Artist profile: Leonardo – Madonna of the Rocks

Every month, I profile an artist that inspires my own art, in several segments.

both Madonna of the Rocks
Click to get closer.

These are both called Madonna of the Rocks or Virgin of the Rocks. The one on the left is called the Louvre version, because it is in the Louvre, and the one on the right is called the London version, because it is in the National Gallery in London. Although there are a few who disagree, most art scholars date the Louvre (left) version as the earlier one. They also say that Leonardo had the help of his pupils in painting the London (right) version, but made the Louvre version all by himself.

These two paintings have fascinated me for a while. Why are there two? Why are there differences between them? I think it’s The Da Vinci Code that gives the most intriguing answer: that Leonardo was commissioned by the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception to paint a nice religious scene, but one look at the painting’s confusing twin babies and pointing angel (Louvre) and they backed out of the deal – so Leonardo painted a second and less controversial version for them (London). That sounds pretty exciting.

But the prevailing theory is that Leonardo completed the first painting as the commission to the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, sold it to someone else instead, and then was like, “Oh crap, I have to paint another one! Help!” and voila, two paintings! I think that would make perfect sense, if only the two paintings weren’t so different.

Let’s look at them again and tally up the differences like it’s the weekday comics!
(Click here and here for bigger versions.)

both Madonna of the Rocks
Left: Louvre. Right: London.

Louvre version London version
background more hazy background more defined
low contrast (due to damage?) high contrast
warmer tones (varnish?) cooler tones
no halos halos
identities of babies unclear identities of babies clearer*
angel pointing with hand angel pointing with eyes
angel’s wings are dark (due to damage?) angel’s wings are light
angel’s clothes are green and red angel’s clothes are white, blue, & gold
angel’s robes over shoulder angel’s robes at waist
identifiable flowers made-up flowers

*I place a footnote here because the identities of the babies are kind of important. In the Louvre version, who knows which is Jesus and which is John the Baptist? At first, you’d assume it’s the baby that Mary is touching, but then he’s kneeling in prayer to the other baby, what’s up with that, shouldn’t Jesus be the one blessing people? BUT THEN the angel is pointing to him, AND THEN what is up with Mary’s claw-hand??


Seriously, what is up with Mary's claw-hand.

Even with the addition of a cross-topped staff to the baby that Mary is touching, the identities are still up for grabs. We’re obviously supposed to identify the baby with the staff as John the Baptist, but it still seems weird because why is Mary touching him? Usually she and Jesus are inseparable. And her claw-hand hovers over the other baby like she’s blessing him. And then there’s the angel, who is now looking at the baby with the staff like he’s more important than the other baby.

AND, what does the angel’s attention even mean? What if the baby that the angel points to/looks at is supposed to be John the Baptist? There’s the possibility that Leonardo preferred John the Baptist over Jesus (some people do). That would certainly piss off the folks over at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception.

I bet the real answer is that Leonardo just liked messing with people.

Thank you so much for reading this series of posts! I had a lot of fun writing about my favorite Renaissance artist.

Other parts in the Leonardo da Vinci artist profile series



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s