“Benois Madonna” by Leonardo da Vinci. Why is it a masterpiece?

"Benois Madonna" by Leonardo da Vinci

“…I found myself confronted by a young woman with a bald forehead and puffed cheeks, a toothless smile and a furrowed throat. The uncanny, anile apparition plays with a child who looks like a hollow mask fixed on inflated body and limbs…”

These words were spoken in 1912 by the famous art historian Bernard Berenson about Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Benois Madonna”.

We cannot but agree with him that the image of Mary in this painting is very unusual compared to the images of other Renaissance masters, for example Botticelli.

It is immediately clear who is the most beautiful here.

Leonardo and Botticelli
Left: Sandro Botticelli. Reading Madonna. 1480. Prado Museum, Madrid. On the right: Leonardo da Vinci. Benois Madonna. 1478-1480. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

You don’t have to go far: Leonardo himself has Madonnas of a much more handsome appearance.

Leonardo da Vinci. Saint Anna with the Madonna and Child of Christ.
Leonardo da Vinci. Saint Anna with the Madonna and Child of Christ. 1505. Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

So why did Leonardo da Vinci create such an image of Mary? What happened to her teeth? Why does she have such an unnaturally high forehead? Why is the baby so big?

We know that “Benois Madonna” is one of Leonardo’s earliest works. He created it at the age of 26. So maybe he just hasn’t learned how to paint beautiful faces in compliance with the golden ratio yet? And he may have made a mistake with the size of the child?

Let’s figure it out.

Why is the image of Mary so peculiar

So, in front of us is a very young girl of about fifteen. Here Leonardo is very truthful, since around this age Saint Mary gave birth to the Christ baby.

Benois Madonna in Hermitage
Leonardo da Vinci. Benois Madonna. 1478-1480. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photos from the personal archive.

In 1478 Leonardo is young painter. Of course, he imitated his older colleagues in some ways. Including portraying Maria as very young. Six years before that, Leonardo was studying in the workshop of Verrocchio. Leonardo saw young Madonnas in the paintings of his teacher.

Andrea Verrocchio. Madonna and Child
Andrea del Verrocchio. Madonna and Child. 1470. Berlin Art Gallery.

He was just depicting rather large babies to emphasize the age of the Virgin Mary. So it wasn’t Leonardo who started painting big-headed babies.

We also see big foreheads in both heroines. The fact is that at that time there was such a fashion: to shave the hairline and make the forehead visually higher.

However, Leonardo added a pinch of innovation. Look closely at these Madonnas. These images differ in some ways.

Verrocchio and Leonardo
Left: Andrea del Verrocchio. Madonna and Child. 1470. Berlin National Gallery. On the right: Leonardo da Vinci. Benois Madonna. 1478-1480. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

Leonardo enhanced Maria’s individual traits!

A specific girl was clearly posing for him. And he left her features. Including the features of the bite, when small teeth are not visible when smiling. At the same time, the lower jaw is small. As a result, the illusion of a toothless mouth is created.

But this is only an illusion that so frightened the art historian Berenson. He was used to a different type. Indeed, until the XX century, models rarely bared their teeth when smiling. This was not accepted for several centuries after Leonardo.

But our hero made his model, playing the role of the Virgin Mary, smile! With his special smile with an incorrect bite and small teeth (which are not visible). At the same time, he did not embellish anything. And this is a very important moment!

We see the idealized facial features of Verrocchio’s Maria. And she doesn’t open her mouth. I’m not talking about the beautiful images created by his contemporaries and artists of subsequent generations.

Do you remember Madonna Botticelli? I can’t take my eyes off!

Botticelli. Reading Madonna
Sandro Botticelli. Reading Madonna. 1480. Prado Museum, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

So, until the XIX century it was customary to idealize the images of saints.

But in 1872 Ivan Kramskoy created his painting “Christ in the Desert”.

Ivan Kramskoy. Christ is in the desert. 1872.
Ivan Kramskoy. Christ is in the Desert. 1872. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

In fact, he returned to Leonardo’s innovation, depicting the image of someone who spent many days in the desert with almost no food and water. Emaciated, in torn clothes, with dirt under his nails. There is no idealization, despite the fact that this is Christ.

