Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks – spot the difference

Why did Da Vinci paint the same scene twice? Tim Marlow compares the 1480s and 1508 versions...

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1. Crowning glory

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In the National Gallery painting Mary and the two babies — the infant Christ and John the Baptist — suddenly sprout halos. In the original, Leonardo perhaps considered the wondrous landscape and grace of the figures divine enough — not to mention the miraculous way the paint has been handled. Some scholars believe the halos were added at a later date.

2. Where’s the cross?

A cross appears in the London painting. It’s held by John the Baptist, clarifying the identification of the babies. John sits on the Virgin’s right while Christ sits in the foreground blessing, reversing the traditional hierarchy; Christ would usually be represented higher in the picture and more prominently than John.

3. Wings of desire

The cloak of the angel in the London painting has turned from red to blue and the viewer’s eye is now drawn instead to the stunning wings. You can see here Leonardo’s scrutiny of birds, his celebrated powers of observation. Up close the attention to detail is jaw-dropping.

4. Blue-sky thinking

If you look at the Louvre version, you see sky above and much more space in the foreground. In the London version, the space has been collapsed in the foreground and at the top. It’s like you’re in some kind of grotto or cosmic womb. The result is a kind of heightened, otherworldly supernaturalism.

5. Hands down

In the Louvre painting the angel is pointing clearly at John the Baptist: not in the London one. This may be because the Confraternity objected to the fact that there was too much focus on John the Baptist rather than Christ in the painting. Christ is given more prominence in the second composition.

6. Clean bill of health

The National Gallery version recently underwent an 18-month restoration, illuminating the dramatic contrast between dark and light and giving a much better sense of Leonardo’s vivid palette.

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Tim Marlow presents Leonardo Live on Sky Arts 1 at 7pm.