A new analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks reveals a hidden composition once abandoned in order to create a version of the masterpiece we know today.
The depiction of the Virgin Mary alongside infants Saint John the Baptist and Christ was painted using oil on poplar wood around the turn of the 16th century. In all, the painting measures about 190 centimeters (75 inches) by 120 centimeters (47 inches). Hidden underneath The National Gallery in London’s version of the painting are initial designs for an angel and an infant Jesus Christ portrayed in very different postures than how they appear in the finished painting.
“In the abandoned composition both figures are positioned higher up, while the angel, facing out, is looking down on the Infant Christ with what appears to be a much tighter embrace,” wrote The National Gallery in a press release.
More than a decade ago, an analysis of the Virgin’s pose showed that the composition of the painting had been changed throughout da Vinci’s production of it, revealing hints of other figures that were thought to have been a part of the original plan. These drawings were made with materials that contained zinc, a mineral that shows up in macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) scans used by experts to authenticate and research historical paintings.
“Why Leonardo abandoned this first composition still remains a mystery. The new research has shown how the second underdrawing, while aligning much more closely to the finished version, nonetheless displays his characteristic elaborations and adjustments from drawing to painting,” said the gallery.
Other subtle changes were observed in the painting, such as the angle of the infant Christ’s head, which instead showed a profile of his face, and the removal of some of the angel’s curly hair. As well, handprints can be seen from someone who had patted down the priming in order to create an even layer across the panel, likely and assistant although it could be the work of da Vinci himself.
Three separate panels were originally made by da Vinco for the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan, Italy, in devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary made at the turn of the 16th century over a 16-year span. One is currently housed in the National Gallery in London, which was probably made to replace another version now housed at the Louvre in Paris.
The National Gallery will be showing the Virgin of the Rocks at a multi-sensory exhibit across four rooms, allowing visitors to explore da Vinci’s research and view for themselves different compositions seen in the painting.
“By its very nature, much of the research we do at the National Gallery takes place in closed studios, laboratories and libraries. This is an exciting opportunity to not only share our innovative findings, but also to invite the public to explore and engage with what we have found,” said Dr Caroline Campbell, director of Collections and Research, in a statement.
The exhibit is open to the public from November 2019 until January 2020.