Leonardo painted two ‘Madonna of the Rocks,’ so why not two Mona Lisas?
Provenance is sketchy, but amongst the many copies of the ‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo’s students and admirers, one stands out as a
possible second ‘Lisa.’ Spectro cameras reveal that changes in the background were made simultaneously to both portraits, which strongly suggests they were painted side-by-side.
Regarding the double ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ paintings, there were extenuating legal circumstances which obliged Leonardo to fulfill the original contract by painting a duplicate. My biography of Leonardo’s sister, Lisabetta Buti, ‘Second Lisa’ reveals why.
Sketchy historical fragments pieced together are mostly guesswork as the works were begun when Leonardo was thirty-one years old and were still in debate twenty-five years later.
Iconography, the pictorial devices engaged to ‘narrate’ the story of a painting, always speaks silent ‘volumes’ when Leonardo is involved. He was the master of secret writing, philosophy, anatomy, music, botany, engineering, and alchemy, as well as painting and sculpture.
Most religious figures are known by their allegorical attributes. The two babies pose the perfect disguise for understating the personal religious affiliations of the artist. The infants are naked and therefore, anonymous. So, which one is the Christ-child and which is John the Baptist? Tradition says the baby placed highest in the picture plane should be Jesus. Until the alternative version of the composition, the babies were assumed to be: Jesus on the left (in the higher position as dictated by the hierarchy of his status) but Leonardo was believed to be a clandestine follower of John (the patron saint of Florence) so could he have painted John as the dominant figure? A baby is a baby. Which infant was John?
It would have been sacrilegious to portray the infant Jesus lower in the picture plane, however after twenty-five years of haggling over non-payment, the version (considered second) adds two vital clues. John is now identified with his staff and Jesus has been given a halo. But now the angel is acting coy and averts his eyes. No longer does he point to one of the babies. John is in the ‘highest’ position, and therefore has been subtly awarded precedence over Jesus. Leonardo is making a point. When did he not?
If the second painting was rendered under his supervision rather than entirely by his own hand, he would not have signed it. Was he thumbing his nose at confraternity of brothers who commissioned the work? Hmmnnn?
I always afford Leonardo the benefit of the doubt. He was a man of secrets. His writing in codes presumes he considered his privacy to be under scrutiny. Never one to back down, isn’t it more likely he was outspoken by ‘hiding’ his thoughts out in the open for all to see? I premise there will always be secret messages in the master’s paintings as was his right to be heard during a time when it was dangerous to argue with the church authorities or its representatives.
In my fantasy novel ‘Second Lisa,’ I premise more detailed answers: the original painting was executed entirely by the hand of the master and was ‘signed’ whereas the second painting was painted by another with his occasional assistance. The original cartoon was used for both, but the ‘stories’ within each version were subtly changed.
Leonardo had every means at his disposal to paint his personal preferences into his compositions, partly to satisfy his ego, partly for his rebellious nature, let alone (in the instance of the controversial dispute of the ‘Madonna of the Rocks’) to express his continuing annoyance over being shortchanged.
It is best to also recall, despite Leonardo’s ongoing estrangement with his birth father, he was born into an ongoing generation of da Vinci lawyers. The family law firm would have left its mark on the impressionable boy who lived with the da Vinci clan from the age of six until he left home as a pre-teen apprentice (age twelve), and their influence continued to impact his life.
By the time the final ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ was installed in 1508, Leonardo was fifty-six years old and, as usual, in need of funds. It seems Leonardo was frequently in dire financial straits. Painting no longer ruled his interests at this time; it may have even been an annoying distraction, since Leonardo was more philosopher and engineer than painter. 1508 was before eventual financial relief came in the guise of a ‘rescue’ when he was whisked away from Italy and the hassles that continually lingered over his unfinished and abandoned works. He lived eleven more years clinging to the ‘Mona Lisa.’ Why?
Within eight years, Leonardo would retire to France and leave the ‘business of art’ behind. Why did the ‘Mona Lisa’ painting accompany him if it had been delivered to the man who commissioned it? And… who was that man if not the husband of the subject? Even historians and experts have to guess, but an author has the freedom to imagine. In the case of imagining Leonardo, anything is possible. The art of fiction reveals all.
My next blog will reveal Leonardo’s (anything is possible) hidden iconographic signature in one of the versions of the ‘Madonna of the Rocks.’ See if you can spot it. Open your mind and think Leonardo.
And you thought you knew what multi-tasking was all about!
What I find fascinating is that if you scale the 2 versions OF THE ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ to a matching scale, and then alternate them, it seems like there is some kind of information being relayed. But even the overall match is impressive.
After a lapse of many years between versions, even tracing the original cartoon would beg changes. The artist’s latest agenda, bitter ongoing legal squabbles, and the circumstances surrounding Leonardo’s emotional and professional health would likely have inspired a modified narrative, much the same as an author would make changes to a published book given the opportunities of hindsight.
I believe Leonardo’s quicksilver mind relayed information at the speed of genius.
Thank you so much for your comment.
Sean, I looked at your link. Thank you for including it. It’s interesting that with all the fluctuations, the Madonna’s face remains exactly the same.