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Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452 - 1519)  Virgin of the Rocks  Oil on panel, 1495-1508  189.5 cm × 120 cm (74.6 in × 47.25 in)  National Gallery, London, United Kingdom
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Title: Virgin of the Rocks
Description:
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452 - 1519)
Virgin of the Rocks
Oil on panel, 1495-1508
189.5 cm × 120 cm (74.6 in × 47.25 in)
National Gallery, London, United Kingdom

The Virgin of the Rocks (sometimes the Madonna of the Rocks) is the usual title used for both of two different paintings with almost identical compositions, which are at least largely by Leonardo da Vinci. They are in the Louvre, Paris, and the National Gallery, London.

A very similar painting is in the National Gallery ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci, probably before 1508. Assistants, perhaps the de Predis brothers, probably painted some parts of the work. It was painted for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. It was sold by the church, very likely in 1781, and certainly by 1785, when it was bought by Gavin Hamilton, who took it to England. After passing through various collections, it was bought by the National Gallery in 1880.

In June 2005, infra-red reflectogram imaging revealed a previous painting beneath the visible one. This is believed to portray a woman kneeling possibly holding a child with one hand with the other hand outstretched. Some researchers believe that the artist's original intention was to paint an adoration of the infant Jesus. Many other pentimenti are visible under x-ray or infra-red examination.


On April 25 1483 Leonardo and the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis were commissioned by the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to paint a work celebrating the Immaculate Conception for their new chapel. The contract survives, as does much of the documentation the later disputes over it. There had already been a previous contract in 1480 with Giacomo del Maino, which had evidently not been completed; among the work stipulated in the second contract was the completion and gilding of various carvings for the wooden framework of the altarpiece (none known to survive). Three paintings were stipulated, a central Virgin and Child and two side panels with angels, described only in the earlier contract with del Maino. These panels are also in the National Gallery, with different provenances the main were painted entirely by the brothers de Predis, according to both modern art historians and a contemporary statement by the brothers in the legal dispute. 

All the work was to be completed by the Feast of the Conception (December 8) 1483, but this did not happen. At some later date the legal dispute began; the main issue being that the main painting was unfinished, and Leonardo had left Milan. Meanwhile the de Predis brothers had completed their portion of the work, and wanted payment. The dispute was settled on April 27, 1506, with the requirement that should Leonardo return to Milan within two years he should complete the painting, and receive further specified sums beyond those in the original contract. This appears to have happened, as a sum was paid to him in 1507. The surviving documentation casts no light on the existence of two versions, nor does it give any support to claims that the clients were unhappy with the subject or treatment of the paintings. At what point the first version was diverted, or if it was at all, remains unclear, and the subject of many theories. On stylistic grounds some writers, including Martin Davies, feel that 1483 is too late a date for the Louvre version; for the commission Leonardo may have simply repeated a composition he had already produced. natively, the Louvre version may have been painted for the confraternity soon after the commission, and then sold to another buyer.
The paintings seem to draw on a legend of the meeting between the baby Jesus and John the Baptist on the flight into Egypt. According to the standard interpretation of the paintings, they depict the Madonna in the centre ushering John towards Jesus, who is seated with the angel Uriel. Jesus is blessing John, who holds out his hands in a gesture of prayer. In the Louvre version, Uriel points towards John while looking out at the viewer. This gesture is missing in the London version. The London version also contains attributes missing the Louvre version, notably haloes and John's traditional cruciform stick. These clarify the identification of the babies Jesus and John. Davies says it is "not certain" if these are contemporary; they may have been added by a later artist.

It is generally believed that the Louvre version is the earlier work, because it is stylistically close to Leonardo's other work of the 1480s. The London painting suggests Leonardo's maturer style, but it is thought likely to have been painted with the assistance of other artists, perhaps the de Predises.

Both versions were painted on wood. While the Louvre version was transferred to canvas the original wooden panel, the London painting is still on panel. Several drawings can be related to the paintings, although Leonardo's authorship of many is doubtful. None amount to a full study for either version.

The geologist Ann C. Pizzorusso, argues the geological inaccuracies of the London version, unlike the Louvre version, mean it is unlikely to have come Leonardo's own hand.

In the novel The Da Vinci Code, written by the American novelist Dan Brown, it is claimed the earlier Louvre version contained hidden symbolism which contradicted orthodox Christian belief, notably the fact that Jesus is shown praying to John rather than the other way round (the novel implies that the baby at the left must be Jesus rather than John, because he is with the Madonna). It is also claimed that the Virgin appears to be holding an invisible head and that Uriel appears to be "slicing the neck" with his finger. For this reason the painting was rejected by the Church, and a second, more orthodox, version was painted.

However, historical evidence shows that these claims are completely unfounded. The Louvre calls this theory "far-fetched" and says "This powerful literary effect is a travesty of art history." The only significant compositional difference between the two versions (excluding the later addition of attributes) is the fact that Uriel no longer points. However this difference may well be explained by the possibility that the distinction between Jesus and John was thought to be insufficiently clear in the earlier picture because John is with the Madonna, and that the pointing gesture directed too much attention to John.

As for the painting being "too scandalous" to show in a church, Leonardo and de Predises actually wanted more money the church than had been originally agreed. The church agreed to pay a substantial bonus but not as much as Leonardo and de Predises wanted. So popular (not scandalous) did these paintings prove that some believe that a third version was painted, the one kept today in the Chéramy Collection in Switzerland.

In her 1967 book (published in English in 1985) Angela Ottino della Chiesa cites four paintings derived to some degree The Virgin of the Rocks: the Holy Family and St. John by Bernardino Luini in the Prado in Madrid, the Thuelin Madonna by Marco d'Oggiono in the Thuelin collection in Paris and the Holy Infants Embracing by Joos van Cleve in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. This image was much copied by Flemish artists such as Joos van Cleve and Quentin Massys - there is a small painting in Chatsworth by the latter. There is also a smaller copy of "The Virgin of the Rocks" (oil on wood) possibly by Joos van Cleve or his circle (private collection Berlin).

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Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452 - 1519)  Virgin of the Rocks  Oil on panel (transferred to canvas), 1483-1486  199 cm × 122 cm (78.3 in × 48.0 in)  Louvre, Paris, FranceLeonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452 - 1519)  Virgin of the Rocks  Oil on panel, 1495-1508  189.5 cm × 120 cm (74.6 in × 47.25 in)  National Gallery, London, United KingdomLeonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452 - 1519)  The Benois Madonna  Oil on canvas, 1478  49.5 cm × 33 cm (19.5 in × 13.0 in)  Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
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