Cleaning shows that London’s Virgin of the Rocks is nearly all by the artist’s hand

After five years of research and conservation, Leonardo's masterpiece is once again looking its best



Cleaning work on the National Gallery’s Virgin of the Rocks has revealed that the landscape was painted by Leonardo—not his studio, as had been assumed. This follows the removal of damaged varnish, which was applied during restoration 60 years ago.

With Leonardo, conservation work is only undertaken after years of investigation. Last November the trustees of the London gallery authorised the treatment of the work after five years of research. The examination of the picture has provided an insight into how it was made, and its relationship with Leonardo’s earlier version, now in the Louvre. Details were presented at a National Gallery conference to mark the 30th anniversary of its Technical Bulletin.

The first version of the Virgin of the Rocks was commissioned for Milan’s San Francesco church in 1483, but there was a dispute with Leonardo, who sold off the painting in the early 1490s. This picture eventually ended up at the Louvre.

A second version was commissioned and installed in the church in 1503 and completed in situ—a process which took a further five years. The project took 25 years because Leonardo kept getting diverted (for instance, on The Last Supper, 1495-98, in Milan) and he was notoriously reluctant to finish his paintings.

The main differences between the first (Louvre) and later (National Gallery) versions is that the pose and draperies of the angel changed and the cross of St John the Baptist was added. The second version remained in the Milan church until 1780, when it was brought to England by artist Gavin Hamilton. It was purchased by the National Gallery in 1880 for £9,000.

The National Gallery’s panel was last cleaned in 1949, when new varnish was applied. This has aged particularly badly, and came to represent what restorer Larry Keith describes as an “insuperable obstacle to a proper reading of the picture”. In 2004, the painting was investigated with infrared reflectography, revealing the existence of two separate underdrawings, both from Leonardo’s hand: the first depicts the Virgin in a different position and the second is much closer to the Louvre version. Around 20 paint samples were taken from the edge of the panel or damaged areas to examine the layers and underdrawing.

Curator Luke Syson is delighted with the results of the cleaning, which has revealed “the volume of the figures, the space in which they sit, and the subtlety of the transitions from light to shade—which are really quite extraordinary.”

A key question is how much of the National Gallery painting is by Leonardo. Until now, it was believed that the figures were by Leonardo and the landscape by his studio, but it is now clear that this represents an oversimplification; the sharp distinction between figures and landscape does not hold. For instance, the hair of the Virgin is only partly by the master, and the slightly crude left foot of Christ might be by another hand.

Fortunately, paint losses are relatively minor. The only substantial missing areas are to the clothing of the angel and Virgin, where the red-lake pigment has deteriorated. Overall, the panel has survived remarkably well. Retouching work will take several months. The gallery anticipates that the Virgin of the Rocks will go back on display early next year.

The Louvre’s picture is in worse condition, because of more serious paint losses and damaged varnish, which means the colours have darkened considerably. Conservation would be very complicated, and it is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The fragility of the two versions makes it unlikely that they will ever be exhibited side-by-side. However, we can reveal that the National Gallery is planning an exhibition in 2011, inspired by Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Illuminating a masterpiece'