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Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist (Burlington House Cartoon)

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist (Burlington House Cartoon), 1499-1500, charcoal and chalk on paper, 55.7 × 41.2 inches c. 1499-1500 (National Gallery, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Even in the Renaissance, drawings were sometimes works of art unto themselves. They weren't always preparatory. And we think that's the case with the large scale drawing by Leonardo that is usually given the title of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John. And that's because it's not perforated. SPEAKER 2: Right Although it's unfinished. So it's status is a little bit unclear. And it would have had tiny dots or perforations in it so that that would have allowed Leonardo to trace the outlines of the figures so that you could transfer a drawing to a panel or a wall to paint on. SPEAKER 1: Although using Leonardo's technique is so different from traditional, much more linear Renaissance painting that that would be more problematic. You get the basic contours. But his construction of the figure is so often simply using chiaroscuro, or using light and shadow. SPEAKER 2: Sfumato. SPEAKER 1: Well, that's because it's so soft and because it's so smoky. That idea of just the line that would be traced by the perforations seems sort of absurd. SPEAKER 2: Right. Yeah. He was much more interested in these, very slow gradations from dark to light and then moving back into dark again. So that is such a sense of three dimensionality and monumentality to these figures. SPEAKER 1: And also an integration of the figures into a whole. The figures form a kind of pyramid. They are so stable. And that's one of the characteristics about Renaissance. SPEAKER 2: That stability that would suggest that kind of eternity that is appropriate for the subject of these divine figures, so, go ahead. Did you want to say something? SPEAKER 1: Well, just wanted to say that it is such an interesting contrast. Because on the one hand, you've got the sense of an ideal perfection. This notion of the eternal, and sort of the eternally spiritual. On the other hand, there's such a kind of intimacy between figures, between Anne and Mary, and between John and Christ. SPEAKER 2: That's very human. SPEAKER 1: That's incredibly human and seems incredibly precious. And so sort of at odds with the notion of the eternal. SPEAKER 2: Yeah. It's both. That's what Leonardo does, right? He combines the human and the divine. That's the definition to me of what Leonardo accomplished in High Renaissance. SPEAKER 1: There are all these marvelous passages here. I mean, I just love the way that Anne turns to Mary, who sits on her lap. There's this kind of rhythm of needs of the two women, right? SPEAKER 2: Yeah. SPEAKER 1: Down, and up and down, and up again. It's almost musical as it moves across. SPEAKER 2: It makes me feel that Leonardo is certainly looking at classical sculpture. Because that so much looks to me like drapery on ancient Greek and Roman figures. SPEAKER 1: There is a sense of the varied age of the figures. And you get a real sense of Leonardo's process, especially when you look at the contrast between Anne's face and her hand, which is so much less finished and still so much more linear. SPEAKER 2: And Anne is pointing up to communicate this idea that this is part of God's plan, that Christ and his future sacrifice is part of God's plan for the salvation of mankind. SPEAKER 1: Look at the way in which Christ's arm bends around and his finger's up in blessing John. Actually it's continued upward by Anne's fingers. SPEAKER 2: Yeah. SPEAKER 1: So that's one continuous movement. In a sense Christ is literally drawn up in Anne's gesture. SPEAKER 2: Well, and that begins with the line from Mary's shoulder up through Christ and then pointing up to God. SPEAKER 1: In fact, you could actually begin that movement with Anne's glance at-- SPEAKER 2: Right. SPEAKER 1: Mary continuing down her shoulders, as you said, around her elbow, and then up through Christ's arm SPEAKER 2: And actually what we just did is a really good example of what was so important to Leonardo, which is that unification. Like, you can start linking things together the longer you look at the image. I mean, we can look at St. John's glance up at Christ and then move up there to Mary's looking at the Christ child. And then go back to Anne, whose looking at Mary. SPEAKER 1: That's right. And it really does create a pathway for her eyes. But all of which lead toward Heaven, which is, of course, the very point of the drawing. [MUSIC PLAYING]