Hidden Drawing Discovered Under 500-Year-Old Leonardo Da Vinci Masterpiece

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The National Gallery found an underdrawing hidden behind Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks (Credit: National Gallery)

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.”

New cutting-edge technology revealed Leonardo da Vinci's original sketch for the painting (National Gallery)

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.

Leonardo da Vinci's two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks have slight variations. The original referred to as the "Paris" version (left) and the London version painted about ten years later (right).

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.

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216 Comments
  • l78
    l78Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 8:56 am
    That's cooooollllllldddd! (As in 500 Yrs)
    • tylee
      tyleeFriday, March 6, 2020 at 5:42 am
      I wonder why she covered the 1 image up with a different image of her.
      • rand
        randThursday, March 12, 2020 at 4:37 pm
        he was a perfectionist
      • kylameha-157988280449
        kylameha-157988280449Wednesday, January 29, 2020 at 8:23 am
        Thats kinda wierd
        • cookiess
          cookiessThursday, January 23, 2020 at 3:52 pm
          OMG this so creepy well kind of...
          • mile42
            mile42Tuesday, December 17, 2019 at 2:48 pm
            The artist made tuns of his paintings with lots of hidden meanings.
            • bri6657
              bri6657Thursday, November 28, 2019 at 6:23 am
              i'm not being negetive but don't you think that this is kinda creepy?
              • pandas12345
                pandas12345Saturday, December 14, 2019 at 3:00 pm
                I kinda do think this is creepy. P.S i am following you. : )
                • pandas12345
                  pandas12345Saturday, December 14, 2019 at 2:57 pm
                  I kinda do think that it is creepy. bri6657, you are not alone.
                • cringeforsponge
                  cringeforspongeWednesday, November 13, 2019 at 3:25 pm
                  i have to do this for a social studies project
                  • ghost_dk_diemx
                    ghost_dk_diemxTuesday, November 12, 2019 at 8:16 pm
                    He was a great painter. I kinda wish he was still alive so he could make more and if he was alive then I would definitely wanna see him.
                    • am-olm1
                      am-olm1Thursday, February 20, 2020 at 3:42 pm
                      Yeah, me too
                    • ghost_dk_diemx
                      ghost_dk_diemxTuesday, November 12, 2019 at 8:14 pm
                      My lanta, we learned this in my social studies class about a week ago! I think it's amazing. I'm most likely going to go back to this article again to study it and take notes on it and do an essay of it just for fun. I might show it to my teacher to see what she thinks.
                      • am-olm1
                        am-olm1Thursday, February 20, 2020 at 3:42 pm
                        Cool! Amazing!
                      • randoFriday, November 1, 2019 at 6:43 am
                        i hope i can go there