Leonardo da Vinci's paintings: a guide to 8 famous works
Take a closer look at eight of Leonardo da Vinci's paintings, as our gallery puts some of his most famous pieces into historical and creative context…
The paintings of polymath Leonardo da Vinci display an extraordinary range of interests. In this gallery, we take a closer look at eight of his most famous works
A painting from c1472, early in Leonardo’s career, when the young artist was still working at Verrocchio’s studio. The composition puts a traditional religious subject matter in the con- temporary setting of a Renaissance palace. The piece demonstrates themes Leonardo returned to throughout his career: the workings of light and vision; careful observation of the natural world; the emotional interaction between figures; and the depiction of ideal beauty.
Virgin of the Rocks (I)
Leonardo’s meeting of Jesus and John the Baptist is innovative, with its naturalistic poses, interaction between figures, evocative landscape and diffuse light. Intended for the church of San Francesco Grande, Milan, this 1483–86 work was instead sent to France, and is now displayed in the Louvre.
Virgin of the Rocks (II)
This second incarnation, begun c1492, did end up in the San Francesco Grande, but is today at the National Gallery, London. It is not as highly regarded as the Louvre version: parts may be by his assistants, and the faces are not so delicate.
The Last Supper
This wall painting in the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, allowed Leonardo to explore how the body communicates inner states of being. The disciples, devastated by Christ stating one of them would cause his death, convey their feelings dramatically through their body language. Commissioned in the 1490s by the Duke of Milan, the huge painting is 4.6m × 8.8m. It deteriorated quickly and has been damaged several times, leading to many restoration attempts.
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The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
Mary, her mother and child are arranged in a dynamic composition that shows both Christ’s lineage and his destiny – the lamb symbolises his Passion, the final days before his crucifixion. Leonardo worked on this painting from the early 1500s.
Leonardo’s c1500 Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) was thought to be lost. Experts don’t agree on whether this recently discovered painting is entirely by Leonardo’s hand, but some say the orb is too skilfully painted to have been the work of anyone else.
Saint John the Baptist
Painted a few years before the artist’s death in 1519, this rejects the traditional depiction of the saint as a gaunt ascetic. Leonardo’s painting, sometimes interpreted as homoerotic, shows an androgynous youth with an enigmatic smile pointing to heaven.
Lady with an Ermine
A portrait of the Duke of Milan’s mistress, Cecilia Gallerani, c1490. It displays the court’s interest in ideal beauty, but Leonardo also introduces psychological realism and a more dynamic pose than the traditional profile format. The ermine symbolises both chastity and lust.
This gallery first appeared in BBC History Magazine's 2019 Leonardo da Vinci Special Edition