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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Man] We're in the National Gallery in London, and we're looking at the second version, by Leonardo da Vinci, of The Virgin of the Rocks. - [Woman] There's another version in Paris. This, they think, is the second version, perhaps some of it completed by Leonardo's assistants, and we should remember when we read that, that that's how artists worked - That was normal - Right - That was normal - It's not a big deal, they had a workshop, they had assistants, assistants sometimes helped to complete the work of a painting and the idea, of course, is that the work of a painting is really not the actual painting, but it's also the idea. - Especially important for Leonardo. So, why is it that there are two versions, and why such a long period for this painting. It was started in 1491, it wasn't finished until 1508, and you can actually argue that it was never finished. - The commission was started and Leonardo was promised a bonus when he completed it, but the bonus that he got didn't live up to what he expected, and he - He sold it to somebody else - He apparently gave the painting to someone else, and then he had to work on a second version, and that's what this is. The Virgin of the Rocks is an interesting subject, cuz, for me, I normally think about Mary seated on a throne in Heaven. Here we have another way of presenting Mary, which is Mary seated on the ground, as a type of image of Mary called the Madonna of Humility, showing Mary's humility, seated on the ground. - Also means that the natural world has become a kind of throne, or is it more exalted than it would have previously been understood, in other words, I think in the Renaissance, nature itself is given a kind of respect and a kind of attention. But that's quite a landscape, this is not just a meadow, as we might see in a Rafael. - Right - So maybe we should actually just focus for a moment on who everybody is and what's going on here. We have the Virgin Mary who's the primary figure and really functions at the top of that pyramid of figures. She's embracing with her right arm a child, a baby, the slightly larger of the two, slightly older of the two, and that would be John the Baptist, who in turn is praying to the figure that is in turn blessing him, and that is the Christ Child, and then over to the right is an archangel. - And we can barely make out her wings behind her. Mary's gestures and the position of her body are incredibly graceful, she tilts her head to the right, kind of shifts her shoulders over, her hips move in the other direction, the way the right arm reaches out, the left hand comes forward, the position of her body is very complex, and to me that's really the signal we're in the High Renaissance, and of course that's what Leonardo develops, is this new, High Renaissance style where we have bodies that move very gracefully in very complex ways, and compositions which are unified, as you said, this one, where all the figures make up the shape of a pyramid. - It's interesting, as I'm looking at it, it seems as if Mary's hand on John's shoulder is actually a fairly stern one. Almost as if she's directing John to Christ. And look at the painting virtuosity here, look at the way in which her other hand, her left hand, is foreshortened. It seems to sort of encapsulate the space that Christ exists in, but is in no way directing him. And then, of course, there's that angel, which looks on with a kind of beauty and a king of elegance that is breath taking. - That speaks of the divine and this heavenly space that they occupy. And you're right, if you think about it, the way you just described it, which is that Mary's sort of ushering John toward Christ and Christ existing in a space unto himself, in a kind of extra divine realm within this divine realm. It really helps to make sense of those gestures. - And remember that, in the foreground, is a very still body of water, which can have a kind of double reference, both to Mary's purity, that undisturbed water, but at the same time, a kind of foreshadowing of the baptism of Christ by John, many years later, and of course this is an apocryphal story of their meeting as they both flee the Massacre of the Innocents. - And we know that this was commissioned by the - Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception. - In Milan - And that may have a sort of secondary set of references referring to her purity again, and the way in which this painting seems to really emphasize that. You've got the purity of the water, you've got the protected garden, all metaphors, and then you've got that flash of yellow across her waist which really draws attention, and the fact that all of these figures, and their faces, and their arms are all surrounding that almost sort of oddly empty central space. - And sort of revolve around - Absolutely. - That space of her womb. - The atmospheric perspective is gorgeous. - Well and the darkness of the painting is striking, especially as you look around at other Renaissance paintings, and this is a technique that Leonardo developed called sfumato, which means a kind of smoky haziness, where figures seem to emerge from the darkness of the background, and they don't have any of those hard lines around them, and I think this is also part of that High Renaissance softness and grace. - There's a kind of accuracy to the anatomy of the figures, to the botanical specimens, and even to the geology here that I think also reminds us that Leonardo was not just a painter, but was somebody who understood the natural world, was fascinated, and studied the natural world, and painting was one part of that series of professions. - Leonardo took that to an extreme, but that was also true of so many Renaissance artists that interested in anatomy and science. Although, Leonardo is the quintessential Renaissance man. (jazzy piano music)