Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna of the Rocks: Painting Born of Nature


I've always loved Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna of the Rocks, probably my favorite of all his paintings in both of the versions that have come down to us, an earlier one in the Louvre and a later second one in London.  Both are from Leonardo's own hand.  I love the strangeness of the painting, that dark rocky landscape together with the beautiful figures in a beautiful grouping.  I love the very deeply felt emotional bond among all the figures, so unusual for a Renaissance painting of any region or period.  Celebrity didn't kill off the painting's magic as it did to the Mona Lisa.  Both versions of the painting are well preserved so we can be reasonably sure that we see Leonardo's own hand and not the ghost of a badly decayed and heavily restored original such as the Last Supper.  The ambiguity of the painting that so put off many of Leonardo's contemporaries only adds to its appeal for modern viewers including me.

When I finally saw the Louvre version in 2014, I was a little surprised at how small it is.  I expected a larger painting.  This panel formed the centerpiece of an elaborate multi-panel altarpiece.  I wonder just how visible it was in its intended position.

The painting shows a pious medieval legend of the meeting of the infants Jesus and John the Baptist in the Sinai desert during the journey of the Holy Family into Egypt to escape the murderous jealously of King Herod.  According to this legend (which comes from a variety of sources including a 14th century version by Pietro Cavalca popular in Italy in the 15th century), the angel Uriel took the infant John the Baptist into his protection and into the wilderness to escape from Herod.  The two children in the presence of their guardians met in the desert in a prefigurement of their meeting by the Jordan River for Christ's baptism.
Leonardo shows the Virgin Mary bringing the two children together.  They immediately recognize each other and acknowledge one another.  Leonardo made a very original and problematic version of the story.  The two children switched guardians making them difficult to recognize at first.  The Angel Uriel supports not John the Baptist, but the Christ Child.  Likewise, the infant that Mary brings into the circle is not her own, but John the Baptist.  The infant Christ blesses the reverencing child John the Baptist.  The lack of haloes and attributes obscures the identities of the two children even further, as does their positioning in the picture.  How very unusual to place the Christ Child in the lowest position in the figure group causing him to look up at John.   The Angel points not to Christ but to John.  John's gesture leads our attention right back to the blessing Christ Child.  The gestures and gazes take us all around the small figure group drawn together by shared affection.  
Leonardo conceives of a wilderness that is like no literal place on earth.  Weird rock formations seem to defy gravity with their arches and pinnacles.  Mist obscures the most distant peaks in a darkening twilight setting.  Plant life springs everywhere directly from the rocks.

There was nothing else quite like the Madonna of the Rocks anywhere in Europe at the time.  It may have been too new for the Confraternity that commissioned it.  Surviving records indicate that they were not happy with the painting.  Leonardo made The Madonna of the Rocks the most complete expression to date of the revolution he created in painting, a revolution that would start the High Renaissance.  Leonardo believed that the Italian Renaissance revolution begun by Brunelleschi, Donatello, Alberti, and Masaccio had run its course.  The revolution became the establishment.  Instead of opening new possibilities, it had become a cul-de-sac of self-reference instead of finding new inspiration in experience.  Leonardo was not alone in this view.  Botticelli came to the same conclusion but found a different solution in archaism, in going back to the pre-Renaissance late Gothic past of artifice and romance.  Leonardo decided to make a different future for art and for so much human enterprise.  We can see the contrast between convention and Leonardo's invention when we look at a painting that is almost exactly contemporary with the Madonna of the Rocks.  Domenico Ghirlandaio painted this altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with Saints in 1483 for the church of San Giusto, the same year Leonardo began painting the Madonna of the Rocks.

