Leonardo Da Vinci’s Madonnas
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Madonnas
By the 16th century, the Renaissance philosophy was spreading through Europe. The Renaissance philosophy was called humanism. Humanism rebuked the influence of scholastic and conventional beliefs and promoted education, and the idea of a well-rounded man capable of assessing its place in the world, and the society. Leonardo was the best example of a renaissance man. A well-cultivated person who is always willing to learn something new, and discover the secrets of the classic world. However, many times Leonardo is seen as an illiterate, or a mere copyist of other’s ideas. It is true that Leonardo holds a great debt to tradition, but the independent contributions he did are too important to be bypassed (Kemp 251). When reading the papers da Vinci left, we can see that Leonardo was an exceptional man who excelled in all the artistic fields, and did substantial contributions to many other subjects. Leonardo was a renaissance man, but he was not a scholar. That is why his work is so interesting, because he relies on his senses, rather than in scholar sources to do his works. Da Vinci’s senses were so keen that he was able to spot and reproduce the movements of the body with incredible precision. Moreover, since he was not a bookish kind of man, he was more interested in what his senses showed him. (Gombrich 185).
Leonardo da Vinci was born near in the Tuscan town of Vinci. He was the illegitimate son of a local lawyer. In his youth, he served as the apprentice of Verrocchio, one of the most famous Tuscan painters of the Quattrocento. In 1478, he left was teacher’s workshop and became an independent artist. After a few prolific years as an independent artist, he moved to Milan, to work for the Sforza family, one of the most influential and powerful families from Italy. In Milan, he worked as an engineer, painter, sculptor, and architect. It was during those years where he painted The Last Supper. The mural is located in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. The painter stayed in Milan until the French invaded the city in 1499, and the Sforza family was forced to flee. He later moved to Florence and painted the famous Mona Lisa between the years of 1503-1506. He returned to Milan and went to France after being invited by King Francis I, he died two years later in 1519. The most striking feature about Leonardo was his capacity to be able to create an eclectic array of things. From sculptures to the lens, from painting to castles. He was a master of many subjects, a man whose legacy still lingers in our society.
After this brief introduction, we shall do an analysis on three of the Madonnas painted by Da Vinci. A Madonna is a representation of the Virgin Mary, alone or with her child, Jesus. The images of Madonnas are central parts of the Catholic art and were extensively painted in the Renaissance. (Hall 200) Being a man of his time, Da Vinci painted Madonnas. Moreover, although they are not as known as works such as “The Last Supper”; or the “Mona Lisa”, they offer an attractive image of what was Renaissance art and its stylistic conventions.
The works we chose are: Benois Madonna (1478); Madonna of the Carnation (circa 1479); The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1503). We chose these three Madonnas since we consider they although they are not as historically important as other paintings, they can show us the process and style employed by Leonardo when painting them.
Benois Madonna Analysis. Benois Madonna was the first important painting Leonardo completed independently from his teacher, Verrocchio. It is called Benois since Leon Benois had it in a private collection before selling it to the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg in 1901. This work, from a younger Leonardo, shows us the expressive force the artist. Henri Berenson, one of the greatest art critics of the 20th that the painting had a particular charm, and considered it pivotal to see the canon the artist was going to develop in the future (Samuels 214). In this painting, we can see the naturalist approach that Leonardo was going to favor in his later works. The painting is a display of emotions and affection from the children to her child, and the amount and richness of the details tell us the kind of artist Leonardo was going to become. The painting’s composition is triangular, a shape that conveyed the Christian mystery of the Holy Trinity. It is important to note that this painting is done in oil, and not in tempera like the rest of the artists of his time did. However, it is a mark of the later Renaissance to paint using oil colors, since these last longer and add shimmer to the painting.
Madonna of Carnation Analysis. Madonna of the Carnation is close to the date to the Benois Madonna, and upon closer examination we can say that the child in both paintings in the same. This was a practice common in the Renaissance art. The painters had a model and used it, but they also used their imagination to achieve an idealized image of how the figures should look like. It is likely that Da Vinci had used the same model because its facial expressions and position are almost identical. The painting, like most Madonnas, is done using a triangular composition. We can see that most of the detail lies in the Virgin’s clothes, and that the background is done using a sfumato technique, which aided the perspective, and to convey a sense of depth within the image. Also, we can see a primitive chiaroscuro technique in the Virgin’s hair that goes from a dark brown to a blonde color due to the action of light on the subject.
Virgin and Child with Saint Anne Analysis. This painting represents a later stage of Leonardo’s work, and offer us a mature artist that has mastered the elements of his era’s style. This painting’s composition is a dynamic one and is barely encased in the triangular shape the artist meant for it. The child playing with the lamb, both symbols of purity in the Christianity shows the level of mastery Leonardo had acquired in his later years. We can see an excellently performed sfumato in the background of the image, which aids the perspective and gives a thorough illusion of depth. Concerning the figures we can see that unlike the other Madonnas we have analyzed, this one has a greater degree of movement and freedom. In the virgins pose and actions, we can see how well Leonard studied the human figure. However, it is the child what strikes us the most since it is masterfully depicted with all its movements and characteristics. In the same way, we see elements of Chiaroscuro in the women’s dresses. Also, this painting was done using a darker palette, a situation that could have been done to foresee the future of the life of Christ. To be sacrificed as a lamb to wash all the Christianity’s sins.
Without a doubt, Leonardo was one of the greatest painters of all time, and his influences go beyond painting. He was a skilled sculptor and architect who was not only considered a genius because of his paintings but because of his status as a polymath. The modern world has many things to learn from Da Vinci, and it is being said that we have not uncovered all the secrets the master have left. However, this apology comes with a warning, since as Berenson said “Don’t we run the risk, as the result of much research, and over-subtle analysis, of reducing Leonardo to a shadow of himself?” (Samuels 214).
In this painting, we sought to explain Leonardo’s life and influence on art through his Madonnas and show the importance of them in the context of the Renaissance art. In the same way, we sought to find artwork that was not conventional, to show a different picture of the man.
Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. Sixteenth ed. Phaidon, 1995. Print.
Hall, Marcia B. Color, and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.
Kemp, M. Leonardo Da Vinci, the Marvellous Works of Nature and Man. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1981. Print
Samuels, E., and J. Samuels. Bernard Berenson, the Making of a Legend. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1987. Print.