National Gallery Reveals Images of Leonardo da Vinci's First Effort for 'The Virgin of the Rocks'

New scientific research found images of an ‘abandoned’ angel and Christ underneath the famous painting.
Loukia Papadopoulos

New research by the National Gallery in London, into Leonardo da Vinci’s 'The Virgin of the Rocks,' is revealing the composition he began with, before leaving it behind for the version we see today. The work has revealed the drawings underneath the famous painting.


Initial designs

Research in 2004-05 discovered that the Virgin's pose had been changed. However, there were only a few hints of the other figures that were believed to have been part of da Vinci's first effort.

His initial designs for the angel and the Infant Christ can now be seen for the first time, using the latest imaging techniques. 

National Gallery Reveals Images of Leonardo da Vinci's First Effort for 'The Virgin of the Rocks'
Source: National Gallery

The new images were uncovered because the drawings were made in a material that contained some zinc.

Using macro x-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) maps and new infrared and hyperspectral imaging, the researchers found where the chemical was present.

Leonardo: experience a masterpiece

The researchers have no information on why Leonardo abandoned his first composition. The National Gallery’s Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece is an immersive exhibition of Leonardo's work, focusing exclusively on 'The Virgin of the Rocks' painting. 

This exhibition represents a fascinating new venture for the National Gallery, combining the most recent technical research on the Virgin of the Rocks with an immersive, enveloping experience, giving visitors the opportunity to explore Leonardo da Vinci's creative process in making this masterpiece," said Dr. Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery.

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From 9 November 2019, the exhibition will investigate this famous painting and the mind that created it, with a wide range of multi-sensory experiences presented across four separate rooms. Visitors will be able to literally step inside a similar chapel setting like the one on the painting.

They will be able to explore Leonardo’s research and see how the artist utilized his scientific studies and created strong effects of light and shadow in his work. Visitors will also be offered the details of the latest findings underneath the painting.

“By its very nature, much of the research we do at the National Gallery takes place in closed studios, laboratories, and libraries. This is an exciting opportunity to not only share our innovative findings but also to invite the public to explore and engage with what we have found," said Dr. Caroline Campbell, Director of Collections and Research.

The exhibition has been created by 59 Productions — the multi-award-winning company behind the video design of the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. 

“59 Productions are thrilled to create the first digital-led experience for the National Gallery, that will allow visitors to explore the fascinating layers of this iconic masterwork in an immersive way. We work at the nexus between technology and art and are passionate about applying the latest cutting-edge technologies in the pursuit of incredible storytelling - something that seems to align well with Leonardo’s broad view of the world. By focusing on this single artwork, the experience will introduce visitors to this great painting through the bold techniques and innovative approach of Leonardo making it feel reinvigorated and newly relevant for contemporary audiences," said Richard Slaney, Managing Director of 59 Productions.

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