“Madonna Litta” by Leonardo da Vinci. Unusual details of the masterpiece

Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta.
Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta. 1490-1491 State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Madonna Litta. A loving mother holds her child. He sucks a breast. Virgin Mary is beautiful. The baby is strikingly like a mother. He looks at us with a serious look.

The small picture is 42 x 33 cm (1.4 x 1.1 ft). But it is monumental.

The capacious space of the canvas contains something very important. The feeling that you are present at an event that exists outside of time.

This picture is notable for its details as well.

Have you noticed that the baby is holding a bird in his hand? That the cutouts for feeding on Madonna’s dress were sewn up. And in a hurry, one of them ripped up? Have you noticed how unusual the characters are highlighted? And why did not Leonardo work out all the details of the picture?

Leonardo da Vinci has nothing superfluous. Each detail has its own meaning. His paintings are important to “read.” This is what we will do now.

1. Lighting in the picture, as in the fresco “Last Supper”.

Madonna stands on the background of two arched windows. Through which you can see the landscape: blue mountain ranges and the sky.

But these windows do not carry lighting functions. Madonna receives light from a dim source from somewhere in the front left.

Leonardo already once used similar lighting in his other masterpiece. In The Last Supper.

Leonardo da Vinci. The last supper.
Leonardo da Vinci. The last supper. 1495-1498. Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazia, Milan.

Here we also see a blue mountain landscape. Light falls on the figures of Christ and the apostles also from somewhere to the left. As if from the windows of the refectory of the monastery in which the painting is located.

Leonardo created such an illusion so that the fresco blends harmoniously into space.

He achieved the same effect in Madonna Litta. Apparently he took into account the lighting in the room in which she was supposed to hang.

2. Leonardo did NOT work out all the details of the picture.

Pay attention to how carefully worked out the faces of the characters in the picture. At the same time, Madonna’s cloak is painted coarser. Remember how the artists of the Renaissance traced each fold. No wonder speculation arose.

llegedly, Leonardo once again did not have the patience to complete the work. The version that one of the students helped him is still popular. Faces painted by Leonardo. But everything else, of the worst quality, was painted by another person.

I am sure that the work belongs entirely to Leonardo. He just once again “ran ahead.”

So he put emphasis, making a different degree of study. So that the viewer’s vision “snatches” the most important thing from the space of the picture. The faces of the Madonna and baby.

After Leonardo, Rembrandt will come to this effect. Sometimes he left part of the work in progress.

“The painting is finished as soon as the artist realized his intention in it,” said the master.

Rembrandt. Portrait of Jan Six.
Rembrandt. Portrait of Jan Six. 1654. Six Collection, Amsterdam. Wikimedia.commons.org.

Look at the unexpected for the 17th century impressionism of Rembrandt. Customer clothing is painted with thick, quick strokes. For Holland, which was famous for its thoroughness in detail, it was too revolutionary. Rembrandt was not understood.

And imagine how misunderstood Leonardo was. After all, he resorted to such effects a century and a half earlier.

Perhaps in vain many of his works are considered incomplete? Maybe they were designed like that?

3. The prototype of Madonna Litta was created 13 centuries before Leonardo.

Was Leonardo the first to portray Madonna as breastfeeding? In fact, a similar image is found in early Christian frescoes. In the Roman catacombs.

Prior to the official recognition of Christianity, believers were forced to hide their religion. Underground premises were dug. Christian martyrs and the first Roman popes were buried in them. Divine services were held there. And the walls of the dungeon were covered with frescoes with biblical stories.

I have no doubt that Leonardo was in these catacombs. They were rediscovered during his lifetime.

Unknown master. Madonna and Child.
Unknown master. Madonna and Child. Catacombs of St. Priscilla, Rome.

Virgin Mary on one of the walls of the catacombs is very similar to Madonna Litta.

A lot of coincidences. The way the mother holds the baby. As a child sucks breasts and looks towards the audience. Even the tilt of Madonna’s head is the same.

And nearby stands St. John the Baptist and points a finger at the star. His gesture is similar to that of Leonardo’s famous painting “John the Baptist.”

If you put both paintings side by side, then their similarity becomes obvious.

Left. Leonardo da Vinci. St. John the Baptist. Right. Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta

4. Torn stitches on Madonna’s chest as a symbol of mercy.

This is the most unusual detail of the picture. It is rarely seen by anyone.

On the dress of the Madonna – two cutouts for breastfeeding. They were carefully sewn. As can be seen from the incision on the left breast.

However, the stitches on the right breast are torn.

What would that mean? The mother cannot sew cuts every time after feeding. And before feeding them to tear.

Only one conclusion suggests itself.

Art Quiz

Virgin Mary planned to wean the baby from the breast. Therefore, the cutouts were unnecessarily sewn up.

However, she could not resist the crying of the child. He asked for mom’s milk. In a hurry, the stitches were torn. And the child fell to his breast.

Why is Leonardo adding such a detail? Why not portray the usual feeding process. Without the previous little drama?

From about 1300, noble ladies stopped breastfeeding. Hired a nurse. And who is worse – dispensed with cow’s milk. Since “unused”, elastic breasts came into fashion.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that in the 14th century, Leonardo’s senior contemporaries began to depict the image of the Madonna Lactans.

They were nourished by the milk of a nurse, so they idealized the image of a mother, breastfeeding her own child.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Madonna Lactans.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Madonna Lactans. 14th century. National Pinacoteca in Siena, Italy.

Leonardo’s mother most likely was breastfeeding him. After all, she was a girl from the lower class, a peasant.

But he survived another injury. At 3 years old, he was separated from his mother. A noble father wished to see his illegitimate son next to him.

Undoubtedly, this childhood injury affected Leonardo. Therefore, he portrays the image of a mother so merciful and loving.

5. Goldfinch. The illusion of a smile. The lack of halo.

There are many other unusual details in Madonna Litta. Goldfinch in the baby’s hand. This bird symbolizes the Christian soul.

Do you think Madonna is smiling? Not really. This is an illusion due to the shadow in the corner of the lips.

Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta (fragment).
Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta (fragment). 1490-1491 State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Also note that there are no halo over the Madonna and Child. If customers did not insist on their image, then Leonardo preferred to write saints without them.

He was a humanist, exalting man. And in the image of the saints, he was also more interested in their human rather than divine side.

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