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The life of 'The Virgin of the Rocks'

by Neil Hennessy-Vass

The imagined setting of The Virgin of the Rocks as part of an elaborate altarpiece.

Photo: Neil Hennessy-Vass

The design company, 59 Productions, that brought the David Bowie V&A exhibition and the video design of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics to life, has pulled another trick from its sleeve. Over the course of four rooms at The National Gallery in London, The Virgin of the Rocks, a Leonardo da Vinci painting from 1491/2-9 and 1506-8, has been re-examined with the help of some modern technology.

In 2004, with X-ray detection, it was discovered that the original pose that da Vinci had started was abandoned and the version we see today is quite different to the one he originally intended. These new images were found because the drawings were made with a material that contained zinc, so it could be seen in the macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) maps showing where this chemical element was present, and also through new infra-red and hyperspectral imaging. The original two ‘drafts’ of the painting offered a tighter embrace with the infant Christ and the head of the angel higher in the frame.

We can only speculate why the composition was changed but what is clear is that the work of Leonardo still fascinates, 500 years after his death. The immersive experience will allow visitors to gain a greater understanding of context and place. With stunning visual effects and interactive elements this will be popular.

A recreation of Leonardo da Vinci's studio. Photo Neil Hennessy-Vass

The first room straightaway puts you in his world of his native Italian surroundings with square aluminium tubes in front of a large landscape photograph. The tubes have writing on them, but in reverse (as da Vinci used to do himself) so you have to fully engage with the piece to get the right angle to read in the attached mirrors the message the right way around. Another room takes you to his studio juxtaposed with a modern laboratory to symbolise the research that has gone into the painting. Each space has a unique character and feeling.

It’s a very interesting idea to expand the image through the imagined world of the team at 59 Productions and the curators of the museum. Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, said: “This exhibition represents a fascinating new venture for the National Gallery, combing the most recent technical research on The Virgin of the Rocks with an immersive, enveloping experience, giving the visitors the opportunity to explore Leonardo da Vinci’s creative process in making this masterpiece”.

The exhibition runs until 12th January 2020


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