Imaging Reveals Leonardo da Vinci Wrestled With the Composition of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’

Two underdrawings detected using high-tech imaging techniques show he altered the figures twice before painting

Virgin of the Rocks
The underlying sketches found beneath The Virgin of the Rocks National Gallery, London

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks is one of the art world’s most famous paintings, an image of the Virgin Mary with infant Christ at her feet being adored by an infant John the Baptist and an angel. But, as Sarah Cascone at artnet News reports, a new image released by the National Gallery, London, shows that iconic composition took some time to iron out, and that Leonardo sketched a very different version of the painting before beginning on the masterpiece.

Since around 2005, infrared technology has made the museum aware of an underdrawing beneath the six-foot tall, wood-panel painting. For the new project, technicians employed macro X-ray fluorescence—which detected zinc in the drawing materials used—as well as hyperspectral imaging. The results will be highlighted in a new exhibition called “Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece” scheduled to open in November.

Two previous compositions were revealed in the new analysis. In one of the compositions, the infant Christ and angel are positioned much higher up in the frame and the angel has Christ in a “much tighter embrace,” according to a press release. The second underdrawing more closely resembles the finished painting, though Christ’s head position has been changed and some curls have been clipped from the angel’s hair. Handprints in the primer used to coat the wood panel are also visible and likely come from one of Leonardo’s assistants.

The exhibit, designed by multi-media company 59 Productions, which put together the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, will be spread across four rooms. One will be a recreation of the San Francesco Grande church in Milan, the chapel in which the painting was originally displayed, to provide some context for the piece. Another will explore Leonardo’s research in light, shadow and composition and how his work in those areas informed the painting. Another room will spotlight the painting’s conservation efforts and the technology used to reveal the underdrawings.

This exhibition represents a fascinating new venture for the National Gallery, combining the most recent technical research on the Virgin of the Rocks with an immersive, enveloping experience, giving visitors the opportunity to explore Leonardo Da Vinci's creative process in making this masterpiece,” says National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi in the release.

The underdrawings just add to the mystery of the painting. The National Gallery's painting is one of two versions created by Leonardo over the course of a quarter century. The first version, believed to have been begun in 1483, hangs in the Louvre in Paris. According to the Louvre, it’s believed the first version of the painting was commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception for the chapel. That version, it’s hypothesized, was rejected by the Brotherhood since it lacked the normal iconography associated with the figures, making it hard to identify who was who in the work. Some scholars think that version was eventually acquired by Louis XII before ultimately making its way to the Louvre. It’s also possible Leonardo decided to sell this version to the Duke of Milan because he thought the commission from the church was too low. He then made the second painting, the one that hangs in the National Gallery today, to fulfill his commission.

In the second version, eventually installed in the chapel and now in the National Gallery, the colors are brighter, the figures are a tad bigger each has a halo. John the Baptist also holds his traditional reed staff, differentiating the naked baby from the infant Jesus. It was long believed the first version was painted almost in its entirety by Leonardo and the second version—which he was believed to have started in 1495 and not finished for 13 years—was largely painted by his assistants. But in 2010, after an extensive cleaning and restoration of the painting that revealed many details not viewed properly for centuries, many art historians changed their minds and are now convinced the vast majority of the work was painted by Leonardo himself.

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