And do you know this image?

Nikolai Ge. What is truth? 1890.
Nikolai Ge. What is Truth? 1890. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Nikolai Ge painted a haggard man with matted hair. The artist wondered why his hero was expected to be handsome and beautiful. After all, what else can Christ look like after being beaten all night?

So, four centuries before Kramskoy and Ge, it was Leonardo who made this innovative step. He portrayed a real, unadorned person. Few people dared to do this. And Berenson, accustomed to the idealization of classicism and baroque, could not appreciate this step. After all, he was brought up on such images.

Karl Bryullov. Crucifix.
Karl Bryullov. Crucifix. 1838. Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Rataku.com.

It doesn’t matter that Christ was beaten and then crucified – he looks good.

Madonna’s Interaction with the Baby

Another important point can be noted in Leonardo’s painting.

According to the canon, Madonna always looks a little to the side or into the distance, and sadness is read in her eyes. After all, she already knows about the fate of her son, anticipates the loss.

Raphael. Sistine Madonna (fragment).
Raphael. Sistine Madonna (fragment). 1513. Gallery of Old Masters, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

But Leonardo’s Maria is looking at her child with enthusiasm. She is present here and now. She hands him a cruciferous flower. And despite the fact that the flower looks like a crucifix, nothing betrays her anxiety for the child.

"Madonna Benoit" by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci. Benois. 1478-1480. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Source: author’s archive.

Just as an ordinary woman would hardly have seen her son’s fate in advance, so she naturally, without guessing anything, plays with the symbol of the future crucifixion.

And indeed, it is almost impossible to find such a joyful Maria involved in the process of playing with the baby. And not only in the Italian Renaissance, but also in the Northern Renaissance.

Lucas Cranach. Madonna and Child under an apple tree.
Lucas Cranach. Madonna and Child under an Apple Tree. 1530-s. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

In Leonardo’s painting we see, in fact, a genre scene. And if you remove the halos, you get the feeling that this is an ordinary young woman playing with her baby.

Leonardo developed the tendencies that his predecessors, the same Verrocchio, had at that time. But he developed them in such a way that he stood out significantly from the others.

However, in “Benois Madonna” there is another painting technique that did not exist at all before Leonardo. And here he proved himself as an unsurpassed innovator.

The main innovation in the painting “Benois Madonna”

Let’s compare the Madonnas of Leonardo and Verrocchio once again.

And let’s take similar compositions. Both Madonnas are in a room with a window. A rather unusual placement of heroines. For the first time in the Italian Renaissance, such a space is found in Verrocchio’s and Leonardo’s works.

Verrocchio and Leonardo
Left: Andrea Verrocchio. Madonna and Child. 1475. The Stadel Museum in Frankfurt. On the right: Leonardo da Vinci. Benois Madonna. 1478-1480. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

And here the difference in the chiaroscuro solution catches our eye.

At Verrocchio’s work we see uniform lighting. There is no such feeling that some objects are illuminated more strongly, some are weaker. As a result, the effect of figures pasted on the background is created. This is the so-called “contouring” of forms.

The masters of the Quattrocento (Renaissance of the XV century) absolutely could not do anything about it (or did not realize that something could be done about it). Therefore, all the figures can be safely “cut out” from the background, and nothing will happen to them.

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But Leonardo was not satisfied with this. He was too observant. He saw that everything is not so in life: not everything is evenly illuminated. And he went to experiment.

He placed the Madonna by the window in a dark room. And he directed light at her not only from the window, but also from a light source outside the canvas on the left.

As a result, part of the figure (the left leg) “drowned” in deep shadow. A deep shadow also lies on the baby’s tummy. His legs, arms, and head are snatched out by the light. This is already a complex chiaroscuro!

Leonardo’s innovation was appreciated by Raphael, who created a similar work. He even opened his Madonna’s mouth a little!

Raphael. Madonna with carnations.
Raphael. Madonna with the Pink. 1507. National London Gallery.

