Leonardo da Vinci‘s Adoration has emerged from the conservation lab of Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure, where it has been under investigation since December 2012. Though work will continue, restorers organized a press conference to discuss the astounding results of initial work, offering vindication to supporters of the cleaning campaign that had been criticized as too risky to undertake. Layers of varnish and dirt had obscured many of Leonardo’s fine details that are now visible to the naked eye.
See Alexandra Korey’s report from the press conference and description of many of the cleaning’s revelations. We eagerly await phase two.
In March 1481, the monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence commissioned Leonardo to paint an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi. Such projects were typical work for Florentine artists, but Leonardo approached it with his atypical attention to investigation as he worked through the organizational and psychological aspects of his design.
Numerous preparatory drawings survive that show his thought process, which he continued to modify when laying down the underdrawing on the altarpiece’s wood panel support. Leonardo abandoned the project to enter the service of Duke Lodovico Sforza in Milan. (His last known payment for the Adoration is dated September 1481. He likely moved to Milan in 1482.)
The monks kept the unfinished panel in anticipation of Leonardo’s return to the work. He never did – a major inconvenience for the monks but a boon to artists and admirers of Leonardo who can see his mind at work in what is essentially a large-scale compositional drawing.
Leonardo radically rethought the traditional portrayal of the kings’ visit to the Christ Child in Bethlehem, in which artists placed the holy family at one side of the composition to receive the royal entourage. Such placement ensured that Mary and Jesus commanded as much surface area as the kings, even though it resulted in an asymmetrical composition. Artists like Sandro Botticelli had experimented with moving the Holy Family to center stage, but the rules of linear perspective thus dictated a reduction in absolute size of the figures owing to their placement in the middle ground behind those who kneel before them.
Leonardo placed Mary and Jesus at the compositional center but distributed the kings and their retinue around the objects of their adoration in a semicircle. Mary and the magi form a pyramid that is surrounded by a semicircle of individualized onlookers. This disposition of contrasts creates a deep sense of space and imbues the narrative with movement and psychological intensity that underscores the excitement of the Messiah’s birth.
Though it remained a monochrome study of movement, light, and shadow, Leonardo’s Adoration had a profound impact on Florentine artists who adopted his pyramidal, compositional anchor for their own Adorations and in numerous other compositions.
Filippino Lippi completed the San Donato altarpiece in 1496. Thankfully, he used a new panel but adopted Leonardo’s basic scheme for his design.
Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, 1481, Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi, before and after cleaning
Leonardo da Vinci, Study for the Adoration, 1481, Paris, Musée du Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, 1481, Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi, details of panel after cleaning phase 1 (2012-2014)
Nicola Pisano, Adoration of the Magi, 1260, Pisa, Baptistery
Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423, Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi
Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1476, Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi
Filippino Lippi, Adoration of the Magi, 1496, Florence, Accademia
Alexandra Korey, “Leonardo’s Adoration like you’ve never seen it before” ArtTrav 24 September 2014
Frederick Hartt and David G. Wilkins, History of Italian Renaissance Art, 7th ed. (2011), pp. 453-4.