Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious masterpiece | DW Documentary

Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious masterpiece | DW Documentary
Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ is his most enigmatic painting. And it’s not just the Madonna’s unusual setting that raises questions. Why did he paint not one, but two versions of the work?

Part of the Louvre’s collection in Paris, ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ is a highly mysterious work of art. Why did da Vinci place the Madonna in a cave? What hidden symbolism lies in the unusual background, which does not appear in the Gospels? The film traces these questions through the clues da Vinci himself left in his personal notebooks, known as the Codex Atlanticus.

The artist’s works are always full of significant symbolism and allegory. The journey toward understanding the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ begins with da Vinci’s move from Florence to Milan. It was there that he hoped to embark on larger and more interesting projects. Can answers to this painting’s mysteries be found in Leonardo’s career and in interpretations of other works? Or will its secrets remain forever hidden?

[Music] it is perhaps the most mysterious work
ever painted by Leonardo da vinci so mysterious in fact that he painted
not one but two versions of the work and then had his pupils make several copies
as well it is perhaps the greatest leonardo
masterpiece in the collection of the louvre and no it is not the mona lisa
it is the virgin of the rocks
the scene is nowhere described in the gospels an angel and the christ child
presented to mary and the young john the baptist what does it mean
why did leonardo set the scene in a cave was there another symbolic meaning to
this beautiful painting that perhaps we just don’t understand today you can see i think the impact of this
work is enormous in terms of in particular i think the figure of the virgin within it
and what is the meaning of the mysterious underdrawing that curators discovered in the london version of the
painting perhaps the answer lies in a huge
mountain range just north of milan using leonardo’s notebook the codex
atlanticus we will follow in leonardo’s footsteps in search of the key
that could unlock this great mystery [Music]
today milan is a bustling city it is quite literally poised on the
crossroads between the european north and south
but in the 15th century the milanese art scene was far removed from the exciting
innovations of the florentine renaissance so what prompted leonardo in 1482 to
leave florence and come here in a land so different from his native
tuscany he did not want to work
for businessmen for wool merchants and for obscure bands of monks who had
their friaries outside the walls of florence or inside walls of florence he really wanted to work
for a prince or a duke he wanted to do large-scale engineering projects and
those were not going to be available to him in florence what he was getting in florence is what you would expect from
someone who was a young man who’d been trained up as an artist by one of the
finest goldsmiths painters in florence of his generation verrocchio he was
getting altarpieces and things like that to paint for these obscure bands of monks outside the gates of florence
[Music] that altarpiece was the result of leonardo’s first big commission
to paint an adoration of the magi a key scene from matthew’s nativity
gospel for the monks of son donato ascopeto such nativity scenes were popular in
florence because it created an opportunity to dress the three kings in the rich cloth that had made florence
wealthy beyond compare [Music]
many other famous florentine artists had painted such nativity scenes and
established a basic iconography
but leonardo rejected that convention instead he chose to place mary and her
child at the center of a vortex of human emotions ranging from wonder and delight
to puzzlement and despair the young man at the far right is even
looking the other way some believe this is leonardo himself
[Music] the adoration of the magi is very important for our story because
it marks leonardo’s development of narrative art what that means is that it’s really the
first of leonardo’s literary works a painting filled with allegorical and
symbolic meaning [Music] the background is equally mysterious
do these ruins depict the palace of king david or is it the basilica of maxencius in
rome which according to a medieval legend collapsed on the night of jesus’s birth
and who are these mounted warriors are these the military escorts of the
three kings or is this a preview of the many wars that would be fought in the name of
christ what it shows is that leonardo really wants to establish himself as an artist
and an intellectual who is no less lettered and educated than his rivals
this was a sore point because leonardo never had any formal education
i am well aware that people think that since i am not a literary man i’m obviously unable to express my ideas
what they don’t understand is that my work is based on observation the one and true mistress of knowledge
rather than mere words observation the source of empirical
knowledge would become the guiding agency of leonardo’s career for the remainder of his life
that explains his desire to imbue the adoration of the magi with allusions to
the psychology of his subjects even though that idea was lost on the
good friars who had ordered the painting [Music] and so the painting remained unfinished
not because leonardo walked away from it as some believe but simply because the monks couldn’t
understand this very revolutionary design
[Music] another attempt to create a painting in
the form of an allegorical poem was more successful
i think when leonardo started painting geneva de vinci he chose her as his
