The engraving has popularized the Vierge aux Rochers,26 that composition that exhales the strange and mysterious grace of the master. In a strange spot, a kind of grotto bristling with stalactites and sharply pointed rocks, the holy Virgin presents the little Saint John to the Infant Jesus, who blesses him with uplifted finger. An angel with a proud and charming face,—a celestial hermaphrodite having something of the young maiden and the youth but superior to either in his ideal beauty,—accompanies and supports the little Jesus like a page of the great household who watches over the child of the king with mingled respect and protection. Hair of a thousand crisp curls frames that face so aristocratic and distinguished. Certainly this angel occupies a very high rank in the hierarchy of the sky; he should, at least, possess a throne, a dominion, or a principality. The Infant Jesus draws himself up in a pose that shows great knowledge of foreshortening, and is a marvel of roundness and fine modelling. The Virgin is of that charming Lombard type in which under chaste innocence appears that malicious playfulness which da Vinci excels in rendering. The colour of this majestic picture has blackened, particularly in the shadows, but it has lost nothing of its harmony, and perhaps it is more ideally poetic than if it had kept its original freshness and the natural tones of life. Doubts have been raised regarding this picture. Some critics have wished to see here merely a composition by Leonardo executed by a strange hand, or even simply the copy of another canvas painted for the chapel of the Conception of the church of the Franciscans in Milan. But none other than Leonardo could have drawn such firm and pure contours or carried this model through those learned grades that give to the body the roundness of sculpture with all the softness of skin, or rendered his favourite types so superbly and delicately....

The Madonna of the Rocks. L. da Vinci.

The Madonna of the Rocks.
L. da Vinci.

The Madonna of the Rocks, the engraving of which is so well known, belongs to and may be considered the type of Leonardo's second manner. The modelling is pursued with a care not found in those painters who are not familiar with the engraving chisel. The roundness of the bodies obtained by gradation of tints, the exactness of the shadows and the parsimonious reserve in the light in this unparalleled picture betray the habits of a sculptor. We know that Leonardo was one, and he often said: "It is only in modelling that the painter can find the science of shadow." For a long time earthen figures which he made use of in his work were preserved.

The appearance of the Madonna of the Rocks is singular, mysterious, and charming. A kind of basaltic grotto shelters the divine group placed on the bank of a spring which shows the stones of its bed through its limpid waters. Through the arched grotto we see a rocky landscape dotted with slender trees and traversed by a stream, on the banks of which is a village; the colour of all this is as indefinable as those chimerical countries that we pass through in dreams and is marvellously appropriate to set off the figures.

What an adorable type is the Madonna! It is quite peculiar to Leonardo, and does not in the least recall the virgins of Perugino nor those of Raphael: the upper part of the head is spherical, the forehead well developed; the oval of the cheeks sweeps down to a delicately curved chin; the eyes with lowered lids are circled with shadow; the nose, although fine, is not in a straight line with the forehead, like those of the Greek statues; the nostrils seem to quiver as if palpitating with respiration. The mouth, rather large, has that vague, enigmatical and delicious smile which da Vinci gives to all the faces of his women; faint malice mingles there with the expression of purity and kindness. The hair, long, fine, and silky, falls in waving locks upon cheeks bathed in shadows and half-tints, framing them with incomparable grace.

It is Lombard beauty idealized with an admirable execution whose only fault is perhaps too absolute a perfection.

And what hands! especially the one stretched out with the fingers foreshortened. M. Ingres alone has succeeded in repeating this tour de force in his figure of La Musique couronnant Cherubini. The arrangement of the draperies is of that exquisite and precious taste that characterizes da Vinci. An agrafe in the form of a medallion fastens on the breast the ends of a mantle lifted up by the arms which thus produce folds full of nobility and elegance.

The angel who is pointing out the Infant Jesus to the little Saint John has the sweetest, the finest, and the proudest head that brush ever fixed upon canvas. He belongs, if we may so express it, to the highest celestial aristocracy. One might say he was a page of high birth accustomed to place his foot on the steps of a throne.

Hair in waves and ringlets abounds upon his head, so pure and delicate in design that it surpasses feminine beauty and gives the idea of a type superior to all that man can dream of; his eyes are not turned towards the group that he is pointing at, for he has no need to look in order to see, and even if he did not have wings on his shoulders, we should not be deceived regarding his nature. A divine indifference is depicted upon his charming face, and almost a smile lurks in the corners of his lips. He accomplishes the commission given him by the Eternal with an impassible serenity.

Assuredly no virgin, no woman, ever had a more beautiful face; but the most manly spirit and the most dominating intelligence shine in those dark eyes, fixed vaguely upon the spectator who seeks to penetrate their mystery.

We know how difficult it is to paint children. The scarcely settled forms of the earliest age lend themselves awkwardly to art expression. In the little Saint John of the Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci has solved this problem with his accustomed superiority. The drawn-up position of the child, who presents several portions of his body foreshortened, is full of grace, a grace sought-for and rare, like everything else that the sublime artist ever did, but natural, nevertheless. It is impossible to find anything more finely modelled than this head with its chubby dimpled cheeks, than those plump little round arms, than the body crossed with rolls of fat, and those legs half folded in the sod. The shadow advances towards the light by gradations of infinite delicacy and gives an extraordinary relief to the figure.

Half enveloped in transparent gauze, the divine Bambino kneels, joining his hands as if he were already conscious of his mission and understood the gesture which the little Saint John repeats after the angel.

With regard to the colour, if in becoming smoked it has lost its proper value, it has retained a harmony preferred by delicate minds for the freshness and brilliancy of its shadows. The tones have deadened in such perfect sympathy that the result is a kind of neutral, abstract, ideal, and mysterious tint which clothes the forms like a celestial veil and sets them apart from terrestrial realities.

Guide de l'Amateur au Musée du Louvre (Paris, 1882).


26 The National Gallery and the Louvre each claims that it possesses the original of this celebrated picture and that its rival is a replica. The former was purchased in Milan, in 1796 by Gavin Hamilton, who sold it to Lord Suffolk, in whose collection at Charlton Park it was long an ornament. It was purchased from him in 1880 for £9,000. The Louvre picture is first mentioned as belonging to Francis I. Designs for it are in Turin and Windsor, and in these the outstretched hand of the angel appears. This does not occur in the London Madonna of the Rocks, which differs in several details; for example, there are halos above the heads of the figures and John the Baptist carries a cross.—E.S.