Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks revealed

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. Today I am gonna be talking about this astonishing Leonardo’s painting, the Virgin of the Rocks, explaining why it is considered one of the most inspiring and important Renaissance works of art.

We are going to do it analyzing the main features, but also some of the details since we cannot forget that Leonardo was a genius and anything in his creations have a specific meaning. As a consequence, we can expect some interesting surprises.

Virgin of the rocks (Louvre) - Leonardo da Vinci
ARTIST: Leonardo da Vinci
NAME Virgin of the Rocks
LOCATION Louvre Museum, Paris
YEAR 1483–1486
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 199×122 cm (78.3 x 48 in)
MATERIAL  Oil on panel

What we can immediately tell, even without being an art expert, is that the humans are in the center of the scene. That could sound obvious since the protagonists are the 4 characters, but, if you pay attention, the canvas is actually mostly filled with the landscape and the characters kind of melt in it.

However, even with this setup, our attention is still on them and just after we look at the landscape. Before analyzing how that’s possible, we have to remember that this is exactly what happens also in other Leonardo’s works that you might know: the Vitruvian man and Mona Lisa. On both in fact the human is at the center of the scene as a metaphor of one of the main Renaissance ideas: the man at the center of the universe, finally with an active role after the Medieval time.

By the way, thank you because the videos are doing really well, the Vitruvian man in particular is getting a lot of comments and views every day. You can support this free art project on Patreon where I upload new art-inspired wallpapers and imagery every single week that you are free to download and use.

The Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci
The Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci

The two Virgins of the rocks

Back to our Virgin of the rocks, known also as Madonna of the rocks or Louvre Virgin of the rocks since Leonardo actually painted 2 versions: the earliest of the two is the one that hangs in the Louvre in Paris and that we are reading together today dated between 1483–1486, while the second hangs in the National Gallery in London and it is dated between 1491–1508.

The dimensions are almost identical as well as the scenes depicting child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist, an archangel and Mary of course (known also as Madonna or the Virgin) painted in a rocky setting which gives the weird name to the works.

Virgin of the rocks (National Gallery London) - Leonardo da Vinci
Virgin of the rocks (Louvre) - Leonardo da Vinci

The scene

Even if they look really similar, there are some differences, but for today let’s keep things easier focusing on the Louvre version that is almost universally accepted to be entirely made by Leonardo.

The most prominent figure is of course Mary who is embracing a child, who, be careful, is not Jesus, but John the Baptist who in fact is praying to the other baby painted in the act of blessing him. That is Jesus, held by an archangel, probably Uriel. “Probably” since there is still a debate among experts to identify that angel.

The story in fact relates to a non-Biblical event which became part of the medieval tradition of the Holy family’s journey into Egypt escaping from the town of Bethlehem where the Massacre of the Innocents was going to take place. According to the story, John the Baptist was escorted to Egypt by the Archangel Uriel and met the holy family on the road.

Mary functions as the top of the pyramid structure that we learnt in the previous videos is a very common scheme in many works. However, here Leonardo showed all of his talent since we don’t have just a simple two-dimensional pyramid or, better, triangle, but a real three-dimensional pyramid recognizable following the position of the characters. The consequence is that the characters filled perfectly the space, giving a sense of depth and realism. A perfect optical illusion that encourage our eyes to bounce from figure to figure making the whole composition magnetic. (click here if you want to learn more about pyramid structure)

Virgin of the rocks (Louvre) - Leonardo da Vinci
Virgin of the rocks (Louvre) - Leonardo da Vinci

The protagonist: Mary

But let’s focus one moment on Mary’s face, she is really young, beautiful and elegant. And her grace is evident on her arms’ posture, on how she shifts her shoulders and how she tilts her head, giving to her body a complex S structure. But who is she looking? If we pay attention, she is looking in the middle between the 2 children, almost distracted like a mom who has many thoughts. I mean, no offense for Mary, of course she is not just a “regular” mom, but the protective instinctive gesture of her right hand keeping close John is more of a mom than such an important religious figure. The left hand instead is doing something really different…


What does Mary's left hand symbolize? (The solution in the interactive image at the end of the post)

The mistery of the angel

And since they are divine figures, did you notice there is anything missing? Look in comparison to these other more traditional paintings: the aureoles of course.

It’s hard to say why Leonardo did it. In particular considering that, in the second version, the aureoles are present. In my opinion he wanted to give a more sense of reality to the whole scene, but this is still a mystery.

This personal opinion however is supported by the fact that even the angel’s wings are not clearly visible like in other works, even made by Leonardo, like the Annunciation visible in the picture below. Here in fact the wings blend with the natural environment around them.

But for sure we can tell that even the angel, whoever he is, is pure grace and beauty. And the angel, divine creature, is actually touching Jesus. Leonardo once again wants to make clear Jesus’ role and importance. Another mystery that experts are still trying to solve is why is the angel pointing his right hand at John and, even more, who is he looking at?

Even from Leonardo’s well-known and awesome sketches we cannot find an answer. But from them we can tell that he carefully planned not only John’s and the angel’s faces, but even some poses or the angel’s drapery.

Angel Gabriel detail from Annunciation
Annunciation (detail of Angel Gabriel) - Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s tricks

And Leonardo spent hours researching and designing even other details like the flowers and plants.

However, even the flowers don’t have vibrant colors like we would expect. They are really elaborate, detailed, but blended in the environment like the angel’s wings.

Reason? Once again probably to keep the attention on more important details, like the characters of course, but also to the rest of the nature surrounding them. In particular to the water close to Jesus and the river in background that possibly symbolizes Mary’s purity, but also the baptism of Christ by John that will happen some years later.

Not by chance, Leonardo created a hole in the cave to make that river perfectly visible. And also, let’s be honest, to show off one of his best skills: the use of the aerial perspective that allows to give a sense of depth amplifying the realism of the whole scene. Aerial perspective that is a technique he loved to use and we have seen it also in Mona Lisa (check the link over here and in the description if you missed the video).

Aerial perspective is strictly related to another great Leonardo’s skill: the use of sfumato. It is a painting technique for softening the transition between colors avoiding any use of lines and that creates trouble to our eye that struggles to focus on specific points or details.

Thanks to that, Leonardo has been able to simulate the air thickness, giving to the landscapes a real depth of field and an extreme delicacy and smoothness to the characters. As a consequence, the scenes look ethereal, mysterious and absorbing.


There is also a last contrast I purposely kept as conclusion. The name of the work is Virgin of the rocks, a cool name that could be the title of a movie or even a metal song. Actually, the contrast is not just on the name, but also on the warm delicacy of Mary compared to the cold crude rock. However, look how Mary’s drapery almost melts in the land, metaphor of her earthly nature. Just the yellow drapery helps to make the contrast visible and this horizontal section of the dress is a perfect bridge between Mary’s hands before reaching the top with her clear face, like clear is the small section of sky, representing god, visible on the top of the canvas. A last fun fact: originally the work was an oil on wood, but in 1806 it has been transferred onto canvas in order to preserve it. As you can see, once again Leonardo showed his great skills as a painter, but also his astonishing talent as a human able to read and replicate people’s behaviors and the secrets of nature. All those ingredients combined in the mind of a genius brought to unique masterpieces that we are discovering in our journey together. If you haven’t done yet, subscribe to the Youtube channel to enjoy the video with unique graphic effects. Thanks for reading
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