Leonardo da Vinci - The Madonna in the grotto

by Alexandra Tuschka


Four people have gathered on the ground in the shelter of a rock grotto. The lady in the center, Mother Mary, is arranged highest and also forms the top of the pyramidal compositional form. To her left and right are two infants, one of whom is gently supported by an angel.


In a sense, the group of people has arranged itself around an empty space in its center. The viewer's line of sight jumps back and forth between the eyes and hands of the four people. The left child has his hands closed in prayer, the right one hand formed into a gesture of blessing. The angel points to his counterpart with his outstretched finger and Mother Mary unites both sides by seeming to lead the children towards each other with her open posture. Her gaze is devoutly lowered. She sits, like all the others, on the floor and is thus based on the type of the "Madonna dell' humilita" - the "Madonna of humility". Only the angel makes direct eye contact with us and thus acts as a mediator. The halos, as was slowly becoming customary at the time, were dispensed with.


It is quite unanimously assumed that a scene from an apocryphal source - the Protoevangelium of James - is alluded to here, according to which John the Baptist as a child is accompanied by the angel Uriel to protect him from Herod's infanticide. As is well known, Jesus and his family were fleeing to Egypt at that time. Meanwhile all are to have met each other. But which of the boys is now which saint? Is Jesus, as one should expect, the slightly taller one, the higher-ranking one, who is also closer to his mother? And is John, who will baptize Jesus and thus also "bless" him, the child closer to the angel Uriel? Surely one might expect the archangel to point to the Savior and not, say, to the third most important in the picture? A second version of the painting shows that these plausible conclusions were not laid out by da Vinci. Jesus is the boy on the right and consequently the boy of John is on the left of the painting.

The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception have been proven to have commissioned the work, and the contract between them and the artist survives to this day. Nevertheless, the history of the two paintings is not clear. It is assumed that the just mentioned aspects of the brotherhood bitterly offended - the danger of confusion of the two children, the size of the John boy and his place next to Mary irritated the visual habit and the religious statement. Possibly for this reason, a second, modified version was created. Originally, the work was to decorate the central part of a polyptych, but was probably never placed there. There it would have taken the function of a "lid picture", which hid the actual cult image. In this case, it was a figure of the Madonna, which is no longer preserved. Many indications suggest that the first version was acquired by Louis XII shortly after its creation, and is still in the Louvre today. Another tradition tells that the brotherhood did not pay Leonardo enough for the first version, so he sold it elsewhere, took 20 years for the second version and had it continued by his pupil Ambrogio de Predis. As an indication of the foreign hand, the plants and natural elements of the second version are repeatedly mentioned, which lack the precision and scientific detail of a Da Vinic.


In the second work, the environment remains faithful to its predecessor version, but within the group of persons, small but remarkable changes have taken place: the boy John has been made quite clearly identifiable by his attribute - the cross staff - and a band with the inscription ""Ecce A/GNIVS"", which is only darkly recognizable. He thus receives his blessing from Jesus in the scene. The prominent pointing gesture of the angel was taken out without further ado. Also, he probably has no desire to contact us anymore and instead looks dreamily over to the other part of the picture. Everyone except him has had a halo added.


Why did Leonardo choose to depict the people in a rock grotto? On the one hand, this shows his fanatical passion for nature and its study. Of course, it can be interpreted that the recognizable plants also have a symbolic character. The highly poisonous wolfsbane could refer to the imminent fate of the children, and the iris was associated with God's covenant with man. Also the conscious bringing together of the two children with the help of the other persons seems like a "providence". Mary could thus express her total devotion to the greater plan. In this rapt and protected natural landscape, the persons insert themselves and experience a moment of devotion. The abyss in the foreground of the painting is sometimes interpreted as a visualization of impending destiny, and the still, unmoving water could also allude to the immaculate conception. In addition, of course, this foreshadows the baptism by John.


Leonardo's genius is also evident in the background. The perspective shows a clear blurring and increasing blurriness towards the back. Both stylistic means to achieve a lot of depth and which were not known in the Middle Ages. In the first version, the deep-space view appears natural and homogeneous. Not least because of this, there is a certain qualitative difference between the two versions, which has led to the first version enjoying more attention to this day.


Leonardo da Vinci - The Madonna in the grotto

Oil on canvas, between 1483 - 1486, 199 cm × 122 cm, Musée du Louvre in Paris


Version 2: Oil on wood, between 1493 - 1508, 189.5 x 120 cm, National Gallery, London