After settling in Milan, Leonardo Da Vinci painted Madonna of the Rocks for the central panel of an altarpiece for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in San Francesco Grande.
Da Vinci has always been interested in perspective, and he effectively used and built upon Masaccio’s use and understanding of perspective and chiaroscuro (the subtle play and contrast of light and dark to create depth) in this painting. To Da Vinci, it was also important to depict emotional states. He believes that a good painter “has two chief objectives to paint— man and the intention of his soul.”
Da Vinci organized the three figures of Madonna, Christ Child, and John the Baptist in a pyramidal composition, with Madonna at the top of the pyramid. An angel is also part of the group of figures. Da Vinci’s use of chiaroscuro is evident in this painting as the group of figures seem to emerge through the nuances of light and shade from the half-lit cavernous landscape with waterfalls. The figures are united through their gestures of praying, pointing, and blessing (although the meaning of these gestures is not certain). The angel on the right of the composition looks outward, bringing the viewer into the painting. John the Baptist prays to Christ Child, who in turn blesses him. Madonna, with one hand on Christ Child and the other hovering over John the Baptist, connects the two figures and forms the pyramid. According the Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, the melting mood of tenderness which is also enhanced by the caressing light is infused in this painting. By creating such an emotionally compelling and visually unified image, Da Vinci successfully depicted “the intention of his soul.” And I completely agree.
Another well-known painting of Madonna is Raphael’s version, which he named Madonna of the Meadow.
Da Vinci’s Madonna’s influence on Raphael’s version can be seen in the pyramidal composition of the figures. The figures in Madonna of the Meadows also have Da Vinci’s modeling and slight chiaroscuro. However, unlike Da Vinci, Raphael, who preferred clarity over mystery and obscurity, set his figures in a bright landscape and his figures have lighter tonalities. His landscape is reminiscent of Perugino landscapes, with its feathery trees in the middle ground. Thus, Raphael combined different influences to create his own version of Madonna.
Between Raphael’s and Da Vinci’s rendition of the Madonna, I prefer Raphael’s. I really like the bright and lively colors used in his work. There is a huge contrast between the red and the dark blue in Madonna’s garment. Those two colors are also the boldest and brightest in the entire painting, drawing even more attention to Madonna, who is already the largest figure and the figure on top of the pyramid. Both paintings have a picturesque atmosphere as the background, but to me, that in Raphael’s painting is brighter and more inviting than that in Da Vinci’s painting. In Raphael’s painting, Madonna seems older and more motherly than the one in Da Vinci’s painting. Overall, although Raphael emulated Da Vinci’s pyramidal composition, he rejected Da Vinci’s dusky modeling of the figures and gloominess and mystery in the background and set his own Madonna in a well-lit landscape and imbued her with grace, dignity, and beauty.