Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci

Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci



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The theme of the Virgin and Child with St Anne was a popular one in 15th century Florence.

The cartoon is widely believed to have been preparatory work for a painting due to its size, it is drawn over eight sheets of paper and is over 140 cm (55 inches) high.

But the drawing has not been pricked for transfer to canvas and no painting by Leonardo da Vinci matches the composition. Da Vinci's painting The Virgin and Child with St Anne, which hangs in the Louvre, omits St John and has a more rigid and less naturalistic composition.

Drawn in charcoal and chalk on tinted paper, the cartoon is a good example of da Vinci's complex composition and realism. The eye follows St Anne's gaze to her daughter Mary who in turn looks adoringly at the Christ child. The children are curious, Jesus wriggles away from his mother and holds his hand up as if in blessing towards his transfixed cousin.

Christ's innocent expression mirrors his mother's while John's recalls the more knowing look of his grandmother. St Anne's hand points upwards towards heaven, between the faces of the two young boys. However the religious symbolism does not intrude on the intimacy of this charming family portrait. As Anne and Mary seem to be sharing a private moment, so do John and Jesus.

The light settles on Mary and Jesus, making it clear that they are the focus. Anne and John are more shaded. Again this draws attention to the link between Mary and Jesus, and their innocence compared to Anne and John's relative worldliness.

The structure is a loose pyramid. There is a strong diagonal line from the faces of the women to the boys, and another created by the knees of the women and the shoulder of St John.

The Cartoon of St Anne, also known as the Burlington House Cartoon after the London home of the Royal Academy of Arts, now hangs in the National Gallery in London. In 1962 it was put up for sale but was considered so important that the National Arts Collections Fund, along with donations from the public, raised sufficient money to keep it in the United Kingdom.

In 1987 is was vandalized with a shotgun causing extensive damage, which has since been repaired.

Although unfinished, the work is widely considered a masterpiece. The faces and torsos are beautifully rendered as are the folds of the clothing. The natural and meaningful poses and expressions of the group are unmatched even in da Vinci's finished paintings.


Leonardo's Virgin and Child with St Anne and a Lamb.

Leonardo chose the subject of St Anne on his return to Florence from Milan in 1500. The work clearly shows the sfumato style pioneered by the artist and is based on an earlier drawing of The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John which is now in the National Gallery London.

The Virgin and Child with St Anne and a Lamb c. 1508, oil on wood panel, 166x112cm, Louvre Paris. (s)

The subject of Mary and the Christ-child was a popular theme in many Renaissance paintings. In this work, Leonardo shows Mary reaching out to her son (Jesus) who in turn reaches for the lamb.

Mary is seated in the lap of her mother (St Anne) who watches over her daughter and grandson completing a trinity of generations within the same family. The composition is built on a clever combination of triangles formed by the posture of the Virgin, the hand-on-hip position of St Anne, and the intertwining child and lamb, superb!! 

The three sketches of children above are from a single sheet of drawings that Leonardo made for the Christ Child in the Virgin and Child painting opposite.

Accademia Venice, red chalk.

The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John. c. 1508 Charcoal on brown paper, 139x101cm. National Gallery, London (s)

A cartoon by Leonardo (of the same subject) was so well received when it was displayed in Florence that it prompted the art historian Vasari to write,

 'men and women, young and old, continued for two days to crowd into the room where it was being shown, as if attending a solemn festival.'

There is some debate about which cartoon Vasari was describing and arguments continue about the possibility of more than one copy by Leonardo. Regardless of this debate both the drawing above and the painting in the Louvre, remain as fine examples of the artist's skill and craftsmanship.


Freud analyzed Da Vinci’s subconscious through his painting “The Virgin & Child with Saint Anne”

It is neither news nor a mystery that Leonardo da Vinci played with hidden messages and symbols in his paintings. According to a few historians of art and other specialists, some of da Vinci’s most famous paintings such as The Last Supper, and Madonna on the Rocks reveal the artist’s individual views on religion.

