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Leonardo da Vinci's Benois Madonna was completed in around 1478-1480 and today resides at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia. It is one of the artist's earliest paintings and shows the influences of his time working as an apprentice under the guidance of Andrea del Verrocchio.
A number of study drawings for the Madonna painting have been uncovered. These reveal how the artist was trying to merge innovation with the conventions of the time for this genre. Different ideas and approaches were experimented with on paper, and somehow Leonardo was able to fuse this all together in the final piece. It can be considered his best interpretation of the Madonna from his early works. His use of dramatic lighting was particularly noteworthy, and the overall aesthetic is considered by some historians to carry a more dynamic appearance than with other artists of that period.
The Benois Madonna was one of the earliest paintings that Da Vinci produced having become an independent, professional artist for the first time. He was very much still evolving at this point, and would make many alterations in his work as he struggled to fuse his conventional training with more innovative ideas of his own. Perhaps the most significant change that he made in this piece was to not include a cat within the scene, despite it having appeared within a number of study drawings. These placed the cat in the grasp of the young child, but in the end he choice to face mother and child towards each other, and for the baby to hold a plant instead.
The painting has generally been well received, across the centuries, with many considering it to be the artist's best early interpretation of the Madonna and Child. Some, however, have criticised elements of the work, including the anatomical accuracy and also the enlarged forehead given to the Madonna. These views led to the questioning of the painting's attribution to Leonardo da Vinci, but the vast majority of experts have been much more complementary about the piece and also felt no reason to question its origins. Such a variety of views is entirely normal for a famous artwork from several centuries ago, and often one is best to simply reflect on the majority view.
The artist is believed to have started two Madonnas in October 1478, with the other being Madonna of the Carnation. Much of the dating surrounding them both has been based on their respective styles, as there was a clear evolution in the artist's approach over the course of his lifetime. Much more has been learnt in recent centuries through scientific research techniques which have allowed us to understand more about the ways in which each painting was created, as we look below the surface and examine the earlier stages of production. Most clues for the Benois Madonna point to the early stages of his career, as he attempted to marry the influences of his apprenticeship with his own innovations.
This article examines Leonardo da Vinci's Benois Madonna in considerable detail, tracking its path of ownership up to the present day, whilst also providing technical details about the work itself. We discuss where the piece fits into Da Vinci's overall career, and how its timing affected the style and compositional techniques used in this Madonna. We also, crucially, analyse the details in this piece, providing meaning and background to the aesthetic beauty created by this Renaissance master. Finally, there is also a larger image of the painting and the bottom of the article, allowing us all to appreciate the distinct qualities of this work which is believed to have been completed by the artist in around 1478-1480.
Table of Contents
- Analysis and Meaning
- Leonardo's Depictions of the Madonna
- Size and Medium
- Large Image
One of the earliest artworks attributed to Leonardo da Vinci was the Benois Madonna, one of several depictions that he completed of the Madonna and Child. We can learn much about the influence of his master, Andrea del Verrocchio, whose impact was felt most strongly in these early years. We can also see an artist who was very much at the start of his evolution, with alterations and tweaks being common in his work at this stage. These pieces would therefore lack some of the innovations of his mature period, but signs of what was to come can be spotted by those who look a little deeper. With such a small series of attributed paintings, too, each and every Leonardo da Vinci painting is particularly precious, making the Benois Madonna a particular attraction to those visiting the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.
The Virgin sits upon a bench within a small dark room. An ornate carved window at the back of the painting allows light to come through and brighten the two figures in the foreground. The Virgin places the Christ child on her lap, and playfully amuses him. They both sport halos, signifying their divinity, and the Madonna is also wearing the traditional tones of blue which help us to identify her. Da Vinci adds aesthetic interest with some complex rolls of draped clothing, with a brownish band wrapped around her midrift, hanging down onto the bench. She wears a small item of jewellery around her chest, but most of her outfit is fairly simple and modest in style. The Madonna is particularly young within this depiction, and Da Vinci would vary her age across different artworks. The baby is also particularly rotund, which is another aspect that varies across different paintings.
