Many critics maintain that Leonardo was responsible for the background vista in this picture and no more. Others suggest that he also painted the painting's angel; and indeed the sleeve of the angel matches some sketches from one of Leonardo's notebooks. The wings are oddly realistic; and such eccentricity is easily attributed to a genius like Leonardo, especially given his interest in birds. However, some point out that the head of the angel is too flat to be the work of Leonardo. Whether or not Leonardo was very involved in the painting's actual execution, he most likely was responsible for the design of the picture; he could have sketched the composition and let others do the painting. Although the angel fills a much greater space than the Virgin, the painting still contains a unity characteristic of a great artist like Leonardo. The angel is moving towards the Virgin, and she is responding. The four pine trees in the background form a unity with the building.
The authorship of this portrait is also contested. Some suggest that the symmetry of the hair and the flatness of the face could not be the work of the masterful da Vinci. On the other hand, the angle of the sitter evokes that of the Mona Lisa, and the dark, shadowy background is characteristic of Leonardo in general and his beloved sfumato technique. The large tree framing the sitter's head is a juniper tree, in Italian "ginevra" or "ginepra" (thus a visual pun on the model's name; such puns were more appreciated then than now).
Leonardo wrote in his journals, "I have begun the two Virgin Marys." Critics agree that the Benois Madonna is one of them. Originally believed lost, it appeared out of the blue in the nineteenth century when a traveling musician sold it to a Russian in southern Italy, and was confirmed as a work of Leonardo in 1909. On Mary's lap the Christ Child plays with two small flowers; yet his aspect is serious. The shadows are such that it appears that the painting's light source shines from above the viewer's shoulder, as if from heaven. Both have halos; as his career progressed, however, Leonardo was less likely to endow his religious subjects with such ornamentation. The Virgin has a rounded, glowing face–this, too, is typical of Leonardo's earlier work. Her expression exemplifies part of what set Leonardo's work apart from that of his contemporaries: she looks winsome and fresh, and has none of the stodginess of other artists' madonnas from the time.
Leonardo received the commission for this painting shortly before he left Florence for Milan, and thus it remains unfinished. Nonetheless, critics consider it a masterpiece. It shows Leonardo's ability to endow a familiar scene–here, the three wise men's adoration of Christ–with a fresh and lively spirit. The traditional manger has been removed to the rear side, to make room for a crowd of people reacting with emotion to the Child's Epiphany. Leonardo famously noted, "A good painter has two subjects of primary importance: man and the state of man's mind. The first is easy, the second difficult, since it must be conveyed by means of the gestures and movements of the various parts of the body." Here we see these "gestures and movements" in brilliant vibrancy. It was common for religious paintings to feature figures who stood placidly by, as if they, too, were separated from the scene's focal point by a gap of centuries. But Leonardo insists on realism, and the result is eminently more entertaining. His composition constitutes a pyramid with Mary at the apex; around it the crowd stands in a semi-circle. Anchoring the crowd stand two figures whose peculiar calmness at this miraculous sight may betray some lack of religious fire on Leonardo's part. The dueling men in the background could symbolize myriad things; most likely they are intended to contrast the calm of the coming Christian order with the vice and waste of the past.
This painting was lost for a long period and then found, cut in two, in two different workshops in Rome, by Napoleon's uncle, Joseph Cardinal Fesch. One half was serving as a cupboard-backing, the other as a table top. Or so Fesch's story goes. The painting is remarkable for its portrayal of Jerome in the wilderness, emotional and half naked–quite unlike the typical painting of him in his study. Also, Leonardo's Saint Jerome may contain the first realistic lion in the history of painting. The head of Jerome also reflects an expert and experienced anatomical eye: most likely Leonardo had begun his graphic anatomical studies by this time.
Perhaps the most striking aspect about the Virgin of the Rocks is the Virgin's placement on rocks. A precipitous chasm separates the viewer from the holy scene, as if it were taking place on some unattainable plane of being. The rocky caves in the background, opening up onto a hazy landscape, contribute to the sense of otherworldliness. Leonardo often used hazy, rocky background, and this provides the extreme example. The Virgin herself is the most mature woman we have seen him paint at this point in his career. Her head is longer and more natural than the round, stylized faces of earlier paintings. An angel sits to her left, an infant John the Baptist toddles at her right, and the Christ Child rests at her feet. They form a triangle reminiscent of the Adoration of the Magi. The angel points at John the Baptist, and just above her hand hovers Mary's hand, open yet domineering. In the same vertical line, Christ lifts two pudgy fingers in benediction.