While according to Martin Lunn (author of Da Vinci Code Decoded), with the painting of Mona Lisa, Da Vinci broke “the conventions of the time” in regard of the absence of jewelry and the relaxed stance of his subject, Sigmund Freud, who observed different artists’ work to psychoanalyze their subconscious, claimed that da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne revealed his repressed homosexual desire.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis.

Freud used the method of examining the paintings and finding different symbols that the artists painted, consciously or unconsciously.

Either way, he would later add meaning to those symbols based on details found in various ancient cultures, and analyze them as an expression of the individual’s subconscious.

Leonardo da Vinci – Virgin and Child with St Anne

Da Vinci painted The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne around 1503, and today it can be seen in the Louvre museum in Paris.

It portrays the baby Jesus guarded in the arms of the Virgin Mary while she is peacefully sitting on the lap of her mother, St. Anne.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

The Virgin Mary is reaching for her child, holding him by his waist, while Jesus is petting a lamb. For Freud’s theory to be more relative, one must take into consideration that the biblical figures in historical paintings are never painted randomly.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Louvre, Paris, France. Photo by Sailko
CC BY 3.0

Their positions are always allusions to the lives of the characters and various Christian metaphors. For example, the lamb in the painting can be easily interpreted as a symbol of innocence and Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity. The lamb itself is a symbol of sacrifice and John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”

The “vulture” identified by Freud

On the other hand, it is somewhat unusual for the Virgin Mary to be portrayed in St. Anne’s lap. Freud saw it as quite interesting for psychoanalytic examination and named it “Leonardo da Vinci and Memory of His Childhood.”

Related Video: Exhibition of Fascinating Da Vinci Designs

According to Freud, when the painting is turned sideways, the shape of Mary’s garments illustrates a bird, probably a vulture. He interprets the image of a vulture as a symbol for a mother, rooting his theory in the fact that the term “mother” in ancient Egypt was depicted with the symbol of a vulture. Hence, he analyzed it as da Vinci’s repressed homosexual desire, triggered by his faint memory of suckling at his mother’s breast.

Detail – Christ with the Lamb

Freud also considered a set of da Vinci’s writings and drawings known as the Codex Atlanticus where the artist wrote about an early childhood memory of a vulture attacking him in his crib. So, Freud considers the illustrations of the vulture tail and a baby’s mouth as possible forceful breastfeeding past the appropriate age.

Reproduction of the famous painting of Leonardo da Vinci ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’. Photo by Fr.Latreille CC BY-SA 3.0

Another of Freud’s observations regarding the representation of Da Vinci’s subconscious in The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, is that in the illustration of two women (the two of them in the role of a mother) Da Vinci represented his own two mothers. In fact, the artist was first raised by his biological mother and later adopted by his father’s wife.

The psychoanalyst considered his essay “Leonardo da Vinci and Memory of His Childhood” as one of the finest works he’d ever written. However, through the years, Freud’s theories have been brought into question and opposed by many scientists as extreme. He always tended to see hidden or repressed sexuality. And even though his work is a fine one indeed, it can be hardly taken as a proof for Da Vinci’s subconsciousness.


Unfinished Perfection

Can we call something both unfinished and perfect? It's not hard to say yes if the thing is literary (Spenser's "The Faerie Queene") or even musical (Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony). With painting, the question is tougher to answer. Let me suggest at least one candidate for unfinished perfection.

A museum overbrimming with masterpieces and gawking visitors can challenge someone who wants to look at pictures. But patience is a virtue. Take the Louvre. Behind bullet-proof glass and a long rope hangs the Mona Lisa, impossible to see well through the crowds of camera-toting tourists, who rush through, snap their pictures to prove they have been there, and then leave.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a famously slow painter, and not many finished works survive. But once you leave the room where the Mona Lisa is enshrined you find yourself in the Grande Galérie, still crowded but less claustrophobic, and in the presence of five other Leonardo pictures. Tourists stop for a moment, but you can get close to any of these and enjoy (relative) solitude. The first is probably from Leonardo's workshop, not entirely of the master's own hand: St. John the Baptist, or perhaps Bacchus, whose raised finger is a Christian symbol, but whose thyrsus, vine leaves and panther skin are clearly pagan. The next is the elegant lady "La Belle Ferronière." Then the famous "Virgin of the Rocks," with its mysterious setting and its chiaroscuro lighting. Then another androgynous St. John with upward pointing finger.

