It is actually the name of two paintings by Da Vinci, which have the same composition, apart from a few significant variations. One of the two paintings is considered to be the prime version, which hangs in the gallery of The Louvre in Paris.
The second painting is housed in the National Gallery, London. Both the paintings are over 6 feet high and painted in oils on wooden panel. However, the painting housed in the Louvre has now been converted to canvas.
The paintings depict Mary, Mother of Jesus with the Christ child and the infant John the Baptist. An angel is also present. It is painted in a rock setting, which is the reason for the name of the paintings.
The variations that exist between the two paintings include the colours and the lighting, as well as the flora and the way sfumato (one of four canonical painting methods in renaissance art) is used. There is uncertainty regarding the histories of both paintings, and so it is unclear which is the earlier work.
There are two further side panel paintings associated with the works. These depict an angel, and is believed to have been completed by Da Vinci's associates. Both these paintings are house in the National Gallery, London.
History of the painting
The painting was commissioned for the altarpiece at the Chapel of Immaculate Conception. The chapel was attached to the church of S. Francesco Grande, Milan and was founded before 1335 by the wide of Galeazzo I, the Duke Of Milan.
It was in 1479 that the chapel entered into a contract with Zavattari ad Chiesa to renovate the vault of the chapel. This also included large spaces for paintings above a large wooden altarpiece.
In 1483, Leonardo Da Vinci was contracted to provide painted panels for the altarpiece along with brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis. In the contract, Leonardo was referred to as the 'Master', although there is not detailed information about each artists involvement.
The contract detailed the colouring, painting and the gliding. It was requested that the central panel show the Virgin Mary, with baby Jesus with two prophets, and surrounded by angels. It was also requested that either side of the central paintings there were two be angelic musicians.
Further relief panels were to depict the life of Mary. Detailed colour instructions, as well as gliding of the major parts were set out in the contract.
The commission was to be completed within 7 months, the due date being the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th 1483.
Payment for the work
There was somme disagreement over payment for the work. During the time the work was being prepared, the chapel paid 800 Lire, with a further payment negotiated on completion. On completion, Ambrogio and Leonardo requested a further 1200 Lire according to the contract.
However, it was judged that the work was incomplete, and it was requested that Da Vinci finish it. Da Vinci was still absent from Milan and was unable to do this. A further payment of only 200 Lire was made by the Chapel.
National Gallery Painting
The 'Virgin of the Rocks' which was in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception between 1524 and 1576 was invoked against the plague. It was removed from the altar in 1576 and the chapel was demolished.
The painting exchanged hands several times before being sold by the Earl of Suffolk to the National Gallery in 1880. By this time it was in a poor state of repair.
In 2005, the painting was examined by reflectogram, revealing a different painting beneath the visible one. The examination revealed a kneeling woman, with her hand outstretched and the other on her chest. Some experts have said that the original intention was to create an adoration of Jesus.
In 2010, the work underwent significant conservation and cleaning before being returned to display. On completion, the National Gallery revealed that the painting was largely, if not entirely, by Leonardo Da Vinci. They also commented that it was unfinished.
The 'Virgin of the Rocks' painting that is now in the Louvre, Paris was seen in 1625 at Fontainebleau by Cassiano dal Pozzo. It was in 1806 that Fr Hacquin, a french restorer transferred the painting from its wooden panel onto canvas.
Between 2011-2012, the Louvre painting was displayed together with the National Gallery version, at the National Gallery as a component of Leonardo Da Vinci's exhibition on Leonardo's role as artist to Ludovico Storza's court.
The Side Panels
The National Gallery acquired the two side panels from the altarpiece containing the figures of angels in the year 1898.
Differences in the two paintings
All the figures that are in the London painting are slightly larger than the Louvre painting.
There is one compositional difference - in the London painting, the angel's right hand is rested upon her knee, and in the Louvre painting the same hand is raised, and is pointing towards John the Baptist.
Furthermore, the angels eyes are down in a contemplative way in the National Gallery version, with the Louvre painting having the angels eyes looking at the viewer.
The forms in the London painting have greater definition, particularly the forms of the figures. Meticulous detail is given to the rocks, where as the background in the Louvre version is less detailed.
There is a greater contrast between light and shading, creating a much sharper image in the London painting. The Louvre painting shows much more delicately painted facial features, making the figures appear warmer and softer.
The lighting is also softer in the Louvre painting although this may be due to the varnish used on the surface of the painting. In keeping with the rest of the Da Vinci collection the Louvre painting has also not undergone significant restoration.
The colouring of the robes in the painting is also different, especially the robes of the angel. The Louvre shows the angel wearing bright red and green, while the London painting has no red.
Traditional attributes such as a halo are not present in the London painting. The detailing of the flowers are also different. The Louvre painting is much more accurate in terms of botany, while the London painting contains more imaginative flowers.
The Paintings Relationship
There continues to be much debate around the relationship of the two paintings, not least about there authorship and the symbolism within. It is thought that it was the first time that the paintings were brought together for a few months in 2011 and 2012, in an exhibition at the National Gallery.
Most commonly, the theory used to explain the reason for the existence of the two paintings is that Da Vinci painted the Louvre version to fulfil the original commission, dating the work to 1483.
It is thought that this version was then sold to a different client and he painted the London version as a replacement to the original. It is thought that the Louvre painting was therefore not sold until the latest 1480's due to a disagreement over the final payment. Experts currently date the Louvre version to 1483-1490 and the London version to 1495-1508.