Leonardo first explored the topic of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne around about 1498. His original sketch is now lost to us, but in the one illustrated below, commonly termed the Burlington House Cartoon, the infant Christ is shown blessing a young St. John during a meeting in the desert. This is only one of many sketches on the theme that was never translated into a painting; Leonardo was to entirely abandon these earlier ideas. Cartoons are preparatory large-scale drawings intended to be transferred to a wall or canvas during the final painting; this one was named after the British collection which once owned it. Many scholars prefer the Burlington House Cartoon to Leonardo's completed oil painting, pointing out how the face of the Madonna is much more natural and less wooden looking.
The Burlington House cartoon covers eight sheets of tinted paper and is drawn in charcoal with chalk highlights. It is one of the most important works in the National Gallery, London who keep it in a darkened room to prevent fading. When originally exhibited in Florence this cartoon received an acclaim almost comparable to that of a completed painting and it has long been considered one of Leonardo's finest works, easily on a par with the Last Supper. Though Leonardo never painted this cartoon it inspired another artist to produce the Virgin and St. Anne which is in the collection of Professor Lauritz Weibull of Lund, Switzerland.
The oil painting of the Virgin And Child With St. Anne is thought to date from 1507-1513. We owe this panel to the modesty of Filippino Lippi who turned down the commission and suggested Leonardo as, "a greater artist".
An account of the cartoon for this painting indicates it may have been modified at some stage, perhaps as an afterthought. A description of the original sketch describes St. Anne as restraining her daughter from discouraging the Child in pulling the lamb's ears. This is not what can be seen today; our view is of a rather detached watching grandmother. It is quite possible the original concept for this painting had St. Anne's hand lying on her daughter's sleeve; this could easily be cancelled out by painting the Virgin's sleeve over the top of it.
In the painting the infant is shown holding a lamb, this is symbolic of himself, as Jesus is often termed the 'lamb of God'. The angle of the lamb's head, and the tight woolly curls repeated on the head of the Child, connect the two. Continuing the idea of connections, Leonardo has positioned the two sets of arms like links in a chain. Atop the chain is St. Anne, slightly set apart in the composition by the line of the Virgin's shoulder, her downward glance and the use of darker skin tones on her face. Behind them the trees definitely belong to the earth while the mountains and lake seem almost heavenly. Though this work has been much acclaimed, it has also been much criticised due to the very artificial poses.
The five by four foot painting was commissioned by the monks of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence for their high altar. Some consider this painting to be a treasure of esoterica and occult wonders. Some are fascinated by the sight of St. Anne supporting her heavy daughter on her knee, and with no visible means of support. Others are convinced that hidden in the folds of the draping over the arms is the shape of a vulture, the head and neck can be found in the blue cloak encircling the Madonna and the bird's tail points towards the infant's mouth. Most are skeptical about this idea, though Dr. Sigmund Freud supported it and claimed that it was a repercussion of a fantasy Leonardo had when he was a child and which he noted in Codex Atlanticus:
"Among the first recollections of my childhood it seemed to me that, as I lay in my cradle, a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail and struck me several times with its tail between my lips. "
Freud saw this as a "passive homosexual fantasy" and thought it also accounted for the strange and bewitching smiles on the lips of many of Leonardo's subjects.
The Virgin And Child With St. Anne has been retouched, and was left unfinished with the drapery covering the Virgin's legs being little more than an outline. Why is unknown, though it may have been due to Leonardo's increasing interest in mathematics and subsequent engagement as engineer in the service of Cesare Borgia. In places the paint has been applied so thinly it is almost transparent allowing the underlying sketch to be visible. The appearance of this worsened after a 1953 cleaning of the oil on wood artwork, during which overpainting was removed and dark varnish lightened.
A close study shows the lamb has been completed by another artist so the painting may have been abandoned at a time when the lamb had still only been sketched in. The background, St Anne, the Virgin and the Child are thought to be from the hand of Leonardo himself though some doubt exists about the heads as they lack the fine texture of the Mona Lisa. Suggestions have been made that these were worked on by a pupil of Leonardo's.
At the same time this painting was in progress Leonardo was experimenting with preparations which he hoped would result in an improved varnish for his work; unfortunately these experiments were a failure. This mattered little; Leonardo still had 10 years to live, but by 1508 his career as a painter was drawing to a close and after maybe as much as ten years of intermittent work on this painting he gave up.
Leonardo not completing Virgin and Child with St. Anne
in time for the altar, Filippino Lippi decided to return to
the task, working on a Deposition.
He was to die before having the chance to finish his painting
and it was finally completed later by Perugino.