Feb 242012
 

Madonna of the Rocks

The Virgin of the Rocks exists in two variations, one hanging in the Louvre, another in the London National Gallery. Almost identical in terms of composition and mood, the paintings differ in palette and brushwork, one displaying a more a naturalistic lighting and coloring, the other a more poetic and stylized, generally cooler (and blue) coloration. It may appear as if a different filter has been placed on the same image, creating or examining a change in mood.

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Madonna of the Rocks, Louvre
Leonardo Da Vinci
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In the Louvre version the angel breaks the fourth wall by making eye contact with the viewer and pointing at the proceedings. He engages the audience, acting as a mediator between the saints and the observer, and claims a dual existence in the surrounding physical and the meta-physical — quite appropriate for an angel. He initiates a didactic dialog, directing the controlled theatricality of the mies-en-scene to strictly religious channels.

In the London version the angel is the most inert, passive figure, sitting in a dreamy, reflective state; he acts as a compositional counterpart to the Madonna, their profiles and hair styles mirroring each other.

Comparison with Madonna and child with St. Anne

These pieces instill a restrained, even formal attitude – quite the opposite from the emotionally infused intimacy of Madonna with St. Anne. The familiarity and long established canonization of the depicted scene — essentially a variation on the “rest on the flight from Egypt” theme (and the immaculate conception according to wikipedia) — might have imposed certain limitations on the artist, as might have the client.

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The Virgin of the Rocks, London
Leonardo Da Vinci
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An interesting similarity transpires between the resting Madonna and St. Anne in the other painting: the former may seem like the replica image of the latter. Indeed, the virgin’s mother exhibits the most sober and contemplative disposition (in an otherwise outspoken emotive scene) that matches the overall mood of the “Madonna of the Rocks” piece.

Though the type of rocky landscape here is similar to the one depicted in the background of Madonna and child with St. Anne, it occupies more space, envelops the figures, and clearly plays a more central role. And then, the geographic origin of the scene itself suggests increasing landscape significance.

Composition

In two dimensions the group’s organisation adheres to the classic triangular shape. Arrangement in space produces a kind of crescent (John, Madonna, angel, and Jesus) whose semi-open geometry makes the viewer, facing the open side, the recipient of the projected meaning and overall impulse of energy. The crescent disperses and emits tension that builds up at the epicentre.

The Virgin lifts her left hand slightly, resting it on an invisible cushion, softly gesturing – as if pleading time to stop and everything that surrounds her to pay attention – in what seems to be a blessing for the child Christ. She appears to listen closely to her inner self, attuned to her soul, while performing the orchestrating move.

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The Virgin of the Rocks Detail
Leonardo Da Vinci
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It’s interesting to note the vertical succession of hands: first Madonna’s palm, then angel’s pointing index finger (in the Louvre piece), and third Chirst’s blessing motion. This cluster of gestures becomes a tripartite visual axis that counterbalances John’s clasped hands; it’s possible to visualize a triangle of which this axis marks the base and John’s palms (or Madonna’s right hand) mark the apex.

The Eponymous Rocks

The rocks accumulate heavily above and around the group, almost encroaching upon the saints; such landscape can be interpreted as menacing or as protective – or perhaps both. Blue toned mountains in the background not only absorb the light from the sky and the water, they create a color continuity between the group and their distant surroundings. In particular, the Virgin’s garment (especially in the London version) matches the color of the chain behind her, giving a literal tint to the painting’s title.

The brown clusters at the foreground, painted in a similar tone, pile up in an uncanny and fanciful conglomerate, as if in an upside-down pattern. The insistent, repetitive rhyhtm of their tops brings to mind the gaping, large-toothed mouth of a predator. The way in which the artist chars the stones — into smooth slabs that pile up close together to form a kind of staircase — remind of Giotto‘s similar technique. It’s not necessarily realistic, but it conveys a very “rocky” essence.

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Detail of the Head of the Virgin
Leonardo Da Vinci
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Eventually the landscape becomes an additional character, a pervasive, insistent actor that links the occasion to nature and the wordly in general.

Conclusion

The Virgin of the Rocks demonstrates a serious, deliberate mood, set off by equal measures of melancholy and religious ardour. There is no place for expression of love and regret, only contemplation about the mission ahead, and it importance. It eschews expressive close-ups and sudden movements, presenting a smoothly, calmly evolving course of events.

In these the pieces Leonardo da Vinci brings the art of painting to the threshold of High Renaissance. The serenity of the virgin and the dainty expressions of the children anticipate Raphael’s Madonnas (for instance, the Madonna of the Meadow); the composition, complex and layered, points to an inclusive and universal approach. The artist creates a complete world that’s as cautionary as it is fascinating, and as genuine as it is imagined.

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