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Virgin of the Rocks: The Biblical Masterpiece by Da Vinci

Virgin of the Rocks

Virgin of The Rocks | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Tending to ruminate on my previous articles, last night, I scrolled a little more over our website and reached the evaluation of Vitruvian Man. We all know the basic principles of the composition, and the journey towards reading about it and falling in love with da Vinci is a convincing and sweet one. Of course, if you missed the opportunity to learn about it consider this an invitation of doing so. Resuming our conversation of today, once I read about the Vitruvian Man (again), a sudden thought flew into my mind, which added to the praising of thoughtlessly terrific compositions of da Vinci. I am always mesmerized by his few yet complex surviving art, so much so that something kicks me from inside everytime I write about them. It even happens when I read and discover more about him. And maybe, due to the same reason, today, I brought his another superficially beautiful composition, which is also a biblical passage. Adding on, it is possible that you might have noticed it in museums or over the internet and in art books. But I am 99.99% sure that there are still curtains about the knowledgeable part of the composition. So after reading a few credible sources and an entire book on da Vinci, I am on my way to telling you everything about the Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. But as per our old schedule and previous articles, you know, we will first learn about the artist. Set yourself up with everything you need, whether a back cushion or a cup of tea, to delight in the epic read.

About the Artist: Who Was Leonardo da Vinci?

A magician or a scientist? Perhaps both. Leonardo has always been famous during his lifetime and since then. I have already briefly covered his life in my previous writings. But that doesn’t mean I am skipping this part. What I want to tell you are the facts, which I have not mentioned before. da Vinci was interested in knowledge, so he always found out deepest proficiency and communicated them. Due to his desire to be a literary-fervent seeker, there was a high proportion of his unfinished artworks. Understanding the details of his background and ancestry is vital to answering the question of how someone could be so genius.

Leonardo Che Ritrae la Gioconda (Leonardo Painting the Mona Lisa) painting by Cesare Massari showing a scene of Leonardo da Vinci | Source: Cesare Maccari, via Wikimedia Commons

His father, Ser Piero da Vinci was a lawyer who followed the hereditary profession of his family tradition. He did so well by eventually marrying the daughter of the state chancellor. On occasion, his career was also an influence on the young Leonardo. He was not officially married to Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, as she belonged to a lower social class. Illegitimacy did not create any difficulties with the four stepmoms of Leonardo as he was almost grown up when the first of his legitimate half-brothers was born. Born in 1452, as per his parental grandfather’s diary, he lived in Florence with his father. About his education, no one exactly knows, as it is a matter of dispute. Many say that he might have attended a primitive village school in Vinci, whereas some say that he visited the same school in Florence as his half-brothers. The most reliable information about his early days to seek knowledge was from the Verrochio workshop, which says that he had the best education in art rather than formal. It may be the reason behind his unempathetic attitude towards Neo-Platonists. He turned out to be left-handed due to the absence of a teacher who could correct him. In my opinion, his early days were mysterious, which explains why he drew complex things with his own vision. Now, this may become an endless section as we have so much about his life but know that we are here for his painting, Virgin on the Rocks. So let us move on to the historical reference of the artwork.

Virgin of the Rocks | Fast Knowledge

Virgin of the Rocks (Madonna of the Rocks) is one of the surviving artworks by Leonardo da Vinci. Under no Biblical authority, it subjects a meeting between the Holy Family and the future St. John the Baptist under the protection of Angel Uriel. Residing in the National Gallery, London, and the Louvre, the painting has two versions dating back to 1508 and 1480s, respectively.

Historical Background of the Virgin of the Rocks.

NameVirgin of the Rocks, Madonna of the Rocks, and Vergine delle rocce in Italian
ArtistLeonardo di ser Piero da Vinci
Year PaintedLouvre, c. 1480s; National Gallery London, 1508
MediumOil on panel
GenreHistorical Religious Painting
PeriodHigh Renaissance
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?There are two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, one resides in the National Gallery of London, and the other one in the Louvre Museum, in Paris.

In the long fightback towards the lost artworks of Leonardo, the first great surviving masterpiece, which is also a generous blessing, is the Virgin of the Rocks. It will be easier to learn and analyze the composition if you are familiar with its entire history. To start with, you must know that it exists in two versions. One is in Louvre, Paris and the other in National Gallery, London.

Virgin of the Rocks painting by Leonardo da Vinci in National Museum, London | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Versions of the Artwork.

Starting with the London version, it is unfinished and has a smaller size comparative. Next, it is probably in the part of presumably Ambrogio da Predis and his brother. As you examine the relationship between the works, you will see that discussing the relationship itself was more of a topic for discussion and argument than almost any other comparable problem in western art history. As evidenced by how often even prominent scholars have changed their minds about presumption facts, it is improbable that final conclusions can ever be reached, barring the discovery of more evidence. Nevertheless, you must know that historically, the text discusses the chequered history of Leonardo’s original contract and the contributions that he made himself to the painting. It shows us that Leonardo solely created the Louvre painting, whereas Ambrogio da Predis and his brother partly commissioned the London painting. (Next stanza will let you know more about it, clearly).

Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks in Louvre, Paris | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Back to Chronology.

Now, there still exists the long legal document dated 25 April 1483, which is the contract of the painting. So what does it intend to say? Back in those years, a religious order in Milan called the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception contracted for three paintings for the chapel in its Church of San Francesco Grande. And Leonardo was to paint the central panel with details of the subject of the picture, indicating Virgins and angels, God’s father overhead and two Prophets in the side panels. Now, Ambrogio da Prelis and his brother Evangelista were to given prepare the wooden frame and the side barrels. However, something happened. The two brothers took it in a different direction and thought to paint the angelic figures in the side panels and not prophets, the central image contained no angels or God’s father but two infants, Child Jesus and John the Baptist. It is shocking, but the composition we see today was an invention by misunderstanding. However, the crucial factor was that the Renaissance artists were free to interpret commissions on their own. And the Confraternity did not object to any of the changes. The history might be strenuous to learn, but I am glad that you read it and probably very proud of you. It is now time to go to the next section.

Understanding Virgin of the Rocks Meaning.

The meaning is more about the historical event or a Biblical passage from the Christian’s history. But it is fascinating!

In earlier centuries, many legends freely circulated stories of Christ’s birth, which had no longer the biblical authority. One such story comes here to make you understand the meaning of the entire composition.

A meeting between the Holy Family and the future St. John the Baptist took place in the desert under the protection of the Angel Uriel after they fled King Herod’s slaughter of innocents. And Virgin of the Rocks is a living supporter of this episode but an unusual one. Another frequent assumption that you may hear all the time goes here.

It is intended as an altarpiece and references James’ proto-evangelical tale based on which Jesus Christ and John ascended the earth at a very young age. James’ proto-Evangelium story describes a cave merely related to Elizabeth’s escape (mother of John). However, as depicted in the artwork, in James’ tale, there was nothing about Mary’s and Jesus’s departure. Furthermore, the Protoevangelium of James is non-canonical and differs in various aspects from the New Testament. Throughout James’ story, Mary and her mother, Anne, are described, and it ends with the birth of Jesus. In particular, Mary’s devotions have been highly praised in this book. It directly hints at the possibility of John and Jesus meeting at the beginning of their flight due to the friendship between their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth. But the exact date of the meeting is unknown in this article. It is the only representation of Leonardo’s artistic invention to depict two families meeting in a cave.

Champ, as I narrated the beautiful story to make you understand the meaning of the Virgin of the Rocks, it is now time for the most awaited section analyzing the artwork.

Subject-Vise Formal Analysis of the Entire Frame.

We will learn about the composition later in this section, but let us start with the four figures in the artwork. The depictions include- Virgin Mary and the two infants with an angel supporting Christ and St.John, emphasizing divinity and spirituality.

If we talk about both versions of the Virgin of the rocks, there is a slight difference in positioning. In the Paris one, the divine being pointed towards St.John and seems to look straight out of the picture but not exactly at the spectator. So there are mysterious expressions in the composition. And as usual, it is Leonardo’s speciality to create a mystical appearance in his works. Going to the London version, you will see that the angel’s arm is lower, and she passively looks towards St. John, losing the impact of the artwork. Plus, the most remarkable feature of this version is that the Virgin outspreads her hand with a protective hover on infant Jesus and gracefully looks in motherly form towards John. It also creates a triangle with the figures in unity, drawing them together in the Renaissance form.

You have read the most basic information now in this section. My point is to add an explanatory description of the composition by valuing the fact; There are four separate studies in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, pointing toward the Virgin of the Rocks. By doing so, Leonardo da Vinci illustrates the journey of his composition.

In the first drawing, with handles loosely clasped in front of her, the Virgin bends forward in an orthodox position, prospectively. It was like the original subject requested by the Confraternity. In the second one, her right arm extends over the Christ with her left hand remained intact in the same position. Though there is no arrangement of these scenes, we predicted from the fact that Leonardo was left-handed, which means he worked from right to left. The third image has both arms outstretched, with one hand hovering over the child and the other over nothing. And finally, the last version declares the appearance of the second baby, which completes the artwork and joins the whole group together.

Compositional Sketches for the Virgin Adoring the Christ Child, with and without the Infant St. John the Baptist; Diagram of a Perspectival Projection (recto); Slight Doodles (verso) | Source:

Interesting, right? We know now how da Vinci painted Virgin of the rocks in the four phases. It is the perfect time to now talk about the final analysis of the artwork.

Virgin Mary.

