The Virgin of the Rocks
c1491-1508 by Leonardo da Vinci
The National Gallery
The Virgin of the Rocks is a beautiful depiction of a figure so often portrayed, and perhaps not always so innovatively. Though Mary is clothed in traditional blue, it is not the bright colour so typical in usual portrayals, but natural in its calling to the teals of the waves and sky that surround it, drawing its shadowy tones from the grey stone. The painting is full of natural formation; there is much attention paid to the detail of form and crevices of the rocks, they appear almost surreally realist, Dali-esque. The figures themselves mirror the stone’s hard realism in the cold marble of their faces; statue-like they crowd the Virgin, frozen still, almost ghostly in their pale white pallor. We are reminded of da Vinci’s translucent figures in Adorazione dei Magi (postcard twenty-one) which, though encouraged by their unfinished state, possess this slightly chilling, almost deathly, presence in the cold perfection of their beauty. The monotone colouring of the figures also reflects the rocks, tying them to the atmospheric darkness that dominates most of the painting. Only Mary, through her cloaking, is bright, with a blue that deliberately draws our eye back to the liveliness of the sea and world beyond. This is a subtle distinction of status, illuminating her but not overwhelmingly; da Vinci’s palette is refreshingly restrained, gold playing little part but in the delicate halo and creases of material beneath the cloak.