Leonardo had only recently arrived in Milan when in 1483 he was given the opportunity to realize in a painting the thoughts he had been formulating privately about art and life. The resultant picture was a watershed in his career, and in Western art.
The commission was for an altarpiece depicting ‘Our Lady with her son and the angels’ for a newly consecrated chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. At this time, Lombard tradition for altarpiece decoration was characterized by ample gilding and figures arranged declamatorily on relatively flat backgrounds. Leonardo’s so-called Virgin of the Rocks, which he finished a year and a half later, was different in kind: animated figures interacting in a richly detailed, highly naturalistic, rocky environment of great depth.
Central perspective and the three-dimensional rendering of space were old discoveries; what Leonardo did here was to immerse his figures in their environment more fully than anyone had done before. The characters seem free to act not just as individuals, but in relation to each other — their body language, facial expressions and eye lines suggest complex interaction. The picture has a kind of spatial and psychological coherence that would come to inform Western art down to the modern era when cubism started dissolving rationally defined space, opening the door to abstraction.
The painting, which normally hangs in the Grande Galerie at the Louvre, is currently and extraordinarily on view in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci — Painter at the Court of Milan at the National Gallery in London. For the first time ever, it shares a room with that museum’s own, later version of the same subject. Continue reading ‘The Miracle in Milan’