Then, the masterpiece: "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne," begun probably in 1500. Leonardo worked on it in both Milan and Florence, and kept it with him (as he did the Mona Lisa) until his death. Unfinished, it still offers a total aesthetic experience in terms of its design, form, color and human drama. (To take its measure, you can look at a preparatory study in London's National Gallery, "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist.")

Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf's brother-in-law, coined the phrase "significant form" in 1914 and, along with Roger Fry, another Bloomsbury denizen, popularized the idea that form itself can convey and produce feeling. Leonardo's picture, especially its human geometry, sublimely exemplifies such conveyance. Leonardo learned from Masaccio (1401-1428) how to give sculptural mass to flat figures through the principles of perspective. To the earlier master's technique, however, he added a humanism that looks to our eyes distinctly, realistically modern.


Subject

Preparatory drawing in theBritish Museum, London

The subject of the cartoon is a combination of two themes popular in Florentine painting of the 15th century: The Virgin and Child with John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with St Anne.

The drawing is notable for its complex composition, demonstrating the alternation in the positioning of figures that is first apparent in Leonardo's paintings in the Benois Madonna. The knees of the two women point different directions, with Mary's knees turning out of the painting to the left, while her body turns sharply to the right, creating a sinuous movement. The knees and the feet of the figures establish a strong up-and-down rhythm at a point in the composition where a firm foundation comprising firmly planted feet, widely spread knees and broad spread of enclosing garment would normally be found. While the lower halves of their bodies turn away, the faces of the two women turn towards each other, mirroring each other's features. The delineation between the upper bodies has lost clarity, suggesting that the heads are part of the same body.

The twisting movement of the Virgin is echoed in the Christ Child, whose body, held almost horizontal by his mother, rotates axially, with the lower body turned upward and the upper body turned downward. This turning posture is first indicated in Leonardo's painting in the Adoration of the Magi and is explored in a number of drawings, in particular the various studies of the Virgin and Child with a cat that are in the British Museum.

The juxtaposition of two sets of heads is an important compositional element. The angle, lighting and gaze of the Christ Child reproduces that of his mother, while John the Baptist reproduces these same elements in the face of St Anne. The lighting indicates that there are two protagonists, and two supporting cast in the scene that the viewer is witnessing. There is a subtle interplay between the gazes of the four figures. St Anne smiles adoringly at her daughter Mary, perhaps indicating not only maternal pride but also the veneration due to the one who "all generations will call. blessed".[2] Mary's eyes are fixed on the Christ Child who raises his hand in a gesture of benediction over the cousin who thirty years later would carry out his appointed task of baptising Jesus. Although the older of the two children, John the Baptist humbly accepts the blessing, as one who would later say of his cousin "I am not worthy even to unloose his sandals." [3] St Anne's hand, her index finger pointing towards the Heaven, is positioned near the heads of the children, perhaps to indicate the original source of the blessing. This enigmatic gesture is regarded as quintessentially Leonardesque, occurring in the Last Supper and St John the Baptist.

Cartoons of this sort were usually transferred to a board for painting by pricking or incising the outline. In the Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist this has not been done, suggesting that the drawing has been kept as a work of art in its own right. [4] Leonardo does not appear to have based a painting directly on this drawing. The composition differs from Leonardo's only other surviving treatment of the subject, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne in the Louvre , in which the figure of the Baptist is not present. A painting based on the cartoon was made by a pupil of Leonardo, Bernardino Luini , and is now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana , Milan . [5] The figure of Pomona in Francesco Melzi 's painting Pomona and Vertumnus in Berlin is based upon the Virgin in the cartoon.


