Text by Geoffrey Smith
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The first thing that one notes when viewing this picture is the very odd setting. The four faces seem to glow out of a dark and brooding landscape. The eponymous rocks are arranged like nothing in this world and the rock canopy does not obey any earthly laws of physics, otherwise it would surely endanger the continued existence of the sacred quartet. A break in this claustrophobic geology reveals a mountainous marine vista which, in a later century, might easily have found its way onto the cover of a science fiction novel set perhaps on a moon of one of the outer planets of the solar system. This other-worldly setting is no doubt a consciously non realistic backdrop for what is, after all, a gathering of holy and heavenly personages. But the rocks may also be a somewhat recondite reference to Mary’s impregnable virginity.
The Virgin sits, probably with some discomfort, in the rocky wilderness; the infant St John is partially enfolded by her cloak as she extends a solicitous hand around his podgy shoulders. Another artist has added the Baptist’s cross in an effort to dispel any confusion as to the identity of the two infants. The Christ child sits nearby supported by the archangel Uriel — a rare appearance for one of the lesser known celestial messengers.
This picture is one of two versions of the same composition, the other, earlier version being in the Louvre in Paris. Why were two paintings produced? Considerable documentation, generated by a very lengthy legal dispute, and the efforts of many eminent art historians have not produced a definitive answer. Suffice it to say that in 1483, Leonardo, together with Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis were commissioned by the Confraternità dell’ Immacolata Concezione in Milan to decorate and gild a recently finished wooden sculpted altarpiece and to paint panels which would be set into the frame. The central panel (now in the Louvre) and two separate images of angels (executed by the de Predis brothers) were probably completed in 1485 but the confraternity claimed that for some reason the commission had not been completed; the painters responded by maintaining that the central panel ‘done in oils’ was in fact worth more than the confraternity was willing to pay. The dispute was still in progress twenty-one years later when in 1506 arbitrators set a deadline of two years for the completion of the contract. The picture in the National Gallery is the product of this stipulation. The stylistic evidence appears to confirm that the Louvre version was fully completed in the 1480s so it is perhaps reasonable to surmise that the artists withheld this picture and possibly sold it, incorporating the London version into the altarpiece in 1508.
In any event the London version is essentially a replica of the Paris original (with some minor changes), and was most probably a collaboration between Leonardo and the de Predis brothers although the extent of Leonardo’s participation is disputed. However, it seems likely that, at the very least, the faces of the Virgin and the angel are the work of the master and it is these two elements together with the strange and mysterious surroundings which confirm it as a profoundly satisfying work of art. As Lawrence Gowing points out ‘the indisputable essence of great art is the mystery that is fated to remain unsolved’.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1507 Albrecht Dürer: Adam and Eve, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
c1508 Raphael: Madonna of the Pinks, London, National Gallery
1510 Albrecht Altdorfer: St George slaying the Dragon, Munich, Alte Pinakothek