In the crowded galleries of the Uffizi, we can see this supreme example of the popular conventional style of Florentine painting by Ghirlandaio.  It's a splendid painting, the Madonna and Child enthroned like a queen with her royal infant on the center axis as the object of prayers flanked on either side by two archangels and two sainted bishops kneeling in the foreground.  Other angels attend her throne.  The Florentine sunshine fills this painting giving everything in it a crisp clarity including the brilliant local colors, reds, yellows, greens, and blues.  Ghirlandaio created for us a beautiful example of everything we still value in Quattrocento Florentine painting, clarity, harmony, brilliance, exactitude, liveliness with a tone of serene happiness.  We feel a joyous satisfaction in knowing our precise proximity to each of these divine figures and in our ability to see and potentially to grasp everything in the painting.

Ghirlandaio uses line, chiaroscuro, and color to create as clear a sense of form as possible for each and everything in the painting.  We see every hair on the saint's beard, every furrow in his brow, every fold in his sleeve, and every pearl in his miter clearly and distinctly.  The contours separating things are firm and inviolate.

Leonardo does something very different with the figures in his painting of the Madonna of the Rocks. Leonardo emphasizes what draws individual things together over what separates them.  He looks for continuity throughout the painting, what joins forms and figures together.  Air fills the spaces between figures in Leonardo's painting.  Ghirlandaio's brilliant clarity begins to seem airless in comparison.  Light and shadow don't just describe three dimensional form.  They tie the whole painting together in a single dramatic effect, brilliant reflected light emerging out of deep shadow.
Emotion and psychology join the characters in this painting.  They encounter one another and react each to each.  The Angel Uriel looks out at us involve us in their encounter.  Instead of a group of discreet individuals standing in attendance, Leonardo gives us a smaller group of individuals joined together dramatically and formally into a kind of lozenge shape sitting at an askew angle to the rest of the painting.
All of these things would become standard features of so much later High Renaissance painting from Raphael to Fra Bartolomeo.

The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned this painting for the altar of their chapel in San Francesco Grande in Milan.  The confraternity began in 1478 to promote the then controversial doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that Mary herself was conceived miraculously without sin to be the fitting vessel for the Incarnation.  Among the notable opponents of this doctrine were Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas.  The Franciscan order promoted the doctrine enthusiastically.  Another enthusiast for the doctrine was Martin Luther.  The Immaculate Conception did not become official doctrine until 1854 when Pope Pius IX declared it to be among the Four Marian Dogmas (Divine Motherhood, Perpetual Virginity, Assumption into Heaven, and Immaculate Conception) obligatory for all Catholics to believe.
The Confraternity in Milan sought to promote a then still unsettled doctrine by building a chapel in the Franciscan church of San Francesco Grande in Milan, commissioning a large and elaborate altarpiece including sculpted and painted imagery.  They commissioned Leonardo to make a painting for them to propagate this doctrine as well as keep it before their eyes to contemplate.

What in the world would the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception look like?  There was as yet no officially sanctioned or traditional imagery for this subject.
I don't know, but I presume someone chose the image for Leonardo.  The contract describes a very elaborate altarpiece with a lot of painted and carved imagery having to do with incarnation, sin, and redemption.  Many different artists worked on this with Leonardo, then still a young man thirty one years old, responsible for the central panel.  The surviving contract vaguely calls for an image of the Blessed Virgin with Her Son.  How much liberty the young Leonardo had or took with this commission remains unclear.

A subject that comes up very rarely in Leonardo's writings is religion.  When it does appear, it is usually in the form of scathing complaints about corrupt and cynical clergy exploiting the credulous.  Leonardo likely followed all the public pieties expected of him, but was not really very religious at all.  He didn't believe in much when it came to religion or patriotism.  Leonardo eagerly abandoned two important painting commissions in Florence to go work for the Duke of Milan, traditionally an archenemy of the Florentine Republic (an Adoration of the Magi for the Monastery of San Donato now in the Uffizi, and a St. Jerome now in the Vatican galleries; both paintings are unfinished still in early phases of execution).  Contrast Leonardo's skeptical indifference to such matters with Michelangelo's passionate engagement; the younger artist was deeply religious if not quite orthodox in his beliefs, and passionately loyal to the Florentine Republic

