After 18 months of meticulous restoration, Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks went back on display in London’s National Gallery Wednesday. The painting has been coated in a layer of varnish in 1948 (yeah, go figure) which had become badly discolored, tinting the masterpiece with a yellowish wash. The varnish layer was also cracked and had absorbed dust and dirt, obscuring the subtlety and depth of the design.
Conservators removed the cracked and yellowed varnish, but left a very thin layer so as to protect the top surface of the paint. The change in color is noticeable but not a huge night-and-day alteration. The colors are more saturated, and you can see a lot more detail in the dark areas.
By removing the varnish, restorers revealed not only fresh details but also were able to identify more areas that were likely painted by Leonardo’s hand than they expected. There’s another Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre that was made earlier, you see, between 1483-1486. That one was thought to be mostly the work of Leonardo himself, whereas the National Gallery version was painted considerably later (some time before 1508) and although it was attributed to the master, because of was considered to have been primarily painted by his assistants.
The conservation work and study of materials and techniques uncovered different parts of the painting reached different stages of completion – the angel’s hand was barely sketched while the heads of the main figures appear completely finished, the gallery says.
“In the past, gallery curators, like many scholars of Renaissance painting elsewhere, have explained the different levels of finish and resolution in the picture by arguing that Leonardo was helped by assistants,” the gallery said.
“It now seems possible that Leonardo painted all the picture himself, leaving some parts just sketched or yet to be completely resolved and others fully worked up.”
Considering that the original commission for the painting was made in 1483 (the commission papers are still extant), and that he finished the first version fairly quickly, it’s interesting that he kept working on the design for another 25 years. Especially since he never actually sold the first one to the people who commissioned it. It was supposed to be central panel of a carved altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan, but Leonardo went in another direction and he decided to sell it privately for more money, probably to Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan.