Renaissance Art: the Madonna of the Rocks

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Interpreting historical paintings is as interesting as they are challenging, more so considering that the artist who made them did not write prefaces to enlighten viewers about the theme of their work and the purpose they served. This omission leaves these works to several, sometimes conflicting interpretations. One such painting is The Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, which depicts the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, baby Jesus and baby John the Baptist in a cave. I chose this painting because it symbolic use of arrangement and posture to reveal importance of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism and the relationship between baby Jesus and John the Baptist.

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I apply the expressive and social-cultural theories to highlight da Vinci’s use of light to achieve surrealism, and the cultural significance of the cave setting to 15th century and modern Christendom.


The Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci is a painting of oil on panel, measuring 1.9m by 1.2m, and showing four seated figures; two infants, a woman and an angel. The painting is set in a rocky cave, with mountains and a river to the background, seen through the mouth of the cave. There are flowers, probably lilies in the foreground, and palm leaves in the background towards the entrance to the cave. Of interest, however, are the four figures seated in a pyramid arrangement and the connection among them. On the right side there is an angel kneeling on the floor, whose gaze is directed at the viewer. At the angel’s feet sits an infant, whose hand is raised in a blessing gesture towards the second infant who is kneeling in from of him, and making a gesture of reverence or worship in the direction of the first infant. The woman in the painting is seated on the left side of the frame, and has her right hand wrapped around the back of the kneeling infant. The woman’s left hand is raised in a protective pose above the infant sitting at the angel’s feet. Both infants are naked, the woman clothed in a red dress, her shoulders and lower half is covered in a hazy blue cloth. The anger, identified by the wings on her bank, is clothed in a red, with a greenish cloth wrapped around the shoulder of her left hand. The angel has her index finger pointed towards the infant kneeling at the feet of the woman.


The artists uses visual elements and principles of design to create balance and harmony in the painting, as well as draw the viewer’s eyes to the point of attention; the woman, and the two infants. The use of space and motion is evident in this painting through the placing of the woman at the head of the pyramid, implying that she is important. The mouth of the cave is directly behind her, and so one would expect casts of shadow on her front part; however, da Vinci has subverted the laws of nature by lighting her face. At the same time, although she is seated, she appears to tower above the rest. If they were seated around a table, she could be said to be sitting at the head, so to speak. She also occupies a bigger space than any of the figures, and her size helps to achieve balance by countering the empty spaces to the left- the cave mouth and the scenery to the background. Da Vinci uses motion to draw attention to the two infants and create a connection between them. The angel is pointing at the infant kneeling in front of the woman, the infant is kneeling and supplicating towards the infant seated at the feet of the angel. The seated infant makes a gesture of benediction/blessing towards the kneeling infant. The woman is also looking down towards the keening child, while her left hand hovers protectively over the seated child.

The artist’s use of lighting creates a surrealist effect in the painting. The use of warm colors inside the cave and the combination of lighting creates a grow that is extraordinary. The source of the light inside the cave (where one would naturally expect darkness) is not suggested in any way, considering that the figures are not lighted by the natural light coming through the cave mouth.


The identity of the figures is the most confusing aspect of the painting, necessitating reference to the painting’s origin and the purpose it was intended to serve. The painting was commissioned in 1843 by the church of San Francesco Grande in Milan, to decorate its Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. The painting was intended to convey the idea of the Virgin Marr’s Immaculate Conception and sinless birth, with her portrait and that of the baby Jesus as the center of attraction. The placing of angels, who symbolized protection by divine powers, was a common motif in the renaissance period when the painting was made, and it is thought that da Vinci added another figure, the infant John the Baptist for balance. Thus, the four figures can be identified as:

  • The seated woman is the Virgin Mary.
  • The child kneeling before her is the infant John the Baptist,
  • The child seated in front of the angel is baby Jesus.

