The Virgin Mary sits on her mother’s lap, her attention focused on the wriggling Christ Child. Her mother, Saint Anne, looks intently at her through deep-set eyes and points upwards to the heavens, indicating the child’s divinity. Christ’s cousin, Saint John the Baptist, leans against Anne’s lap as the baby Christ tickles his chin.
This is a cartoon, a large drawing made in preparation for a painting. Often known as ‘The Burlington House Cartoon’, it is the only surviving large-scale drawing by Leonardo.
Parts of the drawing are densely shaded and contrasted with lighter areas to give a three-dimensional effect, for example the figures' faces and elements of the draperies such as sections of the Virgin’s sleeve and the folds of fabric which cover Saint Anne’s knees. Other areas, such as the women’s headdresses and feet, and Saint Anne’s pointing hand, are simply indicated with outlines.
Drawing was a crucial part of Leonardo’s artistic process and he produced numerous small-scale studies of animals, human anatomy and landscapes. In fact, we know more about Leonardo as an artist from his drawings than from his paintings, as so few of those survive. This work is particularly important as it is the only surviving large-scale drawing by the artist. Unlike his studies, it is a highly finished composition, and it may be the only record we have of a now-lost painting.
Sheets of paper this large did not exist when Leonardo was alive, so he joined numerous pieces together – the joins are apparent on close inspection. Parts of the drawing are highly finished while other areas, like Anne’s pointing hand, were simply left as outlines. This shows us how Leonardo began by creating rough outlines of the shapes of parts of the body and then, using light and shade, gradually built them up into more rounded shapes. Parts of the drawing are densely shaded and contrasted with lighter areas to give a three-dimensional effect (a technique known as chiaroscuro), for example the figures‘ faces and elements of the draperies such as sections of the Virgin’s sleeve and the folds of fabric which cover Saint Anne’s knees.
In order to avoid harsh lines Leonardo blurred the contours of the forms, and the resulting smoky effect is called sfumato. He used it in his paintings too, for example The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel (’The Virgin of the Rocks‘). Around the eyes, this blurring produces a mysterious effect that intensifies the gazes of the figures, expressing Leonardo’s idea that the thoughts (moti mentali, or ’motions of the mind‘) of painted figures should be visible on their faces. As she points upwards, Saint Anne reveals the mystery of Christ’s being – he is both human and divine. The focus on her eyes, which are so deeply in shadow, seems to emphasise his extraordinary identity.
This is a cartoon, a large drawing usually made in preparation for a painting. When finished, the design would have been transferred onto the panel or canvas by pricking holes in the outlines and dusting over them with charcoal.and it is. However, this drawing, often referred to as ’The Burlington House Cartoon‘, shows no evidence of having been transferred, which suggests that no painting was made from this design. But it has been connected to a number of Leonardo’s commissions.
There’s a painting by Leonardo of the Virgin seated on her mother’s lap in the Louvre, Paris. However, it is different to this cartoon in some ways: the Virgin’s legs hang down to her left and she reaches over her mother to grasp the Christ Child, who play-fights with a small lamb (which appears in the place of the toddler John the Baptist). In 1501, Fra Pietro da Novellara, a Carmelite monk, wrote to the Marchioness of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, who was an admirer of Leonardo’s work, to tell her that he had seen a cartoon by Leonardo of Saint Anne, the Virgin, Christ and a lamb. The mention of the lamb suggests this was the cartoon for the Paris picture. Perhaps Leonardo changed his mind about the composition after he made our cartoon, making a new one, as described by Novellara, which was used as the design for the Paris picture. This change of plan was not unusual for Leonardo – he included the young Saint John the Baptist in our painting of The Virgin of the Rocks, though the saint appears in only one of the sketches for the painting and was not specified by the patron.
A small-scale sketch in the British Museum, London, shows Leonardo rapidly experimenting with ideas for this unusual grouping of intertwined figures. The sketch, dense with repeated strokes, was obviously worked-over many times, and it shows Leonardo trialling a variety of poses and combinations of figures; he seems to have changed his mind about the lamb and drawn over it, transforming its tail into Saint Anne’s pointing finger.
Novellara also told Isabella that Leonardo was unable to produce anything for her because he was busy with a project for Louis XII of France. In 1499, Louis‘ troops invaded Milan, where Leonardo had been working for Ludovico Sforza, the city’s ruler since 1483. Louis’ wife was called Anne and the commission of a painting of his wife’s patron saint from the newly conquered city’s most famous artist would not have been unlikely. A seventeenth-century document reveals that Louis ordered a cartoon of the subject from Leonardo when the artist was living in Milan.
Another possibility is that Leonardo made the cartoon for a Florentine patron. Vasari, the sixteenth-century artist and biographer, tells a story of how a cartoon by Leonardo was displayed for three days in the church of Santissima Annunziata, Florence – the exhibition gathered huge crowds and astonished everyone who saw it. The cartoon, according to Vasari, showed the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist – and a lamb. However accurate this story, the inclusion of Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, would have made this a plausible setting for the work. And while it was unusual to show Saint Anne with the holy family, she was significant to the city of Florence because the tyrannous Duke of Athens had been expelled on her feast day in 1343.
It is also possible that the drawing was not made in preparation for a painting at all, but that it was intended as a work of art in its own right.
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