Mark Harden's Artchive Leonardo da Vinci
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
1510
Oil on wood
168 x 130 cm (5 1/2 x 4 1/2 ft.)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

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Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.

TO ONE who is not blinded by familiarity it must make a strange impression. It is like the speeded up picture of vegetable growth or some very complex machine, designed to rotate and placed on a rotating platform. All the parts contribute to this movement and also have most intricate relationships with each other; and for a few seconds I am absorbed in following these complexities, oblivious of the subject matter, with a mental exhilaration similar to that of a musician following an elaborate fugue. But very soon my attention is fixed by the central pivot of the whole mechanism, the head of St Anne, smiling and withdrawn. How does her inscrutable inner life relate to the contrapuntal movement of the whole group? I feel certain that there is an absolute interdependence between the strangeness, the beauty and the scientific elaboration which strike me simultaneously when I first look at Leonardo's Virgin with St Anne. But how can it be defined?

Unwilling for the moment to face this problem, my gaze floats into the distance and wanders in the icy lunar landscape. But this Alpine expedition does not put an end to my questions, for I feel that this, too, is part of the same mystery; Leonardo is looking at the world as if from one of his projected flying machines, and seems to be pondering on its age and its ultimate hostility to human life. Clearly it is useless to examine Leonardo's picture with an innocent eye. Everything in his art turns one's thoughts to his life and to his restless intelligence.

He was an artist long before he was a scientist; in fact it was not until about 1483, when he was over thirty, that he began to ask questions and make notes of the answers. But in his earliest drawings his mind is already at work on one of the problems which were to occupy him throughout his life, what I may call the problem of pentup energy. It appears first in a series of enchanting studies, rapid and apparently spontaneous, of a mother with a child on her knee, struggling with a cat. All three pull in different directions yet all are combined within a simple form, so that the group could be modelled and turned round like a piece of sculpture. There, in relatively simple terms, is one germ of the St Anne.

What about the other, her inward turning smile? That, too, one can find in Leonardo's early work, and most significantly in the first figure which seems to come from the depths of his imagination, the angel in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks. That angel is quite different from the obedient, decorative angels of the fifteenth-century. It knows a secret and this has made it smile, gently, almost humanly compared with the St Anne, but with the same air of complicity. And this kinship reminds me that Leonardo, like Blake, developed peculiar ideas about angels, seeing them not as guardians, but as intermediaries who, in order to warn man that his reason is finite, stand at his elbow and propound unanswerable riddles.

But I must not peer any further into Leonardo's mind without looking more carefully at our picture, and this time I begin to consider its subject. Being used to the iconography of Italian painting, I can see that it is meant to represent the Virgin Mary, her mother, St Anne, and the Infant Christ; but could anything be further from historical probability? One need think only of a Rembrandt drawing of the same theme, simple, domestic, humanly touching, to realise that Leonardo has made no attempt to picture the scene as it might have happened. Of course the same would be true of Raphael or of any classical painter of the high Renaissance; but they would have transformed ordinary experience because they believed that sacred persons should be endowed with unusual physical perfection. Leonardo's intention is metaphysical. His figures are peculiar because they have become symbols, and in order to interpret these I must first of all try to discover what put them into his mind and then see how they were transformed by the pressure of his philosophy.

Before his time the best known representation of the Virgin with St Anne was the grave, gaunt picture by Masaccio in the Uffizi, in which St Anne stands directly behind her daughter like a ghost; and of about the same date are some more primitive versions of the subject, where a diminutive Virgin sits on St Anne's lap like a ventriloquist's doll. These pictures were certainly known to Leonardo, and I believe that something uncanny in the overshadowing presence of St Anne struck deep into his imagination. He saw her as an informing spirit, a doppelganger, a control; in fact as something very close to his idea of an angel. The subject fascinated him, but the old stiff iconography was doubly unacceptable; it lacked that sense of movement which for thirty years had been the chief aim of Florentine art; and it failed to express his feeling of continuous involvement between mother and daughter. To achieve these qualities he engaged in the most sustained and resolute struggle with form of his whole career.

By rare good fortune the first phase of this struggle has come down to us. It is the large drawing, or cartoon, which hangs in the Council Room of the Royal Academy [nb - now in the National Gallery, London]. Such drawings were intended to be full-size preparations for pictures, but Leonardo, who hated the manual labour of painting, evidently made them for their own sakes. The Burlington House cartoon could scarcely be more beautiful, and many lovers of Italian art have found it more to their liking than the picture in the Louvre. It was executed in about 1497, directly after the completion of The Last Supper, and gives us some idea what the massive figures of the Apostles must have been like before time and restoration had reduced them to stains upon the walls 'faint as the shadows of autumnal leaves'. Of all Leonardo's works it is the most classical in spirit, and I think there is no doubt that the Phidian grandeur of these flowing draperies was inspired by an antique relief. But for some reason it did not satisfy him. One may suppose that he felt the left hand side, below the arc of the Virgin's shoulder, to be rather weak and flat; and he may have been worried that the two heads, being on the same level, created two equal points of focus, Its very classicism may have been distasteful to him. It is too tranquil: it lacks the power of pent up force. Beautiful as it is, I feel that the Burlington House cartoon did not come from the centre of his being. He left it for Luini to copy and set about other designs.