subject in order to explore the idea of how the poetic could be expressed in inner portrait how how
somebody’s soul could be visualized and seen and i think she has this elevated
quality it’s almost remoteness that when she looks at you and she does that very directly
she she stands for something more than herself she becomes a subject which is
about poetic beauty it’s often argued that the the fact that the panel on which geneva is painted is
cut at the bottom means that we’ve lost her her hands we tried to reconstruct the geneva
portrait by using one of leonardo’s metal point drawings in the windsor collection
and move that the effect is quite remarkable the orientation of the torso in the panel and in the drawing is
virtually identical
the lady is holding a sprig of some sort in her hands which may come from the tree behind her
that tree is a juniper tree ginepro in italian and a clue that the lady is
indeed geneva
but in 1482 leonardo turned his back on florence
and moved up north to the court of milan ruled by duke nudovico’s forza
i mean it’s interesting when he went to milan he had he went armed with his curriculum vitae
or his resume which like a lot of subsequent resumes exaggerated
the the abilities of the person who’d written it and so he was saying that he could do things like blow up castles build
bridges uh create chariots do all of these things make massive cannons none
of which he had any experience doing at all and so i think lodovico who
is a very good talent spotter was probably quite rightly suspicious suspicious indeed
if leonardo had expected the duke to hire him on the spot he was sorely mistaken
but there was another opportunity an invitation to come to milan and work on
an altarpiece with two melanese artists ambrogio and evangelista
the pretties [Music]
quite possibly the brothers had heard about leonardo’s work in florence and
believed that his involvement would secure the satisfaction of their client
an organization called the confraternity of the immaculate conception
for several painters to collaborate on a painting was unusual in florence but not
in lombardy and most milanese artists were still
mired in the gothic tradition as witnessed by the massive cathedral still
under construction ambrogio himself still painted in the
rather stiff conventional style of international gothic
so clearly these milanese artists were hoping that leonardo could bring some of the magic and innovative spirit of
florentine art to this project and in this they would not be disappointed
the subject of the painting was the immaculate conception at the time it was a relatively new
catholic doctrine that stated that mary the mother of jesus was conceived
without the stain of original sin
pope sixtus iv had even decreed that those who attended services on its feast
day would be granted special indulgences which reduced one’s time in purgatory
[Music]
the problem was that since the doctrine was so new no one had ever painted mary
as a woman untouched by original sin [Music]
how did you visualize that exactly
the answer we believe lies on the road to lekko
just north of milan around lake como and the amazing wonders that leonardo was
just about to discover in the mountains of lagrena
the landscape north of milan close to the lower alps was very different from
the soft rolling hills of tuscany [Music]
for leonardo it was an irresistible opportunity to explore the formation of
the earth and the movement of water observations that would soon fill
several of his notebooks [Music]
because of the soaring mountains in this area there are only a few roads some
dating to roman times that makes it easier for us to reconstruct the path that leonardo would
have taken
and based on leonardo’s notes in the codex atlanticus we set out to follow in
his footsteps
leonardo would have had a choice of two routes one to travel along the western flanks
of the lower grenia along the shore of the lago di lecco or two to turn east towards the alpe di
campione and into the valley of sassina [Music]
we first chose the eastwards route to mount mandelo
here is a mule path that leonardo must have followed for he wrote
the largest bare rocks that can be found in this part of the country are on mount mandelo
it has at its base an opening towards the lake which goes down 200 steps
and indeed after climbing for an hour we discovered what leonardo was writing
about a steep rise of some 200 steps that leads to a mine the grotto ferrara
as he wrote having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks

i came to the entrance of a great cavern in front of which i stood some time
astonished [Music] i rested my left hand on my knee to see
whether i could discover anything inside [Music]
leonardo must have been amazed by the incredible range of forms and colors in this grotto
and these same tints would later return in the version of the rocks
[Music] from here leonardo continued to climb up
towards the alpa di campione eventually leonardo must have reached a
monastery known as santa maria sopra that offered wary travelers a meal and a
bed for the night built in 1000 a.d it was recently restored
from here he may have sketched this famous drawing of alpine peaks
now in the collection of the british royal trust
there i saw above me the dark sky and the sun as it fell on the mountain
was far brighter than in the plains below because there was less atmosphere between the summit of the mountain
and the sun [Music]
this is the moment that inspired leonardo to develop his theory of optical perspective the idea that
distance should not be measured in purely geometrical terms as most renaissance artists did
but has subtle changes in the color of distant objects
when you paint mountains you’ll see that from hill to hill the bases are paler than the summits
