Stunning New Images of a Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ Have Revealed Underdrawings of an Entirely Different Composition

The images will be at the center of a immersive exhibition about the painting planned for November.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks (1491–99, 1506–08). The lines show the underdrawing for the first composition, incorporating information from all technical images. Photo © National Gallery, London.

The National Gallery of London has released revelatory new images of one of its most beloved masterpieces, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks (1491–99, 1506–08), showing underdrawings beneath the surface of the work that depict an entirely different composition.

The museum has known since 2005 that Leonardo reworked the nearly six-foot tall, oil-on-panel painting, having examined it using infrared reflectography. Now, thanks to newer technology, these underdrawings can be seen more clearly.

There are actually two distinct underdrawings in the work. One hews fairly closely to the final composition, but does not show the baby Jesus in profile, as he appears in the final painting; the other is a completely different design and depicts the Virgin Mary kneeling over the baby Jesus as an angel looks over his shoulder. 

Leonardo used a zinc-based pigment in his sketches, which was detected using macro x-ray fluorescence maps. The painting was also analyzed with hyperspectral imaging. The work underwent an 18-month restoration beginning in 2008, returning to view in 2010.

Detail from imaging data of Leonardo da Vinci's <em>The Virgin of the Rocks</em> (1491–99, 1506–08), showing the underdrawing for the original composition. Photo ©the National Gallery, London.

Detail from imaging data of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks (1491–99, 1506–08), showing the underdrawing for the original composition. Photo ©the National Gallery, London.

You’ll be able to learn more about these findings in a flashy new exhibition titled “Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece,” which opens in November. It promises an “immersive experience” of the painting.

The exhibition “will allow visitors to explore the fascinating layers of this iconic masterwork in an immersive way,” Richard Slaney, the managing director of 59 Productions, the company hired to produce the exhibition, said in a statement. Slaney also described the show as the National Gallery’s “first digital-led experience.”

The company’s previous projects have included the video design at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, the creative direction for the blockbuster “David Bowie Isexhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and the digital transformation of the Washington Monument into a Saturn V rocket for last month’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The four-room National Gallery exhibition will attempt to recreate churchgoers’ original experience of Leonardo’s masterpiece with a mock-up of a chapel at the San Francesco Grande church in Milan, for which it was painted. (The National Gallery’s Virgin of the Rocks is Leonardo’s second version of the composition; the first, from 1483, belongs to the Louvre in Paris.)

In addition to showcasing details about Leonardo’s scientific studies, which helped him understand and accurately depict light and shadow, the show will present conservators’ recent discoveries about the painting.


Leonardo da Vinci, <em>The Virgin of the Rocks</em> (1491–99, 1506–08). Photo ©the National Gallery, London.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks (1491–99, 1506–08). Photo ©the National Gallery, London.

Other easy-to-miss details that will be highlighted in the upcoming exhibition include fingerprints on the cheek of the Virgin Mary, from where the artist, or one of his assistants, smoothed out layers of paint. The fingerprints have been captured in high-resolution photographs.

The show will round out a year’s worth of exhibitions commemorating the 500th anniversary of the great Renaissance master’s death.

“Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece” will be on view at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, November 9, 2019–January 12, 2020.

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