Two of these were done in Florence in the autumn of 1500 and the spring of 1501. Both are lost, but they were among his most admired works, and are known to us from careful contemporary descriptions. By relating these descriptions to drawings and copies we can form some idea what these cartoons were like, and can see how persistently Leonardo clung to his idea of movement so closely intertwined that the two figures seem to be one, with St Anne's head as the climax of the design. Ten years later, when he came to paint the Louvre picture, it had become almost a private problem, like the formulation of some mathematical theorem, which only a few initiates could understand. No wonder that the poses are improbable, so that when we meet the figures removed from their complex, as we do in certain pictures of Leonardo's school, they seem to be unbearably distorted.

But did he paint it? It has often been doubted, and this forces me to look at the picture again in a different spirit. People sometimes maintain that trying to find out who painted a picture from internal evidence is a futile and destructive occupation; but that has not been my experience. Problems of attribution have the advantage over iconographical problems that they compel one to look at the original picture. And as I search from place to place in the Virgin with St Anne for signs of Leonardo's hand my responses are sharpened far beyond the point of passive enjoyment, and the faculties of memory which are brought into play greatly increase my sensibility. I look, for example, at the infant Christ's head, and discover the same exquisite egg shell texture which I remember in the Mona Lisa. I look at the lamb's fleece, and notice that the curls have the same spiral as Leonardo's drawings of water spouts. My eye passes down to the rocky platform, and I am at once reminded of his geological studies and am delighted to find between St Anne's feet some curious pebbles which only he would have bothered to paint so minutely. Most interesting of all, I suddenly remember where I have seen the form of that strange and rather repulsive piece of drapery which grows like a piece of fungus out of the Virgin's waist. It is in Leonardo's anatomical note books of 1509, and in particular those which deal with embryology; and for a moment I pause fascinated by the complexity of his mind and the astonishing range of experiences he could compress into a single image. Finally, I return to the mountains, and there I have no doubts, for no one else but Leonardo had the knowledge of rock formation and the interest in aerial perspective to make these magical distances convincing: no one, at any rate, before Turner.

But what about the figures of the Virgin and St Anne? They are in a technique quite unlike that of the other pictures by Leonardo which hang near them in the Louvre. They are painted lightly, almost as if in water colour, and in places they seem to be unfinished, or rubbed away by a restorer. But Leonardo disliked the conventional use of oil paint, and loved to experiment with techniques. His drawings became looser and more evocative as be grew older; and there is a light, feathery study for the actual head of St Anne, very different in touch from the sharpness of his early drawings. I used to think it subtler and more mysteriously feminine than the painting; but I now see that in the creation of a powerful image like the St Anne some delicacy of individual character must be sacrificed, and I have come to believe that no one but Leonardo could have invented and executed the head which dominates this hermetic triangle.

By puzzling over this question of authenticity I have now come to know the picture in detail, and I can return to the total impression. it is still disturbing. I cannot enjoy it unquestioningly, as I might a Titian or a Velasquez. Once more I brood on the curious elements of which it is composed, the intertwined figures, the umbilical draperies, the moonscape and the smile, and wonder how they are connected with one another. And an answer begins to form in my mind, which may not, heaven knows, be correct, but is at least in keeping with Leonardo's spirit.

I remember that the Virgin with St Anne was painted at a period in his life when his mind was absorbed by three scientific studies, anatomy, geology and the movement of water. The movement of water symbolised for him the relentless continuum of natural force; anatomy the complexity of life and its power of renewal; and from his geological studies he had formed the concept that the whole world was breathing and renewing itself like a living organism. In one of his manuscripts he says: 'The earth has a spirit of growth. Its flesh is the soil, its bones the stratifications of the rock which forms the mountains, its blood the springs of water; and the increase and decrease of blood in the pulses is represented in the earth by the ebb and flow of the sea.'

Everything in nature, even the solid seeming earth, was in a state of flux. But the source and centre of this continuous energy remained mysterious to him. He could only symbolise it by this ideal construction, in which forms, themselves suggestive of further lives, flow in and out of one another with inexhaustible energy; and at the apex of this vital pyramid is the head of Leonardo's angel familiar, smiling, half with love for human creatures and half with the knowledge of a vital secret which they can never possess.