Painter at the Court of Milan

There is something heavenly in Leonardo Da Vinci’s work, writes Rory Fitzgerald from London


Leonardo da Vinci is currently visiting London. The most extraordinary collection of his works ever assembled in the British Isles is currently on display at London’s National Gallery.

This exhibition is entitled ‘Painter at the Court of Milan’ and it explores Leonardo da Vinci’s time in Milan from about 1482 to 1499, when he became court painter to the city’s ruler, Ludovico Sforza.

It was the most productive period of his career for the artist of whom Giorgio Vasari wrote ”beauty, grace, and talent are — in supernatural fashion — united beyond measure in one single person, such that his every action makes itself clearly known as a God-bestowed thing. This was seen by all in Leonardo da Vinci.”

Even though the exhibition space is thronged, there is an atmosphere of hushed reverence — as if those assembled were in the presence of the divine. Which, in a sense, they are.

For there is something heavenly in da Vinci’s work — even in the bare pencil strokes that make up the smaller sketches and ruminations of this great artist.

There remains a profound humanity in the expression of those he painted over 500 years ago. They live still. Here, for the first time, is human life portrayed vividly and luminously in just two dimensions.

Of course, a great many of his paintings reflect religious themes. These reflect vividly da Vinci’s deep sense of the divine in human form. The exhibition runs until the February 5. Its highlights include:

The Virgin of the Rocks

Two versions of this composition are on display. The first was begun in 1483, and the second in 1499.

The works were commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, and offer a deep reflection of that doctrine.

An Arcadian primeval landscape reflects the sense of mystery inherent in it. In vain, the confraternity issued repeated demands for da Vinci to finish the second painting — he was notorious for leaving paintings incomplete.

Christ as Salvator Mundi

This painting was only officially recognised as a da Vinci in 2011.

It was bought at an estate sale in the United States about seven years ago, and was declared a genuine master by a panel of experts, who confirmed that many of the pigments used were the same as those used by da Vinci.

It is seen as an attempt to create an image as extraordinary as that imprinted on the veil of Saint Veronica.

Leonardo’s art was understood as divinely inspired by many. The artist himself considered his imaginative power to be a divine gift.

The Lady with an Ermine

This image (left) from about 1489 is said to be a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, the beloved mistress of da Vinci’s patron, Ludovico Sforza.

The ermine is a symbol of purity, of her beauty. Da Vinci believed paintings should both commemorate and inspire love. Some say this work is a match for the Mona Lisa.

Studies of hands

Da Vinci’s sketches have an ethereal quality, even his anatomical drawings. These hands are believed to have been drawn as studies for the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, above.

La Madonna Litta

Painted sometime between 1491 and 1495, this classic image of the ‘Madonna lactans’ (the Virgin breast-feeding her child) became an instant classic.

From its first appearance, it was repeatedly copied. Christ looks out at the viewer hauntingly, as an infant with infinite wisdom.

The Last Supper

Painted from about 1492 to 1497, the Last Supper was the most ambitious work undertaken by da Vinci during his time at Milan.

It was painted directly onto the wall of the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, where it remains to this day (a full-size copy was hung in London).

The colours are washed out and some of the details lost due to the effects of damp on the plaster wall.

Luckily, a perfect copy was painted in 1520, which preserves some of the lost detail of the original.

However, the damage itself has lent the original a fascinating air of mystery and antiquity.

Many preparatory sketches also survive, showing da Vinci’s continual distillation of ideas for this dramatic, characterful composition which brings each of the apostles vividly to life.

For more see nationalgallery