Saint Anne

According to apocryphal Christian tradition, Saint Anne was the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. Mary’s mother is not named in the gospels.

Anne’s name comes from New Testament Apocrypha, of which the Gospel of James, written perhaps around 150 seems to be the earliest mention.

The New Testament Apocrypha are writings by early Christians that give accounts of Jesus and his teachings, the nature of God, or the instructions of his apostles and their lives.

Some of these writings had been cited as scripture by early Christians, but since the fifth century, a consensus emerged, limiting the New Testament to the 27 books of the modern canon.

Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches generally do not view these New Testament Apocrypha as part of the Bible.

Anne (Arabic: Ḥannah) is also revered in Islam, recognized as a highly spiritual woman, and as the mother of Mary.


An Analysis of “Madonna of the Meadow” and “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne”

Images have come to be embraced by the society on a wider perspective. Their usage has become more prevalent in recent years compared to how it was some decades ago. Various technologies that have been embraced by the society have played a significant role in this realization. There is the expectation that the profound usage of images will continue to increase in scope in the coming years.

Images tend to play various roles and functions in the society. Some roles tend to be complex compared to others. Some might be used to depict events, pass knowledge, or showcase some piece of history among others (Gombrich, 2009). When it comes to the historical aspect, images help in the preservation of memories of how certain things used to look like. People in the current generation did not exist during those periods but can identify themselves with certain histories. They have the ability to tell how certain prominent individuals, structures, empires used to look like due to the images presented about these things. It makes people feel like part of a lineage, which they will work towards preserving as a result. Having something in common helps build positive bonds that make the society a favorable place to be (Mukundan & Ramakrishnan, 1998). With regards to knowledge, images are usually used as a way of passing information. By observing a certain piece of image, people can deduce several things. Sometimes it becomes easier for people to understand certain things through the expression of images as opposed to words. This is due to the visual representation of the content involved.

The roles and functions of an image on most occasions are determined by the context within which the image was constructed. An image developed in the context of history will end playing a different role compared to that developed in a business or science context.

The image above represents “Madonna of the Meadow” by Raphael. The image has been discussed and analyzed by several authors. The authors tend to have similar descriptions on some aspects while in others they tend to have differing views. Among the descriptions that seem to have a similar interpretation among several authors is the presentation of a triangle on the image envisaging Mary, John, and Jesus. Honour & Fleming (2005) assert that the pyramid formation is a representation of something strong. It resembles a bond that is not easy to break, and whose purpose must be fulfilled. Brown & Pagden (2006) on the other hand also describe the triangular arrangement as a representation of order and stability. It shows that the individuals involved are rooted and ready to actualize their desired purpose. Honour & Fleming (2005), Brown & Pagden (2006) and Mukundan & Ramakrishnan (1998) also analyze the presence of the cross as an indication of things to come. It is a way of John blessing Jesus and preparing him for the future that awaits him. Honour & Fleming (2005) postulate that the aspect of Mary being barefoot is an indication that she is stepping on a holy ground. He goes on to assert that the three red flowers on Mary’s left side are prevalent and connected to the people in the painting. He asserts that they represent the holy trinity. Mukundan & Ramakrishnan (1998) on the other hand, seems to have some contrasting analysis. He postulates that the image of Mary, John, and Jesus within the triangular geometry is the representation of the holy trinity. Mary’s clothes also act as a Christian symbolism. Color blue represents heaven while red represents the death of Jesus (Brown & Pagden, 2006). She engulfs the redemption that is going to be actualized as a result of the sacrifice that Jesus is going to undertake in order to restore the well-being of Christians until eternity. Mukundan & Ramakrishnan (1998) also describe the background of the city as an essence of tension that reminds the viewers of the possible dangers awaiting Jesus and John.

