Leonardo da Vinci Paintings. 5 Eternal Masterpieces

Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci is the most famous artist in the world. And this fact is surprising, because only 19 preserved paintings of the master are known. How is this possible? Does two dozen artworks make the artist the greatest?

The secret of this is in Leonardo himself. He is one of the most unusual people ever born. The inventor of various mechanisms. The discoverer of many phenomena. The virtuoso musician. And also the cartographer, botanist and anatomist.

In his notes we find descriptions of a bicycle, a submarine, a helicopter and a tanker. Not to mention scissors, a life jacket and contact lenses.

His innovations in painting were also incredible. He was one of those who started using oil paints. As well as the technique of sfumato and chiaroscuro. He was the first to fit figures into the landscape. His models in portraits became living people, not painted mannequins.

Here are just 5 masterpieces of the master, which show the genius of this man.

1. Virgin of the rocks. 1483-1486.

Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the rocks. Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the rocks. 1483-1486. Louvre Museum, Paris.

The holy family with baby Jesus was returning from Egypt. On the way, they met little John the Baptist.

This is the first picture in the history of art when people are depicted not in front of the landscape, but inside it. Heroes are sitting by the water. Behind them are rocks. They are so old that they look more like stalactites.

The Virgin of the Rocks was ordered by the monks of the St. Francis brotherhood for one of the churches in Milan.

But customers were disappointed. Leonardo delayed the timing.

They also did not like the lack of halo. They were also embarrassed by the gesture of an angel. Why is his forefinger pointing at John the Baptist? After all, baby Jesus is more important.

Leonardo sold the painting on the side. The monks sued. The artist was required to write a new painting for the monks. This time – with the halo and without the angel pointing gesture.

According to the official version, this is how the second “Virgin of the Rocks” appeared. Almost identical to the first. But there is something strange about it.

Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the rocks. London.
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the rocks. 1508. National Gallery of London.

Leonardo carefully studied plants. He even made a number of discoveries in the field of botany. He realized that tree sap plays the same role as blood in human veins. He also guessed to determine the age of trees by rings.

Therefore, it is not surprising that in the Louvre painting the vegetation is realistic. Such plants grow in a moist, darkened place. But in the second picture, the flora is imaginary!

How did Leonardo, so truthful in depicting nature, suddenly decide to dream up? In a single picture? It is unthinkable.

I think Leonardo was not interested in writing the second painting. The master instructed his apprentice to make a copy. And he obviously did not understand botany.

2. Lady with an ermine. 1489-1490.

Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with an ermine.
Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with an ermine. 1489-1490. Museum of Chertory, Krakow. Wikimedia.commons.org.

This is young Cecilia Gallerani. She was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan. Leonardo also served at his court.

She was a smiling, good-natured and smart girl. Leonardo often talked with her for a long time.

And once the artist painted her portrait. It is very unusual. Leonardo’s contemporaries portrayed people in profile. Here Cecilia stands in three quarters, turning his head in the opposite direction. As if she looked back at someone’s words. Such a turn makes the shoulder line and neck especially beautiful.

Alas, we see the portrait in a modified form. Some of the portrait’s owners darkened the background. Initially, it was lighter, with a window behind the girl’s left shoulder. The two lower fingers of her hand are also transcribed. Therefore, they are arched unnaturally.

Of course, our attention is attracted by an ermine in the hands of a girl. Such a beast seems to us a curiosity. It would be more common for a modern person to see a fluffy cat in the hands of a girl.

But in the 15th century, the ermine was an ordinary animal. They were kept for catching mice. And cats, on the contrary, were exotic.

3. Last Supper. 1495-1498.

Leonardo da Vinci. Last Supper.
Leonardo da Vinci. Last Supper. 1495-1498. Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazia, Milan.

The fresco “Last Supper” was commissioned by the same Ludovico Sforza at the request of his wife Beatrice d’Este. Alas, she died very young during childbirth. She never saw the painting completed.

The duke was beside himself with grief. Realizing how dear to him was a cheerful and beautiful wife. Therefore, his gratitude to the artist knew no bounds.