These conclusions as to the identities of the figures were arrived at considering the postures and positions of they take in the paint. The angel is identified outright through the wings on her back. The title of the painting, Madonna of the Rocks, also referred to as the Virgin of the Rocks, directly links it to the Virgin Mary, being the mother of Jesus and her miraculous conception. It is identifying the two infants that is tricky, considering that the baby Jesus is expected to be at the feet of his mother. The intimate connection between the Virgin Mary and Jesus is emphasized through her title as the Mother of God. It suggests that no one can come any closer to her than Jesus. However, the gestures of the two infants leave no doubt that the child at Mary’s feet is John the Baptist, and the one under the angel’s feet is Jesus. The posse of reverence and worship that the child at Mary’s feet makes implies that it is John the Baptist paying homage to baby Jesus. At the same time, baby Jesus is making a blessing gesture, which would make sense only if the person blessing another has divine powers. It also makes sense that the baby Jesus is protected by an angel, suggesting his importance. The angel’s gesture towards the infant John the Baptist can be interpreted as an attempt to remind the viewer of John’s role in the redemption of mankind. If the painting had a speech bubble, the angel would most likely be telling the viewer, “This is he, the one who will prepare the way for the Messiah.”

In the painting, the Virgin Mary is seen diving her attention between the two infants; her right hand is wrapped in a motherly gesture around John the Baptist, while her left hovers protectively above baby Jesus. This pose depicts her as the adoring mother to whom Catholics pray for blessings and intersession, to pass their wishes to her son Jesus.

In this regard, it arguable that da Vinci was seeking not only to portray the immaculate image of the Virgin Mary, but also to capture the narrative of the mission to save mankind from sin. He does this by creating a connection between the four figures in the painting. Mary is the sinless and blessed woman of all women who was chosen to give birth to the messiah; John the Baptist was sent forth to prepare the way for the messiah’s coming. In this painting, baby Jesus symbolically acknowledges John’s mission by blessing him.


Without a shadow of doubt, da Vinci effectively captures the viewer’s attention through the use of color and light to create a surreal atmosphere, which evokes a sense of wonder and reverence. The surreal atmosphere is achieved through da Vinci’s use of his signature sfumato technique; it involves the application of a coat of a mixture of black pigment and varnish, to create a smoky effect. His handling of light makes the images to project out of the cave’s darkness, immediately drawing the viewer’s attention to the figures. It is easy to ignore the scenery at the background, although it adds to the mystery and surreal effect of the painting. From the perspective of Expressive theory, it is arguable that da Vinci uses the sfumato effect to elevate the level of visual realism in the painting, and make it more effective in having an impact of awe in the viewer. This is because the importance of the figures in the pointing in Roman Catholicism required him to capture the holiness, power and mystery that surround the birth of Jesus and the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The smooth transition between light and dark is more refined than the chiaroscuro technique used by earlier Italian painters, creating a stringer surreal effect.

The social cultural perspective highlights the relevance of the painting, especially the setting, to its cultural setting. The adoration of the Virgin Mary and the baby Christ by John the Baptist was a common motif in Renaissance Florence in Italy, and this painting was relevant to the target audience. At the same time, caves and rock landscape were the perfect setting for Nativity scenes, which allude to the Virgin Mary’s and the baby Jesus’ taking refuge in a desert to escape from persecution by King Herod, who had launched a massacre to kill all male infants to avoid the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that promised a more powerful king than him. Thus, the cave symbolizes the sanctuary where the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus remained safe from Herod.


  1. Farago, Claire, and Nozick, Robert. An Overview of Leonardo’s Career and Projects Until
    C.1500. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1999.
  2. Gregori, Mina. Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy. New
    York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.
  3. Marle, Raimond. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, Volume 4. New York:
    Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.
  4. Claire Farago, An Overview of Leonardo’s Career and Projects Until C.1500 (Taylor & Francis, 1999) 505.
  5. Mina Gregori, Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004) 72.
  6. Raimond Marle, The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, Volume 4 (Springer Science & Business Media, 2012) 243.
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Renaissance Art: The Madonna of the Rocks. (2021, May 29). Retrieved from