This image was developed in around 1506. The context of the image in the current period has no difference to how it was being perceived during its production period. This is because it acted as a Christian symbolism. It was a way of showcasing the emergence of Jesus on earth and his mission of saving Christians through his death and resurrection. Two people that played a vital role in this occurrence have been represented in the image. This is the same way that this image is viewed by Christians all over the world. However, there are differences surrounding the context of art between these two periods. The image was produced during the renaissance of art in Europe. The transition taking place at the time made this image stand out as one of a kind. It had an immense fascination on the eyes of the people that viewed it. However, the circumstances are quite different in the current period. The emergence of technology has resulted to people having the ability to view other breath-taking images making this one not to seem very impressive. Under this context, people tend to forget the period when the image was developed in order to realize how great it is.

The image shown above is a representation of “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci. It was developed during the renaissance period, hence has attracted opinions from different people. Different authors have discussed and analyzed the image based on varying perspectives. One common description among various authors is the triangular representation on the image. Surhone (2010) asserts that the triangle is used depict the family bond that exists between the three characters involved. Mary is held by her mother who intern aims at getting a grip on his son Jesus. Pye (2015) extends this analysis as an indication of the holy trinity. This is because the image depicts three characters that are related to each other, and they have a very strong bond (family) among them. Regardless of any occurrence, they would still remain to be a family due to the blood ties. The family aspect on the image is also elaborated through the displays of affection and tenderness portrayed in the image (Pye, 2015). Saint Anne shows a more sober attitude compared to Mary who is engulfed by a rapture of motherly love. Mukundan & Ramakrishnan (1998) also describes the image as a Christian symbolism. It combines two canonic catholic themes. Among them is the meeting of generations demonstrated by the child, mother and grandmother appearing together. The other one is manifested by the notion of passion and sacrifice. These aspects are attributed to Jesus due to the lamb that he is holding. The lamb represents an aspect of innocence. This aspect is memorialized by John the Baptist when he referred to Jesus as the “Lamb of God”. Surhone (2010) reiterates that the image exemplifies three pictorial techniques. They include aerial perspective, chiaroscuro and sfumato. Aerial perspective is demonstrated by showcasing distance by color and tone contrast. Chiaroscuro is demonstrated by use of dark and light to create modeling and relief effects. Sfumato on the other hand, helps in the defining of shapes using light and dark gradations. Mukundan & Ramakrishnan (1998), Surhone (2010) and Pye (2015) describe the aspect of Mary sitting on Anne’s laps in a similar way. They view it as an unusual aspect. It is not clear what Leonardo wanted to demonstrate.

The context of the image cannot be considered to be different in the current period compared to when it was developed. How people interpreted the image during its production period tends to remain constant. This is because the objective with which it was developed has not changed. It still depicts a similar aspect. What has changed may be are the criticisms revolving around the image. The image was developed during the renaissance period. This was revival of the art world. What this meant is that people saw the images as being spectacular since they had not seen such aspects in the past. The attribute limits acts of criticisms since there does not exist numerous images to compare with. This case is different in the current period. There is emergence of different types of images and technologies being used to develop these images. As result, a lot of criticism towards this image would exist in the current period.

Both images “Madonna of the Meadow” and “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” have some similar attributes. These attributes are helpful while discussing the images with regards to theories encompassing what an image is. To begin with, an image can be referred to as an external representation of a person (Gombrich, 2009). This aspect is evident in both images whereby there are objects being depicted. Users of the images tend to get more information regarding the images by observing the objects being displayed. An image is also expected to act as a metaphor or simile (Gombrich, 2009). The above images have actualized this aspect by acting as Christian symbolism. Different authors have discussed this aspect widely. The images have also demonstrated use of different techniques. This is expected of any image so that the users can be able to grasp what the artist involved was trying to elaborate. Among the techniques involved in the images above include aerial perspective, chiaroscuro and sfumato. The techniques help in demonstrating the tone and color among other things.

Mukundan, R., & Ramakrishnan, K., 1998. Moment functions in image analysis: Theory and applications. Singapore: World Scientific.

Gombrich, E., 2009. The uses of images: Studies in the social function of art and visual communication. London: Phaidon.

Brown, D., & Pagden, S., 2006. Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian painting. Washington: National Gallery of Art .