However, Raphael, who subtly understood the needs of customers, made the image idealized. He reduced the baby’s head, removed the Madonna’s malocclusion, and also painted a landscape in the window. Leonardo did not finish “Benois Madonna” without finishing the landscape. It happened to him often.

But Raphael was more executive and purposeful. At the same time, he used complex lighting, like Leonardo’s. His Madonna must have really liked the customer. And Berenson, too, I’m sure, would have liked her good appearance.

But Leonardo was the first who make this chiaroscuro revolution! And this, in my opinion, is why this work is more valuable than a painting by Raphael.

Benois Madonna Provenance

Let me tell you a little more about who the painting belonged to.

Berenson spoke about Benois Madonna (quoted at the very beginning of the article) in 1912. No one had written anything about her before.

How did it happen?

The fact is that the general public learned about the existence of this greatest work only at the beginning of the XX century.

Before that, it was in the collection of General Alexei Korsakov. After his death, the painting was bought at auction by Astrakhan merchant Alexander Sapozhnikov.

The canons then played a cruel joke with the Hermitage. After all, representatives of the Hermitage bought several paintings at that auction. But this particular painting (then under the modest name “Madonna with a Flower”) was not purchased.

Apparently, the keepers of the royal collection also did not like the peculiar appearance of the Madonna. They preferred to buy the works of Pierre Mignard, created in the XVII century.

Pierre Mignard. The worship of angels to the Christ child. 1654. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
Pierre Mignard. The worship of angels to the Christ child. 1654. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Amazing, isn’t it? Now it’s hard to imagine that the museum would prefer any painting to the work of Leonardo da Vinci! And for little money.

But then it was in the order of things: to buy a beautiful thing instead of a less spectacular one, but which played a key role in the art evolution.

And so Sapozhnikov handed over the “Madonna” by inheritance to his son. And he, in turn, gave it to his daughter for her wedding, when she married the architect Leontiy Benois.

For a long time, the painting belonged to Mrs. Benois (nee Sapozhnikova).

So do not believe the legend that the Astrakhan industrialist Sapozhnikov bought a Leonardo painting from wandering Italians. This is a myth. There is documentary evidence that he bought it at auction.

And so in 1911 the family decided to sell the painting. That’s why they took her to Europe for an examination.

I will finish Berenson’s quote: “…And yet I had to admit that this terrible creature belongs to Leonardo da Vinci.”

That is, the family received an official conclusion about the authenticity of the painting. But they did not sell it to collectors from Europe and USA.

Mrs. Benois-Sapozhnikova really wanted the painting to stay in Russia. Therefore, she gave it to the Hermitage at a reduced price in installments.

For such generosity, many were grateful to the former owners. Therefore, with someone’s light hand, the painting became known as “Benois Madonna”.

By the way, the state did not have time to fully pay the entire cost due to the outbreak of the 1917 revolution. But the painting still remained in Russia. And miraculously avoided being sold in the 1930-s.

A task for those who have read the article to the end:)

What do you think, which of these works was created before Benois Madonna, and which after?

Mignard and Van Eyck

Response to the task

The difference between these paintings is two centuries. One of them was created in the XV century. And the second one is 200 years later. We are talking about paintings by Jan van Eyck and Pierre Mignard. We have already seen another picture of the latter in this article.

Most likely, you have learned from the text that Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first to paint the Madonna indoors. In order to complicate lighting and chiaroscuro. But I meant the Italian masters.

Artists of the Northern Renaissance used such compositions several decades before Leonardo. Like, for example, Jan van Eyck. So the picture on the right is a work created before the “Benois Madonna”.

At the same time, the Dutch artist used a more canonical chiaroscuro, soft and evenly distributed over the figures. We cannot say that some part is “drowned” in a deep shadow.

But on the left we see a painting by Pierre Mignard, created in the XVII century. Leonardo’s innovations are already well understood. And the artist “interlocked” figures with space thanks to deep shadows.

Mignard and Van Eyck
Left: Pierre Mignard. Madonna with grapes. Louvre, Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons. On the right: Jan van Eyck. Madonna with the reading Christ child. 1433. The National Gallery in Melbourne.

Read also the article about another Leonardo painting kept in the Hermitage:

Madonna Litta. Unusual details of the painting


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