Leonardo did believe in one thing very passionately, and that was the authority of direct experience. "Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory," he said.  Seeing things for yourself and reasoning from direct experience trumped both inherited tradition and revealed religion in Leonardo's mind.  Leonardo rarely followed the
 Renaissance convention of invoking the ancients in his scientific and artistic writing to sanction his own ideas. Names such as Archimedes, Ptolemy, Galen, Apelles, and Xeuxis almost never appear in Leonardo's writing.  He always begins and ends with direct experience.  The nature that revealed itself to Leonardo's senses was not the traditional arena of discrete beings in a setting created all at once then left to live and procreate.  Nature revealed itself to Leonardo in strikingly modern terms as an ever moving ever changing web of dynamic processes.  He described the earth as a living being with the air as its breath, the water as its blood, and the rocks as its bones.  What fascinated him was not just particular creatures and things, but what joined them together, their processes of conception, birth, life, decay, and death, how their cycles of life shaped one another.
All of these ideas he would apply to the conception and execution of the Madonna of the Rocks with a result that puzzled his patrons.

Leonardo began with the basic premise of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception that it is a miracle of life brought forth out of non-life. And what is a miracle?  It is an intrusion of the divine into the natural order of things.  Leonardo reasoned that in order to understand the miracle one had to understand the natural order that it disrupted.  Leonardo believed that it was no longer enough for the artist to understand basics of optical science.  The artist must have some understanding of the workings of life itself.  And why is that necessary?  According to Leonardo, the work of art is much more than a mirror held up to the world, it is an entirely new creation.  The artist must have some understanding of how the forces of this world work in order to know how to credibly call forth a new world from imagination into material reality.  For Leonardo, the artist was much more than a higher craftsman plying a very specialized trade.  The artist according to Leonardo was more than what Brunelleschi and Alberti claimed, a partner with scientists and philosophers in the quest to discern truth.  Leonardo believed that the artist was not the equal of the scholars and poets but their superior.  For him there could be no higher calling than that of the artist bringing forth new worlds from the imagination.  In a paraphrase of a famous passage in Canto XI: 94-115 of Dante's Inferno, Leonardo claims that art is the true grandchild of God.  As God brings forth whole new worlds out of nothing, so the artist with his imagination, knowledge, and skill of hand can conjure whole new worlds into being in a painting.

The Immaculate Conception is about life appearing out of non-life by means of women, children, and procreation.  So Leonardo sets out to understand what is the nature of women, of children, and how does procreation work.

Leonardo asks what is the nature of women and children, and how are children brought into this world.

The Virgin Mother from the Louvre version of the Madonna of the Rocks

The Christ Child from the Louvre painting.  He appears credibly like a small child, but with a sorrow and wisdom that appears far beyond his brief span of life.

The head of the Christ Child in the Louvre version.  As in all of Leonardo's best figures, the Child looks with a focused gaze, sees, and reacts inwardly.

The figure of the infant John the Baptist in the Louvre version

Here is a splendid drawing of a young woman most likely from life for an earlier painting of the Madonna and Child.  Making such direct studies of actual young women for paintings of the Madonna and Child was unusual for the late 15th century.

A famous anatomical drawing by Leonardo showing the torso of a woman.  Leonardo invented medical illustration.  He dissected corpses to make his anatomical drawings.  In the days before refrigeration and formaldehyde, before antisepsis and vaccines, dissecting corpses was very dangerous.  The Church also forbade the practice.  Leonardo found himself summoned before church tribunals twice, once for dissecting the dead.  Church authorities ordered him to stop, but he continued anyway in secret.

What makes these drawings the beginning of medical illustration?  Leonardo's drawings are not straightforward renderings of filleted corpses.  He draws in order to understand what he sees before him, how things work.  He shows the torso of a young woman as if it is transparent.  We can look at her vital organs which Leonardo presents selectively.  We don't see their entire context.  He shows only a limited number with much more clarity and order than such things would appear in an actual cadaver.  Among other things, we see the liver and kidneys, the bladder and part of the uterus.  He cuts away part of the heart so that we can see two of its four chambers.  We see the aorta and vena cava, the carotid and brachial arteries, the trachea, etc.  

