Thursday, 10 November 2011

Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks: the real conspiracy

What is the mystery behind the two paintings that are the central works of the exhibition  "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the court of Milan" which has opened at the National Gallery London, until 5th February 2012?  The exhibition was inspired by the recent restoration of the National Gallery's Leonardo, "The Virgin of the Rocks".   The Louvre Museum has lent, among other works, its version of "The Virgin of the Rocks".  The two paintings of the same subject will be displayed together for the first time. 

detail of the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks

On the 25th April 1483, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned Leonardo da Vinci and two assistants to provide the paintings for an altarpiece for their chapel in the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. The commission was for a central image showing the Virgin adoring the Christ Child and several smaller panels.  Leonardo responded with a composition showing the Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and an angel set in a landscape of rugged rocks.

The mystery 
How there happens to be two versions of the same painting and which is the earlier of the two are questions the answers to which are unknown and have been subject to much speculation.  

What is known beyond doubt is that the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks now in the Louvre was in France by 1625 and that the painting of the Virgin of the Rocks now in the National Gallery London was sold by the successors of the Confraternity to Gavin Hamilton in 1785. 

The conspiracy
The two paintings are very similar but very different.  They are almost the same in form, and in composition. They differ in colour, in details, in symbolism and in the way the paint is handled. 

For some curious reason, although the Virgin of the Rocks which is now in London can be identified as the one that came from Milan, where you would expect the Confraternity's painting to be, and the version in the Louvre has apparently always been in France,  it is considered by art historians that the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre is the earlier of the two and constitutes Leonardo's original inspiration.  In order to support this theory, an elaborate hypothesis has been formed involving Leonardo removing the Confraternity's painting, selling it to a private client and painting the London version as a substitute. 

None of this is supported by documentary evidence.   In fact, all the evidence points clearly to the  London painting being the earlier by ten years, and the Louvre painting having been created for a very special client.  This is supported by the documentary evidence, the stylistic evidence, by basic mechanics and simple logic.   It is also supported by the clues that Leonardo left within the paintings.

Why do art historians keep supporting the substitution hypothesis?   Why do they go on dating the Louvre painting at 1483 and the London painting many (up to twenty) years later when the evidence of their eyes contradicts it?  

The real da Vinci code 
Leonardo was known to embed symbols within his paintings.  He put a juniper bush behind the head of Ginevra de' Benci because her name means "juniper".  (Gin is flavoured with juniper berries.)  He put a smile on the face of the Mona Lisa, not because she was pregnant, but because she was married to a man whose name meant "the jovial one".  It has even been suggested lately that Leonardo wrote his initials in the pupils of her eyes, so tiny that so far only one person has ever been able to read them.   

So what about the symbols in the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks?   The symbolism in the London painting is there for the Confraternity.  Very few people would ever notice it or read it correctly.  It has evaded the eyes of art historians for five hundred years.  The symbolism in the Louvre painting is so clear and so very obvious that anyone with a little knowledge can decipher it.  There is no mystery whatsoever about who the client for this artwork was.  

Why have art historians chosen for so long to put aside evidence that almost jumps out of the painting in its eagerness to be discovered? 

Perhaps it's a conspiracy! 

 Find out more about the signs and symbols at my blog:

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