He paid 2000 ducats for the work done. With our money it is about 800 thousand dollars! Sforza also gave Leonardo a large piece of land.

It is hard to imagine how amazed the people of Milan were when they saw The Last Supper.

The apostles differed not only in appearance, but also in their emotions and gestures. Each of them reacted in his own way to the words of Christ “One of you will betray me”. Never before has the individuality of the characters been so pronounced.

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The painting has another amazing detail. Restorers found that Leonardo painted the shadows not in gray or black, but in blue!

This was unthinkable until the middle of the XIX century, when the impressionists began to depict colored shadows.

Leonardo da Vinci. Fragment of the Last Supper.
Leonardo da Vinci. Fragment of the Last Supper. 1495-1498. Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazia, Milan.

In reproductions, this is not so clearly visible, but the composition of the paint speaks for itself: blue crystals of copper acetate.

4. Mona Lisa. 1503-1519.

Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa. Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa. 1503-1519. Louvre Museum, Paris. Wikimedia.commons.org.

We see Lisa Gerardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant. This version is official, but dubious.

One curious description of this portrait has been preserved. It is left by Leonardo’s pupil, Francesco Melzi.

The Louvre lady does not fit this description at all!

Now another version about the heroine of the portrait is being considered.

Perhaps this is the lover of Giuliano Medici from Florence. She bore him a son. And soon after giving birth she died.

Giuliano commissioned a portrait specifically for the boy. He asked Leonardo to write a woman in the image of an ideal mother, Madonna.

The artist painted the portrait according to the verbal description, mixing the features of his student Salai.

Therefore, the Florentine lady is so similar to “John the Baptist” (see the following picture), for whom the same Salai posed.

In this portrait, the sphumato method is maximally disclosed. The subtle haze, creating the effect of shaded lines, makes Mona Lisa almost alive. Her lips seem to open up now. She will sigh. The chest rises.

Giuliano, the customer, died in 1516 and never received a portrait. Leonardo took it to France, where he was invited by King Francis I. He continued to work on it until the last day. Why so long?

Leonardo perceived the time in a completely different way. He claimed that the Earth is much older than is commonly thought. He did not believe that a biblical flood had brought seashells to the mountains. He understood that in the place of the mountains there was once a sea.

Therefore, it was common for him to paint a picture for decades. What is 15-20 years compared with the age of the Earth!

5. John Baptist. 1514-1516.

Leonardo da Vinci. St. John the Baptist. Louvre.
Leonardo da Vinci. St. John the Baptist. 1513-1516. Louvre Museum, Paris. wga.hu.

Leonardo da Vinci. St. John the Baptist. 1513-1516. Louvre Museum, Paris. wga.hu.

“John the Baptist” puzzled contemporaries Leonardo. Deaf dark background. Whereas even Leonardo himself liked to fit figures into the landscape.

Out of the darkness stands the figure of a saint. But it’s difficult to call him a saint.

Everyone is used to the elderly John. And then a handsome young man tilted his head unequivocally. Gentle touch of the hand to the chest. Well-groomed locks of hair.

The last thing you think about holiness is when you look at this effeminate man with the skin of a leopard.

It seems that this picture does not belong to the Renaissance. It is rather the 17th century!

The mannerism of the hero. Theatrical gestures. The contrast of light and shadow. All this hails from the Baroque Era. Such John could very well have been created by Caravaggio.

True, he lived 100 years later.

Did Leonardo look into the future? Surprisingly, he used the style and manner of painting … of the next century.


Who was Leonardo? Most know him as an artist. But his genius is much wider.

He was the first to explain why the sky is blue. He believed in the unity of all living beings, anticipating the theorists of quantum physics with their “butterfly effect”. He realized the phenomenon of turbulence 400 years before its official discovery.

It is a pity that humanity could not take full advantage of its genius.

I wonder, Leonardo is an exception, the equals of whom will no longer appear on Earth? Or is he the superman of the future, who was accidentally born ahead of time?


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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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