Early years
Leonardo da Vinci was born in April 1452 in Vinci, a small community in the Tuscan countryside. He was a bastard, son of a notary and a farm worker. The father saw an enormous talent early in his son and sent him to Florence to study under the craftsman Verrocchio. There he learned the basics of sculpture, painting and chemistry.

The Baptism of Christ, oil on wood paneling. about 1470-75. Image: barnebys.de The Baptism of Christ, oil on wood paneling. about 1470-75. Image: barnebys.de

Most of Verrocchio's works are collaborations between staff members and apprentices. Leonardo da Vinci thus participated in several paintings that left Verrocchio's workshop. An example of this is The Baptism of Christ painted between 1472-75, which today is attributed to both Verrocchio and his apprentice Leonardo. Even Annunciation in oil and tempera would have been a collaboration between the two and possibly another artist.

 Annunciation, oil and tempera on wood, about 1472-75. Image: barnebys.de
Annunciation. Oil and tempera on wood, about 1472-75. Image: barnebys.de

Oil Painting
Leonardo da Vinci lived and worked many hundreds of years ago, yet we know a lot about him. This is due not only to the persistent work of skilled researchers but is a result of the significant amount of notes the artist himself left behind. He was also great already in his time and is therefore also written about in contemporary sources.

The huge source of information available about Leonardo da Vinci can be a little hard to swallow in one single session. Therefore, we have chosen to divide it up a little. We will begin with motives, technique, and symbolism that is reflected in his oil painting.

Leonardo da Vinci. Image: University of Pennsylvania Leonardo da Vinci. Image: University of Pennsylvania

Madonna
During his time in Florence, da Vinci created three well-known Madonna images, two of which are formally assigned to the artist, but the third is a still controversial issue. Madonna of the carnation is one of the madonna images where the artist's involvement can be ensured.

Madonna of the carnation was created in Verrocchio's workshop. The picture depicts Mary with the Jesus child on her knee. They sit indoors in front of rounded windows which overlooks a large mountain. In her hand, Maria holds a carnation, which is a common symbol of the nails of the crucifixion. The child stretches after the carnation in his mother's hand. The image becomes a warning for what's coming -  a fate that has already been sealed.

To the left: Madonna with a flower, about 1475-1480. To the right: Madonna of the carnation, about 1473-78. Image: barnebys.de To the left: Madonna with a flower, about 1475-1480. To the right: Madonna of the carnation, about 1473-78. Image: barnebys.de

Another image attributed to the story's main character is Madonna with the flower. However, this work has not been completed, which Mary's toothless mouth, as well as the blank window, prove. The painting was acquired by Russian Tsar Nicholas II in 1914 for 1.5 million dollars and became the then most expensive painting ever sold.

The Virgin of the Rocks

Although this work is also a Madonna image, it differs from the aforementioned. The Virgin of the Rocks exists in two editions, the former was probably painted between 1483-1486 and is hanging on the wall at the Louvre in Paris. While the other was painted sometime between 1493 and 1508 and is available for public viewing at the National Gallery in London.

To the left: The Virgin of the Rocks, the first version painted about 1483-1486. To the right: The Virgin of the Rocks, the second version painted about 1493-1508. Bilda: barnebys.de To the left: The Virgin of the Rocks, the first version painted about 1483-1486. To the right: The Virgin of the Rocks, the second version painted about 1493-1508. Bilda: barnebys.de

By placing the scene in a cave, da Vinci follows the Byzantine tradition that places Jesus' birth in a cave.

There are some details that separate the two versions. In the second painting, Madonna's unreasonably long arm is shortened to more reasonable proportions and Da Vinci has given everyone a halo. Perhaps more notably, the angel no longer points to the left in the picture, neither does it meet our gaze.

Virgin of the Rocks, detail image from the first version. Image: artistnetwork.com Virgin of the Rocks, detail image from the first version. Image: artistnetwork.com The Virgin of the Rocks, detail image from the first version. Image: artistnetwork.com

Although the paintings are attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, he did not work alone. By now he also had a studio with employees and apprentices. However, years of research can ensure that the works are for the most part of Da Vinci's hand.

There is some mystery about The Virgin of the Rocks, perhaps especially the first version where the angel catches the spectator's eyes and points further into the picture. What does the angel point to, what can be outside of the picture?