Glowed with a whitish skin tone, Mary wears a bright blue robe with an orangish contrast. The lighter circle above her head indicates her status as queen of heaven. It appears that she has one hand wrapped around the little infant, St. John, and the other outstretching further over the head of the little infant, Christ. Her motherly emotions are all over her face, explanatory enough through her half-closed and dimmed eyes. You will notice the use of shadows under her outstretched hand, the cheekbone and over the neck, which says about the darker light in the cave.

Mary in the Virgin of the Rocks composition, Louvre, Paris | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Angel Uriel.

With her curly brown hair and a dark greyish full-sleeved dress, she sits right beside the infant Christ. As her dimmed eyes gaze at St.John, she wraps her hand around the infant Christ. The beauty of her expression reveals her motherly nurturing and protection. But at the same time, she holds some mystical appearance here too.

Angel Uriel and infant Christ in the Virgin of the rocks, Louvre, Paris | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Infant Jesus.

The chubby infant with each of the muscles defined through smooth lines and texture, sitting near the angel is infant Jesus. His golden brown hair, one hand touching the ground, whereas the other showing two fingers in a manner of blessing, is admirable here. He communicates in silence with St. John through his adorable innocent eyes.

Infant Jesus in the Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre, Paris | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

St. John.

Nourished under the protection of Mary through her hand, he bends linearly towards Christ with his one hand holding the symbol of the cross. A sheer greyish cloth covers his lower waist, and he sits on a raised platform in a kneeling position. Further, the silent connection between both infants is evident in their eyes and expressions.

St, John in the composition, Louvre, Paris | Source: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Leonardo placed a darker cavern, with rocks and a water landscape in the composition, which is due to the verse in Wisdom,

“From the beginning and before the world, was I created, and unto the world to come, I shall not cease to be.”

Rock shapes in the background resemble rounded cones as if they recently emerged from the earth to greet humans. As a result, it includes the upward energy that flows directly from the earth’s core. In addition, you can see the water’s stillness and the green of the swap, both of which suggest tranquillity and peace. You must know that in numerous works, Leonardo blends rocks, plants and trees, so it is a principal takeaway of the reason behind the background.

The background and ariel viewscape of the Virgin of the rocks, Louvre, Paris | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, it has the use of aerial perspective that Leonardo invented to give an impression of the vast landscape in the distance. As the edges become hazy, the blue-green colour of the earth instantly contrasts with the warm red-brown.

Despite completing the entire painting analysis successfully, it’s not over yet. You need to know the use of a technique called sfumato in this painting. Do not think the word is too tricky, as I will let you understand it quickly. You see that the figures in the composition emerge softy from the cave darkness, and this effect to show a relationship between light and dark transition holds importance. Here, Leonardo builds up layers of black and white, which in addition to shapes, can cast an effect of light and shadow on the surfaces. It is time to reach our final section so let us get going.

Colour Analysis of the Artwork.

With a close view, few corners or areas are seen unfinished, but it may be because it narrated the important features of the composition. Regarding colour analysis, there are fewer colours used, like blue, yellow, brown and red.

The use of bright blue robes and the distant mountains is adorable here. It shows us even the elementary colours can’t stop Leonardo to make out an illusionary and meaningful painting. Also, the skin tones of each figure have similar shine and prosperity, with smooth lines and shapes to give a naturalistic appearance to Virgin of the Rocks.

Final Words.

That’s it, we have done reading about one of the finest and long surviving artworks of Leonardo da Vinci. But, Hey, I wish we could enjoy Virgin of the Rocks from the museum of Paris, instead of just internet storming. Tell me in the comments if you feel the same, anyway!


Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted the Virgin of the Rocks?

The Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre was painted solely by Leonardo da Vinci, while the London version was commissioned in part by Ambrogio da Predis and his brother. Both paintings depict a meeting between the Holy family and the future St. John the Baptist that took place in a desert under the protection of the Angel Uriel. It needs to be noted that the story of this scene comes from Apocrypha.

What is the difference between Madonna of the Rocks and Virgin of the Rocks?

There is no difference between Madonna of the Rocks and Virgin of the Rocks. Both of these names are exchanged with each other for the two artworks with similar subjects painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

Why did Leonardo da Vinci paint the Madonna of the Rocks?

Leonardo da Vinci painted the Madonna of the Rocks or the Virgin of the Rocks as part of his contract in 1483 with the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to paint three paintings for the chapel in its Church of San Francesco Grande.

Why are there two Madonna of the Rocks?

One of the theories that historians use to explain this is that the first version, completed in the 1480s led to a price dispute with the confraternity and was sold elsewhere, now in Louvre. However, Leonardo helped to paint a replacement version by working with Ambrogio de Predis and his studio and completed it around 1508, now in the National Gallery of London.

What type of art is Virgin of the Rocks?

Religious art of High Renaissance.

Why is the Virgin of the Rocks important to the Renaissance?

Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci is crucial as it showcases his capability of using only shadows to create an illusion as well as his mastery of aerial perspective.

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