along with Mary’s halo (absent in the first). In the earlier depiction, the faces of all four betray a sensibility or perhaps the personality of their sitters, which has been hardened in the second. In the first, the infant John the Baptist particularly has an expression of childish innocence contrasting with the later where, for instance, the Angel’s face has the crisp and unlikely perfection of a classical and celestial beauty. What is made so brilliantly clear by seeing both paintings together is the dramatic difference of effect that can be achieved through approach. Compositionally the two are near identical, yet here we see each for its celebrated differences. Regardless of personal favourites, both are wonderful examples of da Vinci’s exploration into representation as he plays with his remarkable toys of visual expression.

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