This relatively simple portrait depicts Cecilia Gallerani, mistress to Ludovico Sforza. The animal is an ermine, the species of weasel whose fur European royalty favored for use in their robes. The animal and the hands are rendered with masterful touches.
The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa are easily Leonardo's most famous paintings. Of the millions who have seen reproduction of the The Last Supper, few realize that it is not only a masterful painting, but also a cheap optical illusion! Painted on the wall of a refectory (or convent dining room), it was in fact intended to appear an extension of the room itself; the effect is achieved by the painting's perspective, which matches the lines of the room. Thus the table of Christ floated above the heads of the dining monks. The perspective serves other purposes as well: its lines focus on Christ's head, which is cleverly framed by an open window–a kind of circumstantial halo. The pious would say that Leonardo wanted to show that Jesus's natural grace provided him with this divine framing, that Leonardo eschewed painted gold discs because they were artificial. The German writer Goethe, however, suggests that Leonardo left out halos as a gesture toward secularizing the myth of Jesus. At any rate, Leonardo took special care to follow scriptural details; the seating arrangement reflects the Bible's description, though to achieve this Leonardo flew in the face of traditional quatrocento arrangements, which had Judas sitting on the opposite side of the table. Here he is the third man to Christ's right; he clutches a moneybag. Christ forms a regal triangle with his body, like the Virgins of Adoration of the Magi or Virgin of the Rocks; his disciples form rippling waves. He has just announced that one of them will betray him, but he has not yet indicated that it is Judas. Each disciple is eager to acquit himself or identify the future traitor. Grouped into threes, the disciples on the far right recoil in surprise, while the next group leans toward Christ with curiosity; each group has a slightly different reaction to the news. Generally, the hands of the disciples contradict the movement of their bodies, giving the whole composition a flowing circuit that always leads back to the center. As in the Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo shows his ability to animate a scene that had become clichéd through countless previous depictions.
Greenery spreads throughout the ceiling of this great painted room ("sala" is Italian for "room,") with a single knotted ribbon running throughout. The knotted ribbon is a signature–"vinci" means "knot." This meticulous decoration must have pleased the mathematical playfulness in Leonardo. He often drew similar doodles in his notebooks, filling up circles with various geometrical shapes.
Although incomplete, this painting achieves a beauty that its completion might have ruined. The Virgin, bending down, sits with her mother St. Anne, who was becoming a popular figure at the time, as the Church was spreading the notion that Mary was conceived by Anne through immaculate conception. Anne's face is dark and mysterious, as if she is going to tell the fate of Jesus, while Mary remains warm and content. Mary seems anxious to keep the Child with her, although the child seems already more interested in tending his "flock."
Leonardo's original version of this painting, which he abandoned in 1505, quickly deteriorated, but many contemporaries drew copies of it. This drawing by Rubens is one such example. Rubens's style shows through in the copy; and thus it should not be taken as a completely accurate representation of Leonardo's original. Even though Leonardo often designed machines of war, he often spoke of war's beastliness; he meant the Battle of Anghiari to illustrate its horrors.
Not only has the Mona Lisa been damaged by darkening layers of dirt and varnish, but it has been practically ruined by its own fame: who today can approach that famous smile with a fresh eye? Yet one gains much from a closer look. First, the head is round and full of flesh, in contrast to the flat, misshapen head of the Portrait of Ginevra de Benci of 1474. Leonardo's painterly career can be described as a quest for the perfect female head. The Mona Lisa is also relatively mute in its coloration–that is, its light coloring is due not only to fading, but due somewhat to the artist's intentions. Leonardo's preference for the shadows, veils, and sfumato possible in oil painting reaches its culmination in this portrait, where color and light are in perfect subservience to volume. The background here is typical of Leonardo's work: rocky crags and mists. The subject of this painting has been long and famously debated. Some have used computer technology to compare the portrait with Leonardo's own self-portrait, suggesting that the Mona Lisa is Leonardo's female version of himself; other, more reasonable arguments hold that it is the wife of Francesco del Gioconda.
Although this was one of Leonardo's last paintings, it is one of his least famous. The androgynous look of the Baptist has upset prudish critics for centuries, and no one can deny that the figure is not anatomically correct. Paradoxically, Leonardo often got anatomy completely wrong in his paintings, even as he was making perfect anatomical sketches in his notebooks. Perhaps he was trying to make a distinction between science and art. Other critics complain that Leonardo is rather boringly recycling the upward-pointing finger and the smile of Mona Lisa.