as they recede beyond each other [Music]
from here leonardo descended into the valsasina or the valle de sassi the
valley of rocks
[Music] nearby is an impressive waterfall that
leonardo described in detail in valsassina as you travel the road
from lekko you’ll find on the right hand side the troja river which falls from a
very tall rock and where it falls it goes underground
and the river ends there
leonardo’s keen eye also noted the unique flora of the region
here among great rock falls and waterfalls mapelo grows abundantly
now this is clear evidence that leonardo used his travels through this region
in preparation for painting the version of the rocks because it is this native
plant the mapello that would reappear in the painting
[Music]
leonardo then set out to explore the western part of the grignard mountains
along lake lekko [Music]
he would have had a stunning view of the town of mandello
what made this hill so interesting is that even today it is permeated with a
number of caves one of these even served as a church in leonardo’s time
[Music] we know from the codex atlanticus that leonardo da vinci found caves very
interesting this is because of their darkness and their forbidding capabilities in
addition to finding them as a very interesting place to explore for fossils and rock formations and what secrets
could possibly be hidden in a cave in one of his drawings you can actually
see that he has sketched a cave in one of these mountains
so we decided to go and see if we could identify it [Music]
once again we follow a narrow path of steps until we suddenly come face to face with
the mouth of a cave that until now has been completely hidden from view
[Music]
it is called the grotta di laurka after we enter the cave and turn back
towards the opening we see a stunning view the view that leonardo must have
used as the setting for the virgin of the rocks [Music]
now from a pictorial point of view it makes perfect sense the cave gives the painting a sense of
scale and depth as the middle ground between the figures in the foreground
and the lake shimmering in the distance in the background but the question is how could leonardo
defend the use of a cave for a painting of mary’s immaculate
conception [Music] in and of itself the motif of a cave is
not unusual in the art of the cuatrocento of the 15th century it actually served as an important
attribute for several figures in sacred art one of these was john the baptist who
was known to preach in the desert the gospel of matthew also refers to
jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days and nights
and saint jerome lived and worked near a cave in bethlehem where according to the
tradition jesus was born that is why renaissance artists
usually depicted saint jerome at the mouth of a cave including leonardo himself
the problem was that there were no craggy rocks and cliffs in tuscany
so what the local artists did was simply use their imagination and stack stones
in a large pile thinking that this is what a mountain in the desert would look like
of course leonardo would never be satisfied with such a solution that’s why he was so keen to explore the
mountain region north of milan and observe the geological formations up
close the result was a series of amazing drawings that are now in the royal
collection at windsor these drawings reveal leonardo’s careful
observation of soaring mountains stark rock formations and mysterious caves
and in the process leonardo discovered something else
whereas in tuscany everything is bathed in light here in the mountains
the light is much more subtle filled with the contrast of bright and
darker tones art historians refer to this as chiaroscuro
the contrast between light and dark passages which up to this point had been
missing entirely from cuatrocento art
for example in this nativity painting by botticelli everything is cast in the
same intensity of light luminance and color
but leonardo discovered that the subtle interplay of light and shadow using oil
paint could make a human being much more lifelike
the quality of colors is determined by means of light you’ll see that whenever there is more
light it will better illuminate the color’s true quality
so by casting his figures in a mysterious interplay of light and dark passages devotional paintings could
provoke a deeper emotional engagement in the faithful [Music]
leonardo intensive even
in fact leonardo had begun to experiment with such effects in his early paintings
of the madonna while still in the workshop of his master verrocchio
[Music]
that process of showing the madonna as a real woman rather than a stylized object
of veneration culminated in the figure of mary of the virgin of the rocks
here is a convincing portrait of a young mother filled with love for her newborn
son it was so revolutionary that it took the city of milan by storm
the impact of this work is enormous in terms of in particular i think the figure of the virgin within it
her face and that particular attitude that she has become repeated in just
almost countless of these domestic devotional works in particular but you can see there’s a real demand for works
that feature this incredibly beautiful very idealized presentation of the virgin and i think
the religious impact of the work in that sense is undeniable but why did he put the virgin in a cave
and why did he add the figure of the young john the baptist and the angel uriel
what does this have to do with the story of mary’s immaculate conception
the answer may lie in the mysterious second century text
known as the gospel of james [Music]
according to this gospel mary and her newborn son jesus were forced to flee
after king herod decided to massacre all of the infants born in and around
bethlehem [Music] during their journey they met with the
infant john who was already living as a hermit in the wilderness protected by
the angel uriel in the middle ages even into the renaissance
such apocryphal documents like the gospel of james had the same authority
as the gospels in the bible what makes this gospel so important is
that it’s the first document we know of that advances the idea that mary
remained a virgin all her life for leonardo that could have implied a
direct link to the doctrine of her immaculate conception
throughout his life leonardo was fascinated with the mystery of human conception
in 1506 he actually began to dissect female cadavers in the hope of
understanding how life begins in the womb of a woman [Music]
[Applause] [Music]
i want to understand the conception of man
i shall begin with the formation of the child in the womb
and how the child lives in it and to what stage it resides in it
[Music]
in that context the cave is really an allegory of a womb with its moist walls
and running water yet full of life as shown by the flowers
these flowers including the mapello were used in the middle ages as symbols of
purity thus illustrating the idea that mary was conceived in her mother’s womb without
the taint of original sin
but that’s not where the mystery of this beautiful painting ends
it became so famous that leonardo and the deprades brothers wanted more money
for it
when the con fraternity objected it was sold to an anonymous buyer who some
believe is none other than duke lodovicos forza himself
many years later the artists agreed to paint a second version
that is the painting of the virgin of the rocks that is currently in the national gallery in london
but actually that is where the problem really begins [Music]
for a long time this painting was believed to be the work of one of leonardo’s students such as voltravio
in his workshop leonardo often tasked his pupils to make copies of his
paintings [Music]
in 2019 the national gallery used an advanced imaging technique
x-ray fluorescence to reveal a dramatically different underdrawing underneath the paint layer
it shows the virgin with her hand outstretched similar to an earlier study for the
adoration of the magi as well as leonardo’s unfinished
painting of saint jerome very small areas
not for working according to larry keith the national gallery’s head of
conservation and keeper the use of drawings to explore different ideas is very typical of leonardo
and and he used them for different ends depending on the sort of artistic problem he was interested in and sort of
things he was working on um he would use a lot of dark wash when he’s trying to work out the fall of
light and modeling through light and shade to block out sort of the masses of where things would sit and how
they would sit but you can imagine something like metal point would be lend itself very naturally to working out
curls and hair or red chalk or even black chalk but mostly red chalk
was a soft kind of crumbly texture and sharp hard lines very useful for
thinking about atmospheric perspective and and things fading away into the distance which he
became very interested in later on in his painting career
in the end leonardo decided not to pursue this revolutionary design and
fall back on the same cartoons that he had used for the first version of the
rocks except for a few changes but what if leonardo had developed this
concept further what would the painting have looked like
to answer that question we reached out to gunnar amer a leading artist who
previously produced a faithful copy of michelangelo’s sistine chapel fresco for
the film angels and demons could he create a copy of the london
version of the rocks and then reconstruct the painting as leonardo originally envisioned it
you created a live-sized copy of the version of the rocks in the london
national gallery what did you discover in the process about leonardo’s technique
often when i do classical paintings i start out with what’s called the grayside which is monochromatic so i
established the values instead of being too concerned about the colors
but in this case i thought it went straight to the colors uh what’s important to understand about uh the
time of leaner davinci oil painting was new in florence although it existed probably for 50 to almost 100 years
earlier in slanders so you have like january and ike and these guys that did phenomenal oil
painting the problem with oil painting at the time was that nobody really taught how to do it so people or
different schools or different artillery figured it out on their own and they
were so secretive about the techniques that i’ve heard stories that they would hide the finished paintings for two or
three years so that the scent or whatever the varnish the painting would be gone that’s how it was
and prior to oil painting like i said people always ask well who taught you or not or how to paint well
nobody probably because as we know he studied whatever or he didn’t he worked at viroquio’s studio and they did start
dabbling in oil prior to that they’re primarily painted in what’s called tempra which you mix with egg pigment
and egg and you can do phenomenal work with that but you cannot do what is great with oil
paint and that is the transitions that you can achieve in oil painting and it’s impossible to deal with tempora
so what that means is that what leonardo is famous for is this called sumat or
and that is oil painting is perfect for that because the transitions from dark to light
can almost be imperceptible and it’s only with oil you can do that
and here we can see clearly i mean this almost looks monochromatic but there is such an incredible
range of colors and values just in this face it goes from warm colors to cold colors to colors
like rose batter to you know i mean just about everything is going on in here
and that was something you couldn’t was able to do before i mean painting some of this you can certainly
understand he would paint with his finger as well i would love to see some of the brushes that he had because some
of the the thin lines like in the hair i i can’t possibly do what he did i mean
he had something up his sleeve that i would like to know what he did that’s incredible yeah yeah oh it’s exciting
now the original of course was painted on panel yes we decided to use canvas
for a variety of reasons what was the difference of painting on with oils on panel versus canvas at the
time you think canvas and linen were sort of new at the time so they still had to sort of figure out how to do it
uh the obvious advantages for canvas is you can roll it up it doesn’t need to be stressed so it’s easy to transport
anywhere these this is a considerable this is more than six feet tall so this is a big
size but these uh paint this is painted on i think oak or poplar wood poplar
poplar wood yes and the advantage with uh painting on a wooden surface provided
it’s treated right with rabbit skin glue and the whiting and the gesso state they used they could sand it down you can
have a super super smooth surface i think with canvas depending on how
it’s prepared you always fight the tooth of the canvas that is sort of monotonous and repetitive that’s why many painters
prefer linen but linen is difficult has this other disadvantage it’s like stretching and so forth and yes so to
have a surf prepared right makes a huge difference for the painting how it adheres how it moves that’s the whole
key to oil painting versus other things is how the paint moves on the surface right now of course in copying this work
you gain an incredible insight into the way leonardo works didn’t you could you
tell us a little bit about that yes i mean it’s interesting to see where he sort of loses interest
areas are left very very unfinished it’s very restrained you know and he has
that rembrandt equality well if you look at these colors and this landscape with these mountains it’s
it’s it’s truly psychedelic i mean it’s so exalted yeah who this kind of a
landscape again this is really from leonardo’s dreams and it’s such an incredible juxtaposition to this
brown and dark and sort of ominous cavernous cathedral uh type setting and you see
this idyllic landscape who wouldn’t have a swim in that thing here i mean whereas if you look what is the genius
behind some of those paintings is the fact that the subject matter is not necessarily everything is not translated
for you so you can engage your own imagination much like reading a book versus seeing
the movie if you read a book you fill in the characters and the landscapes and the story with your own experiences and
something like that can be said about this too and i think he he offers enormous restraint because he’s tempting
to put these fantastic highlights up here in the toilet shop here like he doesn’t do any of that this is really sort of a
background thing and the only focus apart from this very brilliant landscape back here i really the figures that here that he
has there’s a lie that’s that’s fascinating now you mentioned something about the fact
that this passage right here is not done with the typical virtuosity that you
would expect leonardo to display when doing drapery no i mean uh if one of
leonardo’s strengths was a drapery i mean he was obsessed with drapery with different sources of light on the
drapery and we know how unbelievable some of these draperies are so it’s sort of surprising this is this is i’m trying
fairly accurately to do the copy so this is fairly accurate to the original
and you see here when he doesn’t want to paint the hand he just puts it into shadow like this here right so he just
doesn’t want to be bothered with it now we also asked you to reconstruct
what leonardo originally envisioned for this painting based on the underdrawing
that was discovered by the national gallery just last year let’s go to what that painting here so
this is the painting that you created simply based on this one outline drawing
what was that experience like uh if i look at what’s so humbling well you know the davinci is when you look at
this sketches he does he does the lines just perfectly
you know he he can do perfectly like this all along so the und the sketch that they found on
the panel which again it seems odd to me that he would have gone on and do a sketch like this
and also if if you get as i’ve grown quite fond of this composition myself
and you need these figures to have that space and with the landscape being this cathedral around it
you needed that space around it and to me it seems like the pig the
figurehead being as big as it is for the sides with a hand with nowhere to go
obviously i don’t know what’s up with his hand so it must have a meeting that i’m not aware of and uh and then it just seems
like something is missing apart from the execution when you look at this is
by far a superior piece i feel this has a sacred quality to it it’s really it’s
a masterpiece it’s something you don’t get tired of looking at it’s just it’s daunting so it’s so beautiful
[Music] i think leonardo’s milanese period was
about a balancing act between the perfect observation of the natural
world and finding a route through to something that was more elevated more beautiful than something that we would
see around us something essential or quintessential if you like [Music]
you find a a painting that occupies the space between our world and between something more
more perfect [Music]
for many months leonardo searched for a way to capture the mystery of the virgin’s immaculate
conception [Music]
he found it here in the mountains of lagrena
[Music]
[Music] you
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