Honour, H., & Fleming, J., 2005. A world history of art (7th ed.). London: Laurence King.

Mukundan, R., & Ramakrishnan, K., 1998. Moment functions in image analysis: Theory and applications. Singapore: World Scientific.

Pye, C., 2015. The storm at sea: Political aesthetics in the time of Shakespeare. New York: 9780823265046.

Surhone, L., 2010. The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (Leonardo da Vinci): Anne Selbdritt, oil painting, Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Anne, Mary, Child Jesus, Santissima Annunziata Florence. Gran Bretagna: Betascript publishing.


The Virgin and Child with St. Anne

The image shown above is a representation of “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci. It was developed during the renaissance period, hence has attracted opinions from different people. Different authors have discussed and analyzed the image based on varying perspectives. One common description among various authors is the triangular representation on the image. Surhone (2010) asserts that the triangle is used depict the family bond that exists between the three characters involved. Mary is held by her mother who intern aims at getting a grip on his son Jesus. Pye (2015) extends this analysis as an indication of the holy trinity. This is because the image depicts three characters that are related to each other, and they have a very strong bond (family) among them. Regardless of any occurrence, they would still remain to be a family due to the blood ties. The family aspect on the image is also elaborated through the displays of affection and tenderness portrayed in the image (Pye, 2015). Saint Anne shows a more sober attitude compared to Mary who is engulfed by a rapture of motherly love. Mukundan & Ramakrishnan (1998) also describes the image as a Christian symbolism. It combines two canonic catholic themes. Among them is the meeting of generations demonstrated by the child, mother and grandmother appearing together. The other one is manifested by the notion of passion and sacrifice. These aspects are attributed to Jesus due to the lamb that he is holding. The lamb represents an aspect of innocence. This aspect is memorialized by John the Baptist when he referred to Jesus as the “Lamb of God”. Surhone (2010) reiterates that the image exemplifies three pictorial techniques. They include aerial perspective, chiaroscuro and sfumato. Aerial perspective is demonstrated by showcasing distance by color and tone contrast. Chiaroscuro is demonstrated by use of dark and light to create modeling and relief effects. Sfumato on the other hand, helps in the defining of shapes using light and dark gradations. Mukundan & Ramakrishnan (1998), Surhone (2010) and Pye (2015) describe the aspect of Mary sitting on Anne’s laps in a similar way. They view it as an unusual aspect. It is not clear what Leonardo wanted to demonstrate.

The context of the image cannot be considered to be different in the current period compared to when it was developed. How people interpreted the image during its production period tends to remain constant. This is because the objective with which it was developed has not changed. It still depicts a similar aspect. What has changed may be are the criticisms revolving around the image. The image was developed during the renaissance period. This was revival of the art world. What this meant is that people saw the images as being spectacular since they had not seen such aspects in the past. The attribute limits acts of criticisms since there does not exist numerous images to compare with. This case is different in the current period. There is emergence of different types of images and technologies being used to develop these images. As result, a lot of criticism towards this image would exist in the current period.

Both images “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” and “Madonna of the Meadow” have some similar attributes. These attributes are helpful while discussing the images with regards to theories encompassing what an image is. To begin with, an image can be referred to as an external representation of a person (Gombrich, 2009). This aspect is evident in both images whereby there are objects being depicted. Users of the images tend to get more information regarding the images by observing the objects being displayed. An image is also expected to act as a metaphor or simile (Gombrich, 2009). The above images have actualized this aspect by acting as Christian symbolism. Different authors have discussed this aspect widely. The images have also demonstrated use of different techniques. This is expected of any image so that the users can be able to grasp what the artist involved was trying to elaborate. Among the techniques involved in the images above include aerial perspective, chiaroscuro and sfumato. The techniques help in demonstrating the tone and color among other things.

Surhone, L., 2010. The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (Leonardo da Vinci): Anne Selbdritt, oil painting, Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Anne, Mary, Child Jesus, Santissima Annunziata Florence. Gran Bretagna: Betascript publishing.