Another famous drawing of a fetus in the womb.  It's based on an actual dissection of a pregnant woman.  In years past when I taught art history, my students who were in the college's nursing program identified immediately what killed mother and child.  The child is a breach birth.  The fetus should be turned around pointed head first into the birth canal.  Instead the child was about to come out backwards killing the mother and suffocating the child.  Leonardo probably understood this.  The margins are full of his sketches trying to understand what he was seeing in the placenta walls.  
Leonardo tried to understand the process of life begetting new life, how the processes of conception and gestation worked.  These inquiries certainly affected the way he thought about the supernatural aspects of religion. 

Leonardo asks what is the nature of children.  How are they put together and why?  How do they move and react and why?  Above and below are two drawings that ask those questions.   In the drawing above made for a later painting of the Madonna and Child, he looks at the way small children are put together.  Their still developing bodies have fat that puckers and dimples the skin,  Their untried limbs are relatively short compared to their bodies.  Their heads a very large compared to the rest of their bodies.  Their crania are very large compared to their faces.  Human children do most of their learning in the first 7 years of life.  Their mouths and cheeks dominate their faces.  Babies are little sucking machines made to draw nourishment so that they can grow quickly.

In the drawing below, Leonardo sketches a small child playing with a cat, watching carefully how both move.  The clumsy aggression of the small child meets the dexterity of a mature cat.

Leonardo includes one being who does not belong to the natural world.  Angels are invisible spiritual beings.  Asking what the Angel Uriel looked like would be pointless.  So he makes a figure that shows the nature of the angel and what angels are about.  
Traditionally, angels appear as beautiful sexless beings in art and poetry.  An angel includes aspects of both male and female beauty.  Leonardo shows an unearthly beautiful being that is neither masculine nor feminine, but includes aspects of both.  He gives this intersex spiritual being an unexpected sensuality made more disquieting by the angel looking directly at us.  This is one part of the painting that the Confraternity probably found disturbing as this angel's gaze still disturbs modern viewers.

To create such a figure, Leonard returns to an ancient practice ascribed to the painter Zeuxis who according to Cicero made a figure of Aphrodite from the likenesses of five different beautiful women.  So Leonardo likely made drawings of beautiful young people from Milan.  Above is his magnificent sketch from life of a young woman looking back toward us in a pose that anticipates his angel.  There's not a single wasted line in that entire drawing.  I would say it probably took him no more than thirty minutes to make this silverpoint drawing.

Plant life fills this painting.  Flowers and plants spring forth from the rocks everywhere, another reference to a central theme of this painting, life out of non-life.  
Above is a detail showing iris, a flower identified with the Virgin Mary because of the sword shape of its leaves thought to refer to the words Simeon spoke to her in the Gospel of Luke, "And a sword shall pierce thy heart..."  
The other plant appears to me to be lily of the valley.

The detail above shows columbine, another flower identified with the Virgin Mary because of the deep blue color of some of its varieties.

Magnificently drawn and painted plant life springs everywhere from the rocks.

Among Leonardo's most beautiful drawings are those of plants and flowers.  He's interested in much more than botanical rendering.  The sketches above of violets and anemones shows these flowers in various stages of blossom and seed.  Leonardo draws to understand the process of plant reproduction.  Like most gardeners, Leonardo understands that flowers are sex organs.  Through flowers the next generation of plants is conceived.  

His red chalk drawing of a blackberry plant simultaneously blooming and fruiting.

A famous drawing by Leonardo of a wildflower still found in the northern Italian countryside known as a Star of Bethlehem.  Again, he explores as he draws the plant's growth and reproduction.

A Star of Bethlehem flower.

