2019 is the 500th anniversary of Leonard da Vinci’s death. Special exhibitions abound. The Louvre has a blockbuster. We saw a small exhibition in Liverpool earlier this year. The National Gallery also has a special exhibition based on its own painting, the Madonna of the Rocks or Virgin of the Rocks.
After the Caravaggio and Rembrandt, I went to look at the exhibition.
There are two versions of the painting. One in the Louve, thought to be painted 1483-1486, is considered the first.
The one in the National Gallery, thought to be painted 1495-1508, is a copy, not an exact copy, and the National Gallery argues strenuously that it was painted by Leonardo himself, not an assistant.
The works are based not on a passage in the Bible but on a popular apocryphal tradition that imagined Jesus and John meeting by chance as infants while fleeing the Massacre of the Innocents (the execution of all male children in and around Bethlehem, as ordered by Herod the Great), decades before John would baptise Jesus as an adult. Clustered into a pyramid, the works’ four figures – Jesus, John, Mary, and the angel Uriel – huddle against a ragged snarl of soaring rock formations, perched beside a still pool that separates us from them. While scenes of the Nativity were sometimes depicted as taking place in a cave, and Kenneth Clark points to the existence of an earlier rocky landscape in an adoration painted for the Medici family by Fra Filippo Lippi, the setting was unprecedented and gave to the paintings their usual name of the Virgin of the Rocks.
The National Gallery exhibition attempts to recreate churchgoers’ original experience of Leonardo’s masterpiece with a mock-up of a chapel at the San Francesco Grande church in Milan, for which it was painted.
The first section is called the studio. In it a video show presents conservators’ recent discoveries about the painting including underdrawings beneath the surface of the work that depict an entirely different composition and highlights details including fingerprints on the cheek of the Virgin Mary, from where the artist, or one of his assistants, smoothed out layers of paint. The fingerprints have been captured in high-resolution photographs.
There is an interactive section demonstrating how Leonardo used his scientific studies to understand the effects of light and shade—chiaroscuro.
Last there’s a section where you can see the painting in a projected image of the church for which it was intended but has since been demolished.
This was quite a day full of art.