The Mystery of the Twin Leonardos

If you’ve been to both the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris (the latter of which I’ve already written about how much I love, but the former is most definitely my favourite place on the planet), you might have noticed that Leonardo painted a twin set of paintings. The esoteric, enigmatic Madonna, or Virgin, of the Rocks has a commanding presence in both museums and has endlessly baffled art historians and visitors – the main confusion being over why exactly Leonardo painted two, and the second being did Leonardo fully execute both of them?


My photo of Madonna of the Rocks in the Louvre, often believed to be the earlier version, fully executed by Leonardo

The Madonna of the Rocks began life as a commission from the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan for the middle panel of an altarpiece to be erected in their chapel in San Francesco il Grande. We even have a precise date of the commission, the 25th April 1483. Leonardo’s middle panel was to be accompanied by two side panels by the de Predis brothers – these panels are held at the National Gallery as well. The de Predis were also employed to gilt the frame. However, what promised to be a beautiful piece of art became embroiled in a bitter legal battle over payment, which lasted more than two decades. An appeal was first lodged in the 1490s (almost a decade after the original commission – Leonardo certainly liked to take his time!) and it was not resolved until 1508. Art historians have speculated that because of this long and arduous legal battle, Leonardo sold the first copy in defiance – suggested to be the Louvre copy, dated to the 1490s. Unfortunately, no records detail the identity of the buyer, but it eventually came to be in the possession of the French King Louis XII. The National Gallery painting, however, has a clearer history. It can be traced from the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception altarpiece, with a completion date of about 1508.

It is the subtle visual differences between the two paintings that call Leonardo’s authorship into question. Both are absolutely stunning – but this line of investigation is slightly hampered by the fact that the National Gallery copy has recently been restored to a state believed to be accurate to its appearance upon completion. This in itself is fantastic, as it puts the viewer in the same position of the artist over half a millennium ago, when he stood looking at his finished masterpiece. The beautiful azure accents in the sky and the water stand in beautiful contrast to the rich browns of the rocks, and the marmoreal pallor of Mary’s beautifully modelled complexion. However, the Louvre version now looks quite different, which is why authorship is often called into question.

leonardo virgin of the rocks ng.jpg


Wish it was my photo but it’s not – the National Gallery copy of Madonna of the Rocks, arguably painted later and suggested to have either been fully or partially completed by another hand

I would never want to doubt Leonardo’s authorship – particularly as there are so few of his works in comparison to other Renaissance masters (which is what makes the ones we do have so valuable!) – so I have found reading art historians’ theories in relation to the disparities between the two. I had to research this for a piece of work on one of my first art history courses at university, so these two twin paintings have a special place in my heart! Kenneth Clark is a particularly famous historian of Leonardo, working during the twentieth century – writing before the restoration of the National Gallery copy, Clark believed that the differences between the two resulted from the development of Leonardo’s theories on painting. The Louvre copy reflected his 1480s Florentine period, whereas the later copy depicts his later ideas and thus changing style. Christ’s face seems to have aged between the two copies, and the pointing hand of the angel is lost in the later work. (The pointing hand in the Louvre version seems not dissimilar to his John the Baptist, despite this work being a contemporary of the proposed date for the National Gallery copy). Clark also suggests that one of the characteristic elements of Leonardo’s art, his chiaroscuro technique (strong contrasts between light and dark), is used so expertly that none of his pupils or another artist could have executed it. Geological examinations of the works have suggested that somebody else finished the later version – Leonardo recorded many rock formations in his notebooks, and the Louvre version match these, whereas the National Gallery copy doesn’t seem to. There are inconsistent theories, however, over who could have finished it off. Names such as Marco d’Oggiono, Francesco Napoletano and Ambrogio de Predis have been thrown around in this capacity. The last is probably most plausible because some documents from 1508 suggest Ambrogio wanted to make a copy of Madonna of the Rocks under the close supervision of Leonardo.

Whether Leonardo finished the second version or not, it is quite fantastic that there are two copies of this masterpiece in the two of the most spectacular art galleries in the world. They are both well worth a visit, and show Leonardo at his absolute best. Whilst Vasari doesn’t write specifically on these two pictures, his conclusion to his Life of Leonardo perfectly summarises the bright, striking and shadowy paintings that can be seen in the Louvre and the National Gallery: “In painting he brought to the technique of colouring in oils a way of darkening the shadows which has enabled modern painters to give great vigour and relief to their figures.”


  • Kenneth Clark’s work on Leonardo da Vinci has been consistently revised and revered, but also revered is the more recent work of Martin Kemp – I have his book Leonardo, my copy from 2011, which is a really good, readable account of the artist and his work


  • I’ve already gone on about how brilliant it is that the Louvre opens one night a week – and don’t worry, you can find Madonna of the Rocks nearby other Leonardo masterpieces, such as the infamous Mona Lisa and the serene Virgin and Child with St Anne – but the National Gallery in London is also fabulous in the fact that on a Friday, it’s opening hours are extended to 9pm in the evening! Otherwise, it is open daily 10am until 6pm. Right next door is the National Portrait Gallery as well, so don’t miss that either!

I borrowed that beautiful, high quality picture of the National Gallery version from their website, which allows you to download images of their paintings for personal use (including blogs, I checked!) – more reasons why I love it there!

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