The rocks in the title role in this painting do much more than provide a setting for this story.  They are part of the story and the presentation of its meaning.  Much has been written speculating on the meaning of this rocky setting for the story and the Virgin Mary.  Martin Kemp suggests plausibly that the rocky setting may refer to the Song of Songs (2:14):  "O my dove that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice..."  Marian prayers and liturgies from that time are full of passages and imagery from the Song of Songs.  
I think that a couple of things are going on in this rocky setting.  First I believe Leonardo uses the rocks and plants to visualize a central theme of the subject, life out of non-life.  The rocks in Giovanni Bellini's famous painting of St. Francis in the Frick Collection in New York come to mind.  Plant life springs forth on a rock face behind Francis and from the stoney ground around him.  His vision of Christ quickens all life around him.  If you look carefully at the painting, even the cut branches used to create a fence at the mouth of the cave on Mt. Alverna where he lives begin to sprout.  I think it's possible Leonardo does something similar here in this painting.  As in the Creation and the Resurrection, so in the Virgin Birth, life springs forth from non-life.
Second, I think that the rocks and the landscape they form show Leonardo's conception of nature as a web of forces shaping each other, his conception of the earth as a living breathing being.  As Martin Kemp so beautifully writes about the Mona Lisa, the rocky landscape behind her shows the forces of life and nature that brought Lisa Gherardini Giocondo into being.  So I think something similar happens here, a very original demonstration of the central theme of the painting.  In the detail above, rocks, water, and air shape each other.  The ground may be rocky, but the air is full of moisture.  Mists composed of air and water obscure the distances in this painting.  The rocks rise sharply out of the earth.  The flow of air and water shape them and wear them down.

Above is another detail of the rocky landscape setting.

Leonardo made drawings throughout his life exploring this continuous cycle of forces, rocks, air, and water shaping each other.  He studied this with eyes shaped by ancient science and its Four Elements of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire and how they affected each other.  He saw the rocks and hills not as setting but as another living participant in the drama of the miracle.

A splendid drawing of mountain tops probably made from life.

A famous and magnificent drawing of a storm breaking in a mountain valley probably made from life or soon after in the Alps or the Dolomites.

Leonardo's splendid drawing of the movements of water.  That he created such convincing graphic approximations of fast moving water remains amazing centuries later.  Leonardo was a hydrological engineer and frequently hired as such to help control and direct an always precious resource.  He knew the physics of water very well.

Leonardo's conception of nature as a living breathing entity shaped his creation of a new way of approaching the conception and creation of a painting.

In much of the 15th century, artists thought of the painting as a stage upon which figures acted.  

Domenico Ghirlandaio prepared for a fresco in a cycle he painted for the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinita in Florence first as a stage set upon which he arranged figures to tell the story of St. Francis presenting the Franciscan rule to Pope Innocent III as clearly as possible.  From the beginning, Ghirlandaio thinks of distinct individuals occupying very specific places in a clearly measured out and defined space.  

Leonardo begins very differently by quickly drawing out the whole painting in a small rapid sketch.  Leonardo invents sketching as a way to conceive the painting as complete entity from the very start.  Above is his sketch for a now lost painting of the Madonna and Child with a Cat.  Out of furious strokes of his pen an entire painting emerges.  Leonardo thinks from the start about what connects figures and setting all together.  He draws the figure group first.  Individual figures emerge later out of that group.

Here is the reverse side of the same drawing of the Madonna and Child with a Cat.  He held the paper over a light and sketched out the same composition in reverse and began modifying it.  He adds big strokes of ink wash creating shadows that not only shape individual forms, but draw them together closer into the tightly composed group.