Other orders
Leonardo da Vinci was not only devoted to religious images but also received "secular" orders. In 1490, da Vinci was in Milan, where he received assignments from Duke Ludovico Sforza. Among other things, a portrait of his mistress Cecilia Gallerani. Gallerani was depicted against a dark background with a white ermine in her arms. An ermine may have several meanings. It can refer to the Duke's nickname "White ermine" or his Neapolitan Ermine Medal.

The ermine is also a symbol for illegitimate children - a suitable symbol in a portrait of a mistress.

To the left: The lady with Hermelin, oil, and tempera on a wooden pan, about 1483-1490. To the right: La Belle Ferronnière, oil on wood paneling, about 1490-1496. Picture: barnebys.de To the left: The lady with Ermine, oil, and tempera on a wooden pan, about 1483-1490. To the right: La Belle Ferronnière, oil on wood paneling, about 1490-1496. Picture: barnebys.de

The portrait of a woman La Belle Ferronnière has a somewhat more controversial background. Some believe that the portrait was ordered by Frans I of France. Others think this is another commission for Ludovico Sforza - either depicting Gallerani or another mistress, Beatrice d'Este.

Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is a common motif in Christian art, depicting Jesus, Mary, and her mother, Anna. This version of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne was completed in 1509. Mary sits in Anna's knee while she reaches for the Jesus child sitting at their feet, holding a lamb.

Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. Image: Wikimedia Commons Anna Self Third. Image: Wikimedia Commons Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. Image: Wikimedia Commons Anna Self Third. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The painting is similar to most of Leonardo's works performed in so-called 'sfumato'. The technique, one of the five largest in Renaissance painting, aims to soften edges and colors so that they slip into each other to create seamless transitions and a more realistic result.
The lamb is also a common symbol in religious art. The animal represents Christ as both suffering and triumphant. It is a sacrificial animal but also represents kindness, virginity, and purity.

John the Baptist

Leonardo da Vinci depicted John the Baptist several times but only twice by himself as he does in St. John the Baptist, painted between 1513-1516. The Painting is believed to be the great master’s last work. Today it hangs at the Louvre in Paris.

John the Baptist. Image: Wikimedia Commons John the Baptist. Image: Wikimedia Commons St.John the Baptist. Image: Wikimedia Commons John the Baptist. Image: Wikimedia Commons

This painting is one of three that Leonardo took on his last trip to France before his death. Perhaps this may be because John is based on Salai, Leonardo's favorite student and said love interest.

Mona Lisa

We can not discuss Leonardo da Vinci without mentioning Mona Lisa. The work was probably painted between 1503-06 and is da Vinci’s most well-known painting. There has always been some mystery around Mona Lisa. Who was she, and what is the secret behind her smile?

Mona Lisa, about 1503-1506. Image: Wikipedia Mona Lisa. ca.1503-1506. Image: Wikipedia

For centuries there has been a lot of speculation about the identity of the sitter. The woman in the picture has great similarities with Saint Mary - the ideal symbol for femininity. Some say she is a female image of Leonardo's favorite student Salai or even da Vinci himself as a woman. The widely accepted explanation is that Mona Lisa was a commissioned portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo.

Even for the artist himself, Mona Lisa, or La Joconde, as the painting is also known as, seemed to be of great importance. He always had the painting in his presence and didn’t part with it until he left this world in 1519.

Salvator Mundi

We also have to mention the Salvator Mundi - maybe the most talked about painting in 2017. The painting, that was formerly believed to be a copy of a lost original, was in fact painted by the Renaissance master himself.

Salvator Mundi. Picture: Christie’s Salvator Mundi. Picture: Christie’s

The painting depicts Jesus with his right hand in a blessing gesture. In his left hand, he holds a glass sphere as a symbol of the universe. The painting was sold through Christie’s in the fall of 2017 for an outstanding 450 million US dollars and is now hanging at Louvre's branch in Abu Dhabi.

Read more about Salvator Mundi here!

Unfinished and delayed

As the universal genius he was, Vinci was a very busy man who often had trouble delivering on time, or at all.

The Last Supper, painted between 1494 and 1498 in the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie outside Milan. The work was delayed, something that the monastery pointed out. Leonardo said he wasn’t satisfied with his depiction of Jude's treacherous face. He then clarified that if he did not succeed their wishes he would replace Jude’s face with the face of the one who complained again.

The Last Supper. Picture: artandthebible.com The Last Supper. Picture: artandthebible.com The Last Supper. Picture: artandthebible.com The Last Supper. Picture: artandthebible.com

There is a lot to say about Leonardo da Vinci. But for the moment we shall leave him there, with his oil paints, in his Florence atélier - perhaps fiddling away with another masterpiece...

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