Pye, C., 2015. The storm at sea: Political aesthetics in the time of Shakespeare. New York: 9780823265046.


Louvre version

The Virgin of the Rocks which usually hangs in the Louvre is considered by most art historians to be the earlier of the two and date from around 1483-1486. Most authorities agree that the work is entirely by Leonardo. It is about 8 cm (3 in) taller than the London version. The first certain record of this picture is in 1625, when it was in the French royal collection. It is generally accepted that this painting was produced to fulfill a commission of 1483 in Milan. It is hypothesized that this painting was privately sold by Leonardo and that the London version was painted at a later date to fill the commission. There are a number of other theories to explain the existence of two paintings. This painting is regarded as a perfect example of Leonardo's "sfumato" technique.


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BY THE time Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519, he had been working on his painting of St Anne for 20 years and still was not quite finished with it. Nevertheless "The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne" consistently attracted the interest of other artists. The subject of St Anne, the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus was far from new. But its treatment had been static, like an icon. Leonardo's portrait of grandmother, mother and child was full of movement and emotion. It is now one of the most cherished masterpieces in Western art.

A monumental Anne sits with her adult daughter perched on her lap. Mary reaches out trying to keep a grip on Jesus who is half-straddling a lamb. One can talk about the painting's technical virtuosity, the forcefulness of its triangular composition, the way the dreamy jagged background contrasts with the scrubbland on which the figures rest. These elements all contribute to the work's greatness. But what has made viewers take it to their hearts is Leonardo's evocation of a subject that is at once universal and not of this earthly world—the love and tension between generations and also between humanity and the divine.

Not everyone has been a mother, but each of us was once a child. The viewer, therefore, has an intuitive connection with the people in the painting. We see a benign, even indulgent grandmother giving physical support to her daughter. Emotionally, however, she ignores Mary and gazes at her adorable and adored grandson. Mary has the disturbed expression of a mother worried over her wilful little boy. The infant looks back to his mother, as if to reassure her, but he will not abandon the lamb. It is as if Anne accepts what Mary has not yet been able to, that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, the Lamb of God.

One need not be Christian to be moved by this work. So many have been unnerved by the Louvre's announcement that “Saint Anne” was going to be cleaned and restored. Would this beloved, magical work be damaged or even destroyed in the name of “improving” it?

The cleaning and restoring of “Saint Anne” got underway in 2010, overseen by an international scientific committee of 20 specialists. It was completed early this year, and the Louvre has duly mounted a celebratory show. The first half of the exhibition features archival material, including Leonardo's notebooks, sketches and preparatory drawings—among them 22 loans from the Royal Collection in Windsor—which convey his thoughts about the composition. Then comes “Saint Anne”, joined by the large and beautiful “Burlington House Cartoon”. For the first time London's National Gallery has lent this 141.4 by 104.6 cm (55”x41.2”) preparatory drawing clearly it would not be Leonardo's last as it has the young John the Baptist in place of the lamb. Three additional paintings by Leonardo are also on view (but the Mona Lisa remains upstairs where as usual she draws crowds to the Italian painting galleries).

The second half of the Louvre show considers the influence Leonardo's “Saint Anne” has had on other artists, from those who worked in his studio to Michelangelo to Odilon Redon. Wonderful as some of these works are, after seeing Leonardo's versions in paint and charcoal, what follows feels like a tailing off.

This is an exciting, illuminating exhibition. It is also one with a rocky history. At the end of last year two highly esteemed members of the scientific committee overseeing the restoration of “St Anne” resigned. Jean-Pierre Cuzin, previously the Louvre's director of paintings, and Ségolène Bergeon Langle, its former director of conservation, did not make public their reasons. However, it is widely believed that they felt the cleaning had gone too far. It would not be the first time. To this viewer “Saint Anne” looks marvellous. The Virgin's voluminous wrap seems spun out of lapis lazuli and summer clouds. Come to your own conclusions. If you cannot see the show, do not fret. After it closes “Saint Anne” will be back on permanent view upstairs.


Watch the video: Leonardo da Vinci and Individual Ideal