'I was fascinated not only by their faces—at once human and supernatural in their beauty, illuminated as if by moonlight—but also by background detail'

The Virgin of the Rocks, 1491/2–9 and 1506–8, by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), 74½ in by 47¼in, The National Gallery, London WC2

Katie Hickman says:
This is the first painting I can remember that really moved me. I was 10 and would often be taken to the National Gallery on Sundays as an outing from boarding school. Perhaps it was the contemplation of a family group that I found so poignant? I was fascinated not only by their faces—at once human and supernatural in their beauty, illuminated as if by moonlight—but also by background detail: the clump of narcissi at John the Baptist’s feet, the craggy rocks embracing a mysterious green lagoon and the golden folds of the Virgin’s robe. Revisiting the painting recently, I found it every bit as mesmerising.

Katie Hickman is a novelist and historian. Her new novel, The House at Bishopsgate, is published by Bloomsbury this week

John McEwen comments on The Virgin of the Rocks:
Vasari placed Leonardo in the vanguard of the modern manner for his ‘force and boldness of design, the subtlest counterfeiting of all the minutiae of Nature exactly as they are, with good rule, better order, correct proportion, perfect design and divine grace’.

This panel was painted to replace an earlier version, now in the Louvre. The original painting had been commissioned for inclusion in an altarpiece by a Milan-based Franciscan brotherhood dedicated to the immaculate Conception, but contractual disputes resulted in it being sold to a third party. Scientific analysis reveals that the replacement was painted over a sacred, but otherwise unrelated, picture.

The Louvre version showed Leonardo for the first time putting a group of figures—Virgin, messenger angel and infant Jesus blessing infant John the Baptist—in a complex landscape. in the London version, the gradual transition between light and dark gives greater unity to the composition.

There is symbolism in the darkness. The writer Samuel Lock, who died recently, identified the black hole at the Virgin’s core as a deliberate glimpse of the everlasting. This accords with the then lack of an iconography for picturing her immaculate Conception: that she was born of human parents, but, by God’s privilege, conceived without the ‘stain’ of original sin common to all mortals. Jeremiah (31:22) testified the sinless Virgin as God’s first ‘creation’.

Leonardo found particular inspiration in Proverbs chapter 8, in which the female personification of ‘wisdom’ attests: ‘The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way… before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth.’