The famous Burlington Cartoon in the National Gallery in London, a large presentation drawing for a painting of the Madonna and Child with St. Ann that either was either lost or never made.  This splendid drawing that influenced artists from Raphael to Picasso shows Leonardo's new and original use of light and shadow.  Since Giotto, artists used the contrast of light and shadow to suggest three dimensions on a flat surface.  This drawing does that but so much more.  Leonardo uses sfumato, "nuanced smoke," to make a lighting effect that draws all the figures in the group together.  Brilliant light picks out forms from very dark shadow.  Leonardo makes sacrifices to keep that overall light effect, notably the missing lower legs and feet of the Christ Child.  Leonardo makes this drawing out of black and white chalks on blue prepared paper, thinking in terms of light effects even as he chooses and prepares his materials.

In the end, the vision Leonardo created out of all these new processes probably proved to be too new for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception.  The surviving records indicate that they did not like it.  Leonardo complained that he had spent all of the money given to him as downpayment to make the painting -- paying for materials and skilled labor -- and that the Confraternity delayed and doled out small sums for the final payment.  The Confraternity offered a final payment of twenty five ducats (gold pieces).  Leonardo replied in an implied threat that an unnamed collector offered him a hundred ducats for the painting.  Leonardo went though with the threat selling what is now the Louvre version of the painting for one hundred ducats to a French collector.  The Confraternity immediately sued Leonardo for breach of contract and he counter-sued the Confraternity.  The case went in and out of court for about twenty years.
Finally, a magistrate split the baby and said that the Confraternity broke its part of the contract with the insulting final payment, and that Leonardo broke his part by selling the painting to another collector.  He ordered Leonardo to paint another version of the same subject to fulfill the contract.  After almost a dozen years of alternately working and dithering in Milan, Leonardo finished the version we now see in the National Gallery in London in 1508.  The dimensions of the London picture are almost identical with those of the Paris version.  This is the painting that finally ended up on the altar of the Confraternity's chapel in San Francesco Grande in Milan.

Visitors before the London version of the Madonna of the Rocks in the National Gallery in London.

The London version in its frame, probably not original to the painting.  Napoleon demolished the church of San Francesco Grande and the Confraternity's chapel in 1806.  An English collector purchased the painting and brought it to London.

A recent lengthy restoration and examination of this painting put to rest the conventional wisdom that Leonardo left much of the execution of this painting to his shop.  The restoration revealed that Leonardo painted almost all of the painting, that the shop was only minimally involved.  Instruments revealed the beginnings of an entirely different composition underneath the one we see now.  He apparently quickly abandoned that idea for the painting that we see now that almost duplicates the Paris version.  I would guess that he probably did so on legal advice.
The painting almost duplicates the Paris version, but only just so far.  The Paris version is a creation of the young Leonardo, for all his innovations he's still rooted in his training in the shop of Andrea Verrocchio.  The London version belongs to Leonardo's mature work.  The conception and rendition of the Virgin and the Angel are much more assured and accomplished with a new richness and subtlety beyond the means of the younger artist.  Other parts of the painting such as the two children remain unfinished.  The rocky background looks a little wooden compared to the earlier Paris version.  The plant life looks less growing out of the rocks than arranged by a florist upon them.  Leonardo was tired of this painting and eager to be finished with it.  

As fine as the earlier Madonna is in the Paris version of the Madonna of the Rocks, this Madonna in the London version is breathtaking.  She and the rest of the figures in the London version are slightly larger than those in the Paris version and sit much more comfortably and gratifyingly in their arched frame.  The handling of the lights and darks, the painting of the facial features and hair, and the much more subtle and richly evocative expression are the work of the mature Leonardo, the artist of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. This part of the painting held the attention of the undisciplined and easily distracted Leonardo.

The Angel also held Leonardo's wayward attention.  The London angel may not be as provocative as the one in the Paris version, but this angel is so much more beautiful and accomplished.  The pose and expression remain focused within the group instead of out at us.  The awkward pointing hand is gone. Uriel turns smoothly and gracefully with their whole body to look at the infant Baptist across the painting.  The pointing hand becomes redundant.  The beautiful intersex face is much more refined and focused.  The curling hair is amazing.  The wings fit much more smoothly into the whole contour of the figure.

The Christ Child did not engage Leonardo.  I think it's still unfinished and inferior to the thoughtful and sorrowful Child in the Paris version.  The contours of the back remain indecisive, and I think he meant to do more work on the face and hair.  You can barely see the Angel's very unfinished hand -- it's barely begun -- on the Child's back.  

Here is a close up of the barely begun hand of the Angel on the back of the Christ Child.   Leonardo never got around to painting the left hand of the infant Baptist either.  I also think that the pallor of the figures indicates that the painting remains unfinished.  I could be wrong, but it looks like underpainting to me.  Leonardo never got around to applying red and yellow ocher glazes that would have warmed up their flesh considerably.  Color always played a bit part behind the drama of light and dark in Leonardo's work, but the umbers and the blues seem particularly heavy in this painting.

The plants in this painting aren't bad, but they don't have nearly the sense of life and growth of the plants in the Paris version.

The background distance in the London version is still wonderful and perhaps even more twilit and evocative than the distance in the Paris version.

The foreground rocks in the London version seem a little wooden in their clarity.  They too don't quite have that sense of growth in the rocks of the Paris version.

To be fair to Leonardo, I don't really blame him for being bored with this painting and for his eagerness to put it behind him.  An artist who so valued his independence must have felt this task of painting again a painting from almost 20 years earlier to be grating and onerous.  And he had to paint it with lawyers and a magistrate looking over his shoulder.  

The uneven quality of both versions in Paris and London reveal that great, wandering, and easily distracted mind of Leonardo that people found infuriating and landed him in court more often than most other artists in an age that was almost as litigious as ours.  Leonardo was one of those brilliant people who was much better at conceiving ideas than following through on them.  He left behind relatively few works of art, many of them unfinished.  So many projects he left behind unfinished from the great bronze horse for Duke Ludovico Sforza to the Treatise on Painting that survives mostly in disconnected notes for a book never written.  Many of his famous notebooks were originally loose sheets of paper lying around his workshop edited and bound up together by his secretary and heir Francesco Melzi after his death.  
And yet for all his mortal flaws, in many respects Leonardo blazed a path for the creation of the modern world more so than anyone else of that era.  From a flying machine that might have worked if built to ideas and conceptions about art that would deeply influence 20th century artists as different as Paul Klee and Marcel Duchamp, from inventions such as medical illustration to technologies still used in artificial heart valves, Leonardo remains indispensable to us.

A portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by his pupil, last lover, secretary, and heir Francesco Melzi sometime around 1515 to 1518 when Leonardo was quite old.  The great Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp among others believes that this is the most reliable portrait of him, that the unkempt old man in the Turin drawing made about 2 years before Leonardo's death in 1519 at age 67 may not be him.  

Sunday, December 26, 2021

The Sleep of the Infant Jesus


A hauntingly beautiful work by the Belgian composer Francois-Auguste Gevaert.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Nativity


Choir Screen fragment from Chartres Cathedral, 13th century

Fray Juan Bautista Maino, 17th century

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century

Jan Steen, 17th century

The Incarnation Portal, Chartres Cathedral, late 12th century

From the West Windows, Chartres Cathedral, 12th century

Pietro Cavallini, 13th century

Giorgione, 16th century

Hugo Van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece, 15th century

French Ivory, 13th century

Correggio, 16th century

Mosaic from Hosios Loukas, 11th century

Lu Hongnian, 20th century

Lorenzo Ghiberti, 15th century

Rembrandt, 17th century

Rembrandt 17th century

Attributed to Andrei Rublev, early 15th century

George De La Tour, 17th century

George De La Tour, 17th century

Ethiopian Gospel Book, 14th century

Caravaggio, 17th century (this painting was stolen in 1969 and has never been recovered)

Armenian Gospel Book, 13th century

Giotto, early 14th century

William Blake, early 19th century

Haitian artist, 20th century

El Greco, 16th century

Gustave Dore, 19th century

Robert Campin, 15th century

Stanley Spencer, 20th century