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Monday, January 13, 2020

Leonardo in Depth

Juxtaposing the two versions of Leonardo's masterpieces
allows us to peer into the artist's mind over a
period of thirteen years (1495-1508)
The next time you find yourself in a group discussing art, try dropping the word "synesthesia." Nine times out of ten, you'll be the only one in the room who has ever heard the word before, and almost certainly the only one who can define and understand its full meaning. Synesthesia is a blending or interchanging of sensory experiences. For instance, synesthetes might be able to "smell" or "hear" colors. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue would be a good example. Although the word is not commonly used, when it is, all too often it has been co-opted, considered ‘cool,’ and/or used as a kind of vague sensory metaphor for any and all aesthetic experiences much like OCD when used conversationally to describe any mildly neurotic behavior. As applied to art, which is virtually all-visual synesthesia points toward a broad yearning for a more multi-sensory experience. Museums survive on this assumption. They permit a totally immersive experience, impossible to appreciate from a distance or from a book. You’ve got to step through the door, past the frame, and do more than just look. Leonardo's two versions of Virgin of the Rocks (above) is an excellent example of synesthesia.
Virgin of the Rocks, (1495-1508), Leonardo da Vinci,
(now in the Louvre).
In Milan, 1491, a frustrated Leonardo da Vinci began his second attempt at fulfilling a commission he’d received almost a decade earlier. The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception had contracted him, in 1483, to produce an image of “Our Lady with her son...done in oil to perfection” as the center panel of a new altarpiece. Having arrived in Milan only the year before to offer his services to the Sforza family, Leonardo was eager to flex his talents. He was already famous in his hometown of Florence. But the work he initially offered, now in the Louvre, was rejected by the order. In 15th-Century Italy, contracts between painters and patrons were often very specific about the devotional content of the pictures. Patrons, not painters, decided what the image should be. At the same time, there was also great emphasis on the material elements of the image. Certain pigments, like ultramarine and gold were valued highly, and specified in the contract’s terms. By the later decades of the century, it was the artist’s individual skill which became prized, thus the emphasis on “done to perfection” in Leonardo’s contract with the Confraternity. This shift in the mid-1400s was seismic, and indeed paved the way for much of our value-system in modern art.
Washington's National Gallery encourages viewers to "absorb"
Leonardo, not just "look and leave."
However, during the years when Leonardo labored so intensely on these two works, patrons were still very particular about what they wanted to have depicted. And so the two versions of Madonna of the Rocks constitute a physical record of a genius talent working within the professional confines of his time. It’s not in the chosen content, nor in the picture as a whole, that we find the particulars of Leonardo’s unmistakable and unmatchable mind. It’s in certain details of composition, technique, and painterly code that we can "feel" his singular vision. Leonardo’s Madonnas are ideal in addressing this totally immersive experience.
Virgin of the Rocks, (1495-1508), Leonardo da Vinci,
(now in London's National Gallery).
The Virgin of the Rocks is sometimes referred to as the Madonna of the Rocks) are of the same subject, and of a single composition which is identical except for several significant details. The version generally considered the prime version, the earlier of the two, is unrestored and hangs in The Louvre in Paris. The other (above), which was restored between 2008-2010, hangs in the National Gallery, London.(I've seen them both.) The paintings are nearly 2 meters (over 6 feet) high and are painted in oils. Both were originally painted on wooden panel, but the Louvre version has been transferred to canvas. The two paintings show the Madonna and child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel, in a rocky setting which gives the paintings their unusual name. The significant compositional differences are in the gaze and right hand of the angel. There are also many minor ways in which the works differ, including the colors, the lighting, the flora, and the way in which sfumato (haze) has been used. Although the date of an associated commission is documented, the complete histories of the two paintings are unknown, and lead to speculation about which of the two is earlier. The two paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks, are the same in subject matter and in overall composition, indicating that one is derivative of the other. The two paintings differ in compositional details, in color, in lighting and in the handling of the paint. Both paintings show a grouping of four figures, the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, the infant John the Baptist and an angel arranged into a triangular composition within the painting and set against a background of rocks, and a distant landscape of mountains and water. In both paintings, Mary makes the apex of the pyramidal figure group, stretching one hand to include John and raising the other above the head of the Christ child in a blessing. John kneels, gazing towards the Christ child with his hands together in an attitude of prayer. The Christ child sits towards the front of the painting, supported by the angel, and raising his right hand in a sign of Benediction towards the kneeling John.
Compositional diagram, Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre version)
Compositionally, all the figures are slightly larger in the London painting than in the Louvre painting. The main compositional difference between the two paintings is that while in the London painting, the angel’s right hand rests on his/her knee, in the Louvre painting the hand is raised, the index finger pointing at John. The eyes of the angel are turned down in a contemplative manner in the London painting, but in the Louvre picture are turned to gaze in the general direction of the viewer. In the London painting, all the forms are more defined, including the bodily forms of the clothed figures. The rocks are painted in meticulous detail, while the forms of the background in the painting in the Louvre are all more hazy. The contrast between light and shade on the figures and faces in the London painting are all much sharper. The faces and forms in the Louvre painting are more delicately painted and subtly blurred by sfumato. The lighting in the Louvre painting is softer and appears warmer, but this may be the result of the tone of the varnish on the surface. In keeping with their conservative handling of Leonardo's works, the Louvre version has not undergone significant restoration or cleaning.
Angel musician side-panels by students of Leonardo (1490-95).
Two further paintings are associated with the commission: side panels each containing an angel playing a musical instrument and completed by associates of Leonardo. These are both in the National Gallery, London. The angel in red, is thought to be the work of Ambrogio de Predis while the angel in green is thought to be the work of a different assistant of Leonardo, perhaps Francesco Napoletano. In both cases the angel is standing in a grey painted niche. A reflectogram of the Angel in green with a Vielle revealed part of a painted landscape. The background of the Angel in red with a Lute could not be determined because the grey paint on that painting is thick and opaque. While it is commonly thought that the two angel panels were originally placed on either side of the central panel, an article published by the National Gallery suggests that they were placed higher up on the altarpiece.
Conjectural arrangement of the altarpiece images.


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