Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6)

Like many such masterpieces Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks is a strange scene. It exists in two versions, of which the second, now in London and painted ten years later, is at left.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Leonardo, Virgin of the Rocks (1495-1508) National Gallery, London

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The earliest and best-known is in Paris. Although some critics have tried to read the image literally, it is difficult to do.There is no apparent narrative; the event does not occur in the Bible; and the location is obviously imaginary and inappropriate.  

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Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6) Louvre, Paris

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The Mona Lisa is similar. If it were not for the illusion of a sitter and our familiarity with the composition many more viewers would think the Mona Lisa a very odd picture too: she sits high up in a rocky landscape that is equally imaginary and inappropriate. 

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Leonardo, Mona Lisa (c. 1503-19) Louvre, Paris

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The similarity suggests, as Laurie Schneider and Jack Flam have argued, that Leonardo painted a visual metaphor in both pictures, not reality. His manuscripts often refer to rocks and water as the bones and blood of the earth and he describes natural processes as the movements and working of the human body.1 For Leonardo, the human body was nature in miniature thus they convincingly argue that each painting represents Leonardo's "pantheistic and anthropomorphic" conception of nature.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6) Louvre, Paris

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What Schneider and Flam fail to see, though, is that through these metaphors the cave becomes a representation of Leonardo's mind, a crumbling, ancient skull with two openings in the rear like the ocular orbits of the head, one more open than the other. They are the eye-holes of his mind though at this level we all share the same human mind. Filled with ancient and cosmic Wisdom, it is depicted as a prehistoric cave with Christ's birth representing the continual re-discovery of its divine essence. Leonardo knew Filippo Lippi's Adoration in the Forest (c.1460) well. It has a similar poetic theme and may well have inspired him. [See entry]

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks, Paris
Bottom: Detail of human skull inscribed by a phrenologist, Anon. 19th Cent. (Photo by Eszter Blahak)

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Other scholars have also seen creative processes at work in the Virgin of the Rocks. Frederick Hartt described the cave itself as “the womb of Mary” while Mary Garrard called Leonardo's Virgin “the generative mother goddess”2 This focus on generation and creativity fits with our own sense that most art in some way depicts its own creation.  Michel Jeanneret, a critic of Renaissance literature, has also said that many literary or artistic creations of the period “deliberately portray the impulse and labor that brought them into being.”3 In this painting we are inside the creative mind of the artist as it conceives the very painting we are looking at. At this level, the artist's mind and our mind are one since we all share a human mind which comes with its own in-built wisdom. Leonardo often uses doubling to convey mental reflection too. Here we see it in the Virgin's similarity to the angel and Christ's to St. John's. The two figures at right seem to be this side of a pane of invisible glass pointing to or blessing their mirror-images on the inside. Both actions, pointing and blessing, symbolize "painting". There is, of course, much more to be revealed in this composition but recognizing that we are looking at a metaphor for the artist’s universal mind (and head) in creative action is more than we knew before and a good place for you to start thinking about it too.

 

Notes:

1. Laurie Schneider and Jack D. Flam, "Visual Convention, Simile and Metaphor in the Mona Lisa" Storia dell'Arte 29, 1977, pp. 16-18

2. Frederick Hartt, “Mantegna’s Madonna of the Rocks”, Gazette des Beaux-Arts 40, Dec. 1952, p. 342; Mary D. Garrard, “Leonardo da Vinci and Creative Female Nature” in Peggy Zeglin Brand and Carolyn Korsmeyer (eds.) Feminism and Tradition in Aesthetics (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press) 1995, p. 345

3. Michel Jeanneret, Perpetual Motion: Transforming Shapes in the Renaissance from da Vinci to Montaigne, trans. N. Poller (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press) 2001, p. 3 

4. In shamanic cultures the mouth of a cave is the entrance to another world and the recently-deceased shaman needs to take a posthumous journey into the mountain to gain wisdom. Dante's journey is somewhat similar in the Commedia. For shamanic ideas, see Andrzej Rozwadowksi, "Sun gods or shamans? Interpreting the 'solar-headed' petroglyphs of Central Asia" in The Archaeology of Shamanism, ed. Neil S. Price (London: Routledge) 2001, p.75

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