Tim Marlow on Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks

The art historian explains why Leonardo Da Vinci painted the same scene twice

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Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, mathematician, engineer, cartographer, botanist, inventor and all-round genius, but he wasn’t a speedy worker. In fact, he rarely finished a painting and consequently there are fewer than 20 surviving Leonardos, and two of them are virtually identical. Why?

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“The Virgin of the Rocks was the first commission Leonardo received upon arriving in Milan from his native Florence in 1483,” explains art critic Tim Marlow. “He produced this supreme, sublime painting as an altarpiece for a chapel but it seems the clients were unhappy…”

It’s believed that when the religious order of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception refused to cough up enough ducats, da Vinci sold the painting to a more generous sponsor. This first painting eventually found its way to Paris and now hangs in the Louvre.

It took Leonardo another 25 years to complete his original commission. This second version now resides in the National Gallery in London, where a landmark exhibition is about to unite it with the original for the very first time.

“It’s clear that the reason why Leonardo had to make two paintings was that the Confraternity didn’t think the first one worked; presumably it wasn’t obvious enough in the way that it evoked the idea of the Immaculate Conception.”

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And Marlow’s own favourite? “I love the otherworldly quality of the London one, yet part of me is also drawn to the wonderful darkness of the Parisian one. But I’ve only ever seen the two divided by the Channel. Can I let you know when I see them together?”