John Mcewen com­ments on The Vir­gin of the Rocks

Country Life Every Week - - My Favourite Painting Katie Hickman - Katie Hick­man is a nov­el­ist and his­to­rian. Her new novel, The House at Bish­ops­gate, is pub­lished by Blooms­bury this week

Vasari placed Leonardo in the van­guard of the modern man­ner for his ‘force and bold­ness of de­sign, the sub­tlest coun­ter­feit­ing of all the minu­tiae of Na­ture ex­actly as they are, with good rule, bet­ter or­der, cor­rect pro­por­tion, per­fect de­sign and divine grace’.

This panel was painted to re­place an ear­lier ver­sion, now in the Lou­vre. The orig­i­nal paint­ing had been com­mis­sioned for in­clu­sion in an al­tar­piece by a Mi­lan-based Fran­cis­can broth­er­hood ded­i­cated to the im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion, but con­trac­tual dis­putes re­sulted in it be­ing sold to a third party. sci­en­tific anal­y­sis re­veals that the re­place­ment was painted over a sa­cred, but other­wise un­re­lated, picture.

The Lou­vre ver­sion showed Leonardo for the first time putting a group of fig­ures—vir­gin, mes­sen­ger angel and in­fant Je­sus bless­ing in­fant John the Bap­tist—in a com­plex land­scape. in the Lon­don ver­sion, the grad­ual tran­si­tion be­tween light and dark gives greater unity to the com­po­si­tion.

There is sym­bol­ism in the dark­ness. The writer sa­muel Lock, who died re­cently, iden­ti­fied the black hole at the Vir­gin’s core as a de­lib­er­ate glimpse of the ev­er­last­ing. This ac­cords with the then lack of an iconog­ra­phy for pic­tur­ing her im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion: that she was born of hu­man par­ents, but, by God’s priv­i­lege, con­ceived with­out the ‘stain’ of orig­i­nal sin com­mon to all mor­tals. Jeremiah (31:22) tes­ti­fied the sin­less Vir­gin as God’s first ‘cre­ation’.

Leonardo found par­tic­u­lar in­spi­ra­tion in Proverbs chap­ter 8, in which the fe­male per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of ‘wis­dom’ at­tests: ‘The Lord pos­sessed me in the be­gin­ning of his way… be­fore the moun­tains were set­tled, be­fore the hills was i brought forth.’ The Vir­gin of the Rocks, 1491/2–9 and 1506–8, by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), 741⁄2 in by 47¼in, The Na­tional Gallery, Lon­don WC2

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