Analysis and Meaning
The most significant addition of symbolism within Benois Madonna, besides the highly common methods used to identify the Virgin and Child, is the plant being held by the child in his right hand. It is believed to be a crucifer, which is any type of plant that hosts petals in a cross arrangement. It would have been used here by the artist as a means to signify the Passion, a theory that a number of historians in the 20th century have put forward. Besides this addition, which is placed centrally and between the two figures, to underline its symbolic significance, the remaining details of the work are entirely typical of Da Vinci's work in the religious genre, as well as Northern Italian Renaissance art more generally. Normally the artist would show Madonna and Child gazing into each other's eyes, but in this piece they are instead fixated by the small plant being held by the child.
Leonardo's Depictions of the Madonna
The Madonna was a common sight within Italian Renaissance art, with religion holding a strong influence over the nation's culture at that time. Most commissions would also come from religious institutions too, meaning that artists had little choice but to tackle themes from the Bible within their work. Leonardo would capture the Madonna in a number of scenes, and alongside Benois Madonna she can also be found in the likes of Virgin of the Rocks, Annunciation, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Madonna of the Carnation. She would be particularly prominent in his early years as a professional painter, with a number of private patrons then appearing later on, often requiring secular portraits instead. Certain iconographic techniques are repeated by Da Vinci throughout his Madonna paintings, such as her blue clothing which many Italian artists have used as a means to identifying her within art.
The early works of Leonardo da Vinci typically included much more re-work than later in his career. The same can be seen here in Benois Madonna, with a number of alterations having been uncovered in recent years thanks to several scientific research projects. These have helped to reveal to the world the layers below the surface, where the secrets of the artist's work can be found. It is likely that the Madonna's hair covered more of her forehead originally, and that her right sleeve may have been styled more similarly to the rest of her arm. Christ's head also varied in size from the original plan on the under painting, and the Madonna is likely to have held a flower in her left hand, which was later replaced with the grass that we can see today. As his technical skills and experience evolved over time, the artist would require fewer alterations in later works, particularly on smaller paintings such as this.
Leonardo da Vinci's Benois Madonna is one of the few paintings from his oevure to have consistently been attributed to him, without any great opposition. A series of related drawings, some of which must surely have been related to the production of this painting, have been uncovered from his career and added considerable evidence as to the piece's existing attribution. Very little is known about the piece until it fell into Russian hands, which has made it a little harder to understand this piece but new research methods brought in over the past two centuries have enabled historians to be far more confident in placing it within Da Vinci's output. That said, it does bear some hallmarks of both his early work, as well as his mature period, meaning that the date currently given to it may not necessarily be correct.
Size and Medium
The Benois Madonna is sized at 49.5 cm × 33 cm (19.5 in × 13 in). It was producing using only oil on wood, whilst most of Da Vinci's other early works featured tempera mixed with oils. The relatively small size of this piece is typical for his portraits and he rarely felt the need to go much larger than this. His Madonna depictions followed much the same formula as this in the early part of his career, both in terms of compositional layout, but also in the size of the wood used. He called upon different types of wood panel within his oeuvre, including walnut and popular, basically whatever was available to hand at the time.
Leonardo da Vinci's Benois Madonna can be found today at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. This important institution hosts one of the finest collections of western art anywhere in the world, featuring the most famous Russian artists alongside prominent artists from Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the UK. It is believed that the painting was purchased by a Russian, possibly artillery general Aleksei Ivanovich, before changing hands several times within wealthy Russian families. It eventually made its way into the Benois family, which is where its title today as the Benois Madonna is derived. The family would then sell the item to the Hermitage Museum in 1914 and it was remained there ever since.
Who was Leon Benois?
Alexander Alexendrovich Sapozhnikov acquired the painting from his father and his daughter Maria Sapozhnikova would marry Leon Benois. The painting would then become a part of the Benois family inheritance, and that is how it became known as the Benois Madonna. Leon himself was a skilled architect, following in the footsteps of his father, Nicholas. Leon Benois would design several key structures in Eastern Europe, including the Roman Catholic cathedral of Notre-Dame in St Petersburg and members of his family would continue to play prominent roles within the arts community even after his passing.
Large Image of Benois Madonna
See below for a larger image of Leonardo da Vinci's Benois Madonna from circa 1478–1480. This will allow you to enjoy more of the detail added by the artist, such as in the drapes of clothing in the Madonna's outfit, as well as the facial features of both figures. There are also some elements of the back of the room which can be seen in this format, which lie in the shadows so as to avoid attracting too much attention and distracting us from the main focal point of the piece. Da Vinci's Madonna portraits tended to be fairly small, perhaps more for a devotional purpose in a smaller room than to be displayed in a large hall, for example.