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.
A detail from A Choir of Angels: From left hand shutter
c1449 by Simon Marmion
The National Gallery
Marmion’s angels are delicate and curiously stylistic considering the time in which they were executed. With gently understated faces adorned with soft reddish curls, these figures possess a realist beauty that removes them from any mould of religious painting. Their wings mount upwards to part in a decidedly raised and pointed fashion, scattered with glittering dust at the centre, while the folds of their tunics curl up magically like mermaid tails. There is something other-worldly about these figures, not just in their heavenly existence but in the air of mystery and fantasy that surrounds them. They are truly captivating of the imagination, illuminated against their dark and cavernous background, a distinctly shadowy interpretation of Heaven. It is no wonder that Marmion’s angels appear so luminous considering his usual commissions of illuminated manuscripts. A Choir of Angels was painted as part of the high altarpiece in the St Bertin abbey in Saint-Omer, northern France, and clearly possesses the traits of Marmion’s manuscript illustrations. Perhaps this is why his angels appear so delicate, considering the constrictions of his usual canvas. More than this, however, these angels possess a style that seems reactive against the Gothic spires they would have adorned, betrayed in the points of the wings, the linear curling of fabric and the honed ends of the thin horns the angels play. The style is curiously pre-emptive of Art Nouveau; Marmion’s angels sit almost like Mucha’s women in his distinctive posters (postcard 39): they are radiant figures, possessing both the viewer and that space that surrounds them. Marmion gives his angels a curious power — one that pushes past their depiction as adornment, celebrating their form and beauty for itself alone.
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.
Il Ritorno di Giuditta a Betulia
1470-72 by Alessandro Filipepi Sandro Botticelli
Out of the many Italian wonders in the Uffizi, this small painting is hardly one of the most famous. Small, it is inconspicuous in the centre of its often crowded room, yet it intrigues, if only for its author whose larger and more infamous paintings hang throughout the gallery. Even without knowing that this is a Botticelli, his stylistic signatures are evident throughout the painting. The serenity of Judith’s face summons that of Spring’s (postcard eleven); calmly flat and oval, it is pale and statue still. As the figure of Spring epitomised La Primavera, here Judith epitomises her triumph over Holofernes. She is un-brutal, placid even, yet beautifully in command: crowned, her hair curls in golden ringlets; stepping forward she is assertively in control, holding her weapon, lethal though it is, as an adornment of her command. Silvery, it curves to a delicate point, picking up the translucence of the slippery folds of her gown, billowing as they ripple in the breeze. Likewise, her maid determinedly looks forward, clutching her skirts, her scarves also caught in the wind, ironically mirroring those of Holofernes’ head. This movement drives both figures forward, captured as they are on their mission back to Betulia. The surprising calmness of Juthith’s attitude towards the task in hand is reflected in the colours Botticelli uses; the subtlety of the blues and greens dilute to a wash in the background that mirrors the serenity of its protagonists . Far from the myth of Spring where dark and fantastically vibrant colours dominate, here Botticelli adopts a peaceful backdrop for Judith’s courageous act.
Fifteenth-century, The Netherlands
The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries at the V&A
The Devonshire Tapestries date from a time when such magnificent hangings were made for the courts of France, establishing these weavers with a reputation and leading to requests from other royal houses – in this case, possibly the Countess of Shrewsbury who recorded in 1601 ’In my Ladies Bed Chamber: too peeces of tapestrie hanginges with personages and forrest work Fyftene foot and a half deep’. Regardless of their original ownership, these tapestries exude both wealth and royalty; vast, they cover whole walls with heavy, rich and textured colour — princely reds, regal blues and gold. Clothes are depicted in decadent folds, richly patterned, as their characters sit upon horses decorated in the same fashion. The tapestries read like a fairy tale, from the beautifully dressed figures to the castle on top of the hill; the enchanted forest, all quivering green and gold leaves, then creeps out from the black. Narrative is continued with the emotion created in these figures’ faces; the lone maiden is melancholy, eyes cast downward she holds her reigns cast aside, as the prince clutches his lover, hands round her waist, gazing tenderly. It is amazing how delicately and expressively the eyes have been sewn — a look woven finely in threads. Who could blame royalty for seeking out such scenes to cover their walls; larger than life, they
are enchanted stories to bewitch the room.
Adorazione dei Magi
Fifteenth-Century by Leonardo da Vinci
Adorazione dei Magi, The Adoration of the Magi, is interesting immediately because it is by Leonardo da Vinci. We have a lesser known work by a recognisable artist and what’s more it is unfinished, providing a wonderful visually-evident progression that allows an insight into the approach da Vinci took with his painting. It is intriguing to look at these sketched figures, half-finished ghosts, crowding the Virgin and child. The figures on the left are expressive purely for their linear features, as with an engraving, contrasting with the figures on the right, whose bodies are filled in. Their clothing and skin are filled with shadows, darkly painted, providing a deathly contrast to the warmth of the amber wash that dominates the painting. Of course this was not intended to be the finished effect, but that is no way diminishes the painting it gives us. The quality of the drawing is evident, and the orange glow, together with the architectural ruins in the background, give this painting a pleasing sense of archaic time, only encouraged by the figures whose changing depictions seem to evoke some sort of life cycle. This could be seen to be symbolised in the large central tree, whose solid body stands out in this painting of translucent beings. It is an eerie painting, the half-finished state contributing to the atmosphere; it would hardly be the same dense and complete.
Pianta della Catena, detail
Museo Firenze Com’era
A birds-eye view of Florence, if you have been to Florence, is not such an uncommon thing. There are plenty of places from which to survey the orange Tuscan roofs; Piazzale Michelangelo up in the hills, not to mention the cupola and bell tower of the impressive Duomo. It is interesting then to look at the city from the sky historically, as one is immediately overwhelmed by the fact that the view is not drastically different. The infrastructure probably varies and the city has spread with its population, but the amount of dominant buildings in Florence that date from the fourteenth and fifteenth-century is astonishing. The church turrets that climb here still watch over the city; the large palaces that line the main squares and streets are those of the notorious Florentine families. What our modern view now lacks is this snaking city wall, the buildings are not so neatly separated from the rolling Tuscan hills, dotted, as they are here, with their distinctive trees. What is evident from this picture is the city, like the hills, has been breathing in its valley for centuries; it is no wonder that it hides such cultural and historical treasures among its walls.