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Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks

Key facts
Full title The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel ('The Virgin of the Rocks')
Artist Leonardo da Vinci
Artist dates 1452 - 1519
Series Panels from the S. Francesco Altarpiece, Milan
Date made about 1491/2-9 and 1506-8
Medium and support Oil on poplar, thinned and cradled
Dimensions 189.5 × 120 cm
Inscription summary Inscribed
Acquisition credit Bought, 1880
Inventory number NG1093
Location Room 9
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
The Virgin of the Rocks
Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s mysterious painting shows the Virgin Mary with Saint John the Baptist, Christ’s cousin, and an angel. All kneel to adore the infant Christ, who in turn raises his hand to bless them. They are crowded in a grotto overhung with rocks and dense with vegetation.

The painting was part of a large, elaborate altarpiece made for the church of San Francesco Grande, Milan to celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It replaced a similar picture Leonardo made earlier (now in the Louvre, Paris).

Leonardo has used innovative painting techniques to give the impression that the figures are emerging from the darkness of this shaded setting. For example, he has blurred the edges of their forms to indicate the shadows that envelop them. The underdrawing (preliminary outlining of a composition) shows that he attempted a different design but later changed his mind so it is almost identical to the Louvre version.

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Panels from the S. Francesco Altarpiece, Milan


These three panels all came from an elaborate, and partly sculpted, altarpiece that was made for the church of San Francesco Grande, Milan. By the time that Leonardo and his associates were commissioned to provide paintings in 1483, the sculptor Giacomo del Maiano had already finished the sculptures.

The altarpiece stood in a chapel devoted to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary that belonged to a confraternity (religious group) devoted to the Immaculate Conception. The two angels playing musical instruments probably stood on either side of a large sculpture of the Virgin. Leonardo’s painting, which was probably supposed to represent the Immaculate Conception, was placed directly beneath the sculpture.

The National Gallery’s painting is Leonardo’s second version of the picture. It was probably made to replace one (now in the Louvre, Paris) that Leonardo sold because the confraternity refused to pay him adequately for it.