Leonardo da Vinci

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Young St. John the Baptist
c. 1501
Charcoal and touches of white on paper
National Gallery, London

This cartoon, happily situated in the National Gallery in London, is in one word, sublime. Each time I visit the gallery I always witness several people standing or seated motionless in front of the image. They appear to be mesmerized, captivated, swept beyond time and space. One can only wonder at how Leonardo da Vinci manages to convey such a feeling of depth, gravity, and emotion in a charcoal and chalk sketch. His works are compelling, beguiling even. The finely chiselled, oval faces of the women, contrast well with their comfortingly rounded, soft bodies. Mary is represented here with her usual grace and serene countenance; but there is something more to this image, there is personality. It is as though we have been invited to an intimate family gathering; the ladies have been chatting and the children playing.  What I like the most here is the knowing look on Mary’s face as she watches her son.  The mother is much represented in Christianity, and yet at the same time she is forgotten, due to the patriarchal nature of the religion. Throughout Leonardo’s works we see a sensitive and sincere representation of the divine female.


Virgin of the Rocks

National Gallery, London


St.John the Baptist

The Louvre, Paris

I was amazed and almost unnerved by this painting when I came across it in the Louvre. It is quite surreal how alive he seems! Those piercing eyes and that knowing smile have imprinted themselves firmly on my memory. The warmth of the light emanating from St John’s body is effective against the dark background – a trick much use by Rembrandt later on.

The Mona Lisa

The Louvre, Paris


Virgin, Child and St. Anne

The Louvre, Paris

Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani). 1489-1490. Czartoryski Museum, Kraków. [Source: Wikimedia Comons]

Lady with an Ermine


Czartoryski Museum, Kraków.

This is one of my favourite paintings and I hope to make a trip to Krakow to see it before I leave East Germany.

The lady was Cecilia Gallerani, a woman who came to be famed for both her beauty and her intelligence.  Cecilia was a Milanese lady of good blood who had been given a humanistic education.  The patron was her lover, Ludovico Maria Sforza, also known as “il Moro” (the Moor), regent of Milan.  Cecilia was Ludovico’s enduring love, though it was insisted upon that he marry the rather less appealing Beatrice d’Este for political reasons. The ermine is representative of purity.

The unusual composition may in part be accounted for by Cecilia’s role and position in society, she was neither a wife nor a lady of high rank, so we can only suppose that Leonardo was given more freedom in the way in which he depicted her and yet we may assume that owing to Ludovico’s documented affection for Cecilia and his position as ruler, she was able to be depicted as a modest and virtuous woman.

A sonnet by the court poet Bernardo Bellicioni praises the painting:

Why are you angry? Whom do you envy, Nature?

Vinci, who has portrayed one of your stars;

Cecilia, now so beautiful, is she

Whose lovely eyes cast the sun into dim shadow.

The honour is yours, though in his painting

He’s made her seem to listen, but not to speak.

Think how very alive and beautiful it will be-

To your greater glory – for all time.

Therefore you may now thank Ludovico,

And the genius of Leonardo,

Who want her to belong to posterity.

He who sees her thus, even though too late

To see her alive, will say: this is enough for us,

Now to understand nature and art.

(Shell & Sironi, 1992: 48-9)

The sonnet, echoing the poetry of Petrarch, is addressed to nature and extols the painting by claiming that it has exceeded nature in its perfection.  Bellicioni then consoles nature who is praised for creating a beauty such as Cecilia, who has been granted immortality through the image.  The connection between poetry and art in the Renaissance was prevalent and in fact Brown suggests that Leonardo wished to challenge ‘the poets’ claim that only a literary portrait could convey the likeness of an individual’. (Brown, 1990: 50)  What was expressed through the poetry popular in the Renaissance, Leonardo tried and succeeded with great subtlety to express in painting.  Cecilia does indeed seem to have an inner life, leaving the viewer both intrigued and somehow aware of her hidden nature.

Ginevra de’ Benci
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

~ by laxshmirose on June 29, 2010.

4 Responses to “Leonardo da Vinci”

  1. It’s amazing : both Cecilia and the ermine are turning their heads to look in the same direction: towards the light? They are both seeking the light which could be an allusion to the enlightenment of the renaissance period.
    The significance of the ermine in this painting is that this
    two-sidedness is representative of Cecilia Gallerani’s personality. Did Da Vinci use the ermine not only as a metaphor, but also to denote the womans connection to Lodovico Sforza? Although she was young at the time her portrait was painted, Cecilia Gallerani had already been seduced by Lodovico and borne him a son.

    the story/fable commonly told at this time was that the hunters would surround the ermine with a mud ring. The ermine, realizing it cannot escape without soiling its fur,would give up and surrender its self to the hunters and their dogs.the ermine would rather die than soil its snowy white coat.
    In many ways the ermine tells the story of Cecilia Gallerani.

    The length of her fingers !!! He probably felt it was important for the fingers to be displayed in the painting to indicate musical ability. her fingers long and sensuous, those of a musician and a voluptuary.”

    ‘Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen?’
    _The work of the painter is immediately understood by its beholders,” whereas “the works of poets are read at long intervals; they are often not understood, and require many explanations, and commentators very rarely know what was in the poet’s mind”?
    _It is easier for the painter to conform simultaneously to (Artistotle’s) three unities of action, time and place…so argues Da Vinci

    thank you

  2. Thank you! Here is a paragraph from an essay I wrote on the subject, referring to the possible multiple meanings of the ermine.Thanks for the story, I love all the symbolism in Leonardo’s paintings.

    The Ferrante of Aragon, King of Naples honoured il Moro with the Order of the Ermine in 1488. Thus, the ermine may represent Ludovico, either in a metaphorical form, suggesting the intimacy of the lovers. (Brown, 1990: 52) Or it may simply have been a reference to the patron. The other meaning is in the name Gallerani which can be linked to the Greek word for ermine – gale. (Shell and Sironi, 1992: 53) Therefore, from an iconological point of view it may be supposed that Leonardo carefully and cleverly chose one striking symbol that carried several meanings, both upholding the purity and honour of the women despite her position and linking Ludovico and Cecilia to one another. This is not the only occasion on which he had used a symbol from nature to allude to the name and virtues of the sitter. In Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’Benci (figure 4) he placed a juniper, or ginepro bush behind her as a play on her name and as a symbol of female virtue. (Zollner, 2006: 35)

  3. Oh and thank you also for mentioning Leonardo’s attitude towards painting. The relationship between poetry and art is fascinating, and artists like Leonardo where able to make poetry in a visual form which is incredibly powerful, and needs no study or education etc… to appreciate, even if the full extent of the paintings meaning often eludes us. But I think poetic painting can also be felt!

  4. i hope you make the trip to Krakow in the very near future before living Deutschland!
    danke schoen fuer die wunderbaren infos…Tschuess:)))

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: