This three-week course tells the story of Leonardo and his two paintings of The Virgin of the Rocks over a 25-year period of revolutionary discovery.
Leonardo completed fewer than 20 paintings during his lifetime. So why did he twice paint the same mysterious subject: The Virgin of the Rocks? What is the meaning behind the cavernous subterranean landscape? And why are the two versions so similar and yet so different?
Through analyses of Leonardo’s paintings, notebooks and technical experimentation, art historian Katy Blatt argues that the commission for The Virgin of the Rocks holds the key to the most dramatic scientific, philosophical, and psychological transformations of Leonardo’s life.
Find out how the first version of The Virgin of the Rocks (c.1483-4), now at the Louvre in Paris, catapulted the artist to fame.
In this session, we take a long look at the altarpiece and its rich symbolism, and consider what it meant to Leonardo’s patron, The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan and how it felt to kneel before it. We begin by exploring how his training in Florence and the frustrations he felt there led him to seek his fortune in Milan, and end with the mysterious disappearance of the painting in the 1490s.
How does our version of The Virgin of the Rocks differ from the earlier Louvre version in terms of composition and style? What happened in the intervening years between the making of the two paintings, that might help explain the differences? We trace Leonardo’s startling artistic, intellectual and personal journey through those crucial years, and show how the differences between the two paintings hold the key to understanding the life and times of one of the most important artists and thinkers that has ever lived.
We conclude by reflecting on the role played by The Virgin of the Rocks in securing Leonardo’s rise to fame, both during his lifetime and beyond. What was life like for Leonardo after he had completed the second painting? The myth or aura surrounding Leonardo has become part of our cultural inheritance, but why is the painting relevant to us today?
This course opens up Leonardo’s world. Setting the scene in Republican Florence and the humanist court of the Milanese warlord Ludovico Sforza, it delves into the politics, science, theology and philosophy that shaped these two complex paintings, as well as the personal relationships and workshop practices that enabled their creation.
Katy Blatt is an art historian and studied at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, UK. She has worked at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tate Britain, the Glasgow School of Art and Sir John Soane's Museum, London. She is Head of Art History at Queen’s College, London.