When the curators at the National Gallery in London, England, applied imaging technology to Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, The Virgin of the Rocks, they fully expected to see a sketch underneath. What they had not anticipated, however, was a drawing that was substantially different from the final masterpiece.
The researchers first detected tracings of the covered up artwork, which depicts the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, baby Saint John the Baptist, and an angel, in a rocky setting, in 2005. Though the artist's original sketch of the Virgin Mary, abandoned for the image in the final painting, was clearly visible, other figures and details lying beneath the paint were hazy. Now, 15 years later, improved imaging technology has finally allowed the team to discern the entire original sketch.
As it turns out, it was not just the drawing of the Virgin Mary that had been substantially altered. The artist's earlier design for the angel and baby Christ were also significantly different. According to The National Gallery's press release, “In the composition that was drawn first, both figures appear higher up, while the angel, facing out, is looking down on the baby Christ with what appears to be a much tighter embrace.”
The museum curators suspect da Vinci's decision to paint an entirely different image from what he started may have something to do with the painting's history. The original Virgin of the Rocks, completed by the artist in 1485, was intended to be an altarpiece for a church in Milan, Italy. However, after a dispute over the price, the painter decided to sell it to a private collector. That masterpiece, now referred to as the "Paris" version, sits in the Louvre Museum. The version owned by the National Gallery, is the second Virgin of the Rocks, which da Vinci painted for the church after they agreed to his financial demands. The British Museum believes the artist may have started on a new composition, but then for some reason changed his mind and decided to recreate his original version.
The National Gallery researchers say that in addition to the angles, the abandoned sketch also depicts the subjects in different lights, an example of the care and research da Vinci put into the physiology of human vision. Furthermore, the tests revealed a faint human handprint near the Virgin Mary's left eye and cheek in the final product. The experts believe it is the result of the petting technique da Vinci used to even out thick layers of paint. They are not, however, sure whether the impression belongs to the Renaissance artist or is that of one of his assistants.
The curators, who unveiled the recent discovery on August 15, 2019, hope to uncover further details as they continue investigating the painting. Meanwhile, beginning November 9, 2019, images of the hidden underpainting, along with the masterpiece itself, will be on display to the public in a new, immersive exhibit at the National Gallery titled, "Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece."
Da Vinci (1452-1519), one of the most prominent figures of the Renaissance periods, is regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time and a true genius. Born in a farmhouse outside the village of Anchiano in Tuscany, Italy, he was also a talented musician, inventor, sculptor, writer, and engineer. His most famous works of art include the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper — both of which have been reproduced millions of times.
Resources: www.nationalgallery.org.uk, livescience.com.