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Leonardo da Vinci is believed to have worked on two similar compositions under the title of Madonna of the Yarnwinder in the early 16th century. These may have been produced collaboratively, alongside an unknown member of his studio.
Leonardo devoted much of his career to religious themes, and the Madonna features prominently within his paintings. The artist revisited her image, finding new ways to re-invent this key religious figure each time. This particular version would be termed as Madonna of the Yarnwinder, and several different versions were completed.
Towards the end of the 15th century, the artist had built up a strong studio, filled with technically proficient artists on whom he could rely. Several themes would be completed in multiple versions, and in some cases they might work on these different iterations at the same time. Consequently, the studio could become more profitable, and deliver a consistently high quality set of artworks.
In the case of Madonna of the Yarnwinder, we know of two main versions which are believed to have had the involvement of master Da Vinci, possibly in conjunction with other artists. There is then a whole plethora of copies which came from all manner of other sources and these are now spread all across Europe.
The vast majority of these different paintings feature the Madonna and Child in much the same posture, but with other elements of the composition then altered. Most obviously, it is the landscape behind which is amended most, with some finer details then varying upon a closer inspection.
Whilst the two main versions of Madonna of the Yarnwinder are not considered to be the most famous paintings produced by Leonardo, they are both still welcome additions to his painting oeuvre, particularly considering how small it would turn out to be. A number of his other paintings may well have been lost over the centuries, reducing the output that we are aware of today.
Whilst many of his lesser known artworks are somewhat shrouded in mystery and controversy, we actually know quite a bit about both versions. Their paths have been tracked and documented closely for several centuries and so their attributions are much more solid than in the cases of some other paintings linked to the great master.
Within this article we will examine both Leonardo versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder in detail, as well as listing some of the copies that were made in the early part of the 16th century. We shall examine the symbolism used in this piece, and compare it to some of the artist's other depictions of the Madonna and Child.
Table of Contents
- The Lansdowne Madonna
- The Buccleuch Madonna
Various studies were discovered which correlate with the final composition found within both versions of Madonna of the Yarnwinder. Leonardo would sketch out elements of the anatomy of both figures, normally in chalk, and do so in order to avoid having to make changes directly on the wooden panel. Most of his preparation for this piece, one can argue, was from his work on other depictions of the Madonna and Child in previous decades, as the theme was now entirely familiar to him, as were other elements of this composition.
The landscape found in the background will remind many of earlier paintings, for example. The use of drapery and very precise facial features were also technical skills which had evolved over a period of many years, and Da Vinci was now able to produce these effects at will, having done so several times before. His study drawings would therefore focus on precise elements of key sections of each work.
The Lansdowne Madonna
The Lansdowne Madonna is considered by many scholars to be the most impressive of Leonardo's two versions of Madonna of the Yarnwinder. It's stunning landscape which covers the full widith of the background will remind many of other memorable artworks from Da Vinci - his signature style involved tones merging into the sky, giving a dream-like quality.
In addition to the mountain range in the distance, there is also a shallow river meandering across a flat landscape in the foreground, on the left of the painting as we view it. The artist carefully contrasts the landscape by using darker brown tones in the first section, before reverting to a blue palette further back - this helps to section the painting into three parts, and increase the overall feeling of depth.
This version is believed to be in marginally better condition, with the Buccleuch Madonna have received considerable amounts of retouching, partially moving it away from the artist's original work. The former has revealed several secrets whilst being transferred to canvas, and then back to wood panel. Experts have identified some of the changes made by Da Vinci in its early stages of development, such as one of the child's legs being adjusted significantly.
It has also been revealed fairly recently that Leonardo had intended to include several more figures to the left hand side of the Virgin, and most likely these would have been related to the theme of the Nativity. Underpainting by the artist was uncovered from x-ray research, but the chose eventually chose not to develop these forms in the final composition.
The painting was once owned by the Marquesses of Lansdowne, in the 19th century, and it is from them that this title came. With around forty copies having been made, and some question marks over which versions it was that Leonardo produced, it became necessary to name the main artworks to ease their identification. This piece now resides within a private collection, probably based somewhere in the United States.
Size and Medium
The Lansdowne Madonna is sized at 50.2 cm × 34.6 cm (19.8 in × 13.6 in), making it almost exactly the same size as The Buccleuch Madonna. The artist used oil on a wooden panel for this piece, and its small size would suggest that only a single panel of wood was required. This piece has been restored several times over, first transferred to canvas, before then being placed on panel once more.
Large Image of Madonna of the Yarnwinder
See below for a large image of Madonna of the Yarnwinder, specifically the Lansdowne Madonna. We were not able to find a high resolution image of the Buccleuch Madonna, unfortunately. The image below will help you to appreciate much of the detail discussed within this article, and in particular the beautiful landscape which leads off down the left hand side, before reeaching the blue tones in the distance.
The Lansdowne Madonna
The Buccleuch Madonna
The Buccleuch Madonna is named after its owner, the Duke of Buccleuch. The family has owned this piece since 1767, but today it hangs in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, on a generous, long term loan. The artwork was stolen in 2003, but recovered four years later and now likely enjoys tighter security within its new location.
A comparison between the two artworks reveals a much simpler background within The Buccleuch Madonna, which is relatively devoid of detail above the horizon. The contrast overall is clearly stronger, but this may have been more to do with how the paintings have changed over the years, rather than indicative of the artist's original work.
The majority of detail in the foreground is near identical, on initial viewing. The Madonna holds her right hand out, faced down, whilst her left arm is entirely around her child. He holds a cross, whilst staring intently at it. The Madonna is dressed with a blue cloak which wraps around her body from the left, covering a brown dress. Her hair curls, attracting some of the light which falls across her face and chest.
Size and Medium
This double portrait is sized at 48.3 cm × 36.9 cm (19.0 in × 14.5 in), and was produced using oils on a walnut panel. This size is entirely appropriate with Leonardo's methods for compositions such as this, where just one or two main figures are included, with a sprawling background behind. He only tended to use larger panels when covering much more complex compositions.
The Buccleuch Madonna
Around forty copies were made by various artists of the two Leonardo versions. Interestingly, some of them were produced whilst his artworks were still in development, and so copied elements that were later removed or amended. Although his name is not attributed to any of these other copies, they have become highly valuable in their own right.
The full list of copies last from the early 15th century to the start of the 16th century, with most completed between 1500-1520, at which point the artist's influence was at its strongest. Some of the names believed to have completed these copies include the likes of Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina, Cesare da Sesto, Cornelius van Cleve, Martino Piazza da Lodi and Luis de Morales, though most are attributed anonymously as a "Leonardo follower".