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(This picture was painted in Milan about 1495 by Ambrogio da Predis under the supervision and guidance of Leonardo da Vinci, the essential features of the composition being borrowed from the earlier "Vierge aux Rochers," now in the Louvre.)
The " Virgin of the Rocks " , now in the National Gallery, corresponds exactly with a painting by Leonardo which was described by Lomazzo about 1584 as being in the Chapel of the Conception in the Church of St. Francesco at Milan. This picture, the only _oeuvre_ in this gallery with which Leonardo's name can be connected, was brought to England in 1777 by Gavin Hamilton, and sold by him to the Marquess of Lansdowne, who subsequently exchanged it for another picture in the Collection of the Earl of Suffolk at Charlton Park, Wiltshire, from whom it was eventually purchased by the National Gallery for £9000. Signor Emilio Motta, some fifteen years ago, unearthed in the State Archives of Milan a letter or memorial from Giovanni Ambrogio da Predis and Leonardo da Vinci to the Duke of Milan, praying him to intervene in a dispute, which had arisen between the petitioners and the Brotherhood of the Conception, with regard to the valuation of certain works of art furnished for the chapel of the Brotherhood in the church of St. Francesco. The only logical deduction which can be drawn from documentary evidence is that the "Vierge aux Rochers" in the Louvre is the picture, painted about 1482, which between 1491 and 1494 gave rise to the dispute, and that, when it was ultimately sold by the artists for the full price asked to some unknown buyer, the National Gallery version was executed for a smaller price mainly by Ambrogio da Predisunder the supervision, and with the help, of Leonardo to be placed in the Chapel of the Conception.
The differences between the earlier, the more authentic, and the more characteristically Florentine " Vierge aux Rochers, " in the Louvre, and the " Virgin of the Rocks, " in the National Gallery, are that in the latter picture the hand of the angel, seated by the side of the Infant Christ, is raised and pointed in the direction of the little St. John the Baptist; that the St John has a reed cross and the three principal figures have gilt nimbi, which were, however, evidently added much later. In the National Gallery version the left hand of the Madonna, the Christ's right hand and arm, and the forehead of St. John the Baptist are freely restored, while a strip of the foreground right across the whole picture is ill painted and lacks accent. The head of the angel is, however, magnificently painted, and by Leonardo; the panel, taken as a whole, is exceedingly beautiful and full of charm and tenderness.
Between 1496 and 1498 Leonardo painted his _chef d'oeuvre_, the "Last Supper," for the end wall of the Refectory of the Dominican Convent of S. Maria delle Grazie at Milan. It was originally executed in tempera on a badly prepared stucco ground and began to deteriorate a very few years after its completion. As early as 1556 it was half ruined. In 1652 the monks cut away a part of the fresco including the feet of the Christ to make a doorway. In 1726 one Michelangelo Belotti, an obscure Milanese painter, received £300 for the worthless labour he bestowed on restoring it. He seems to have employed some astringent restorative which revived the colours temporarily, and then left them in deeper eclipse than before. In 1770 the fresco was again restored by Mazza. In 1796 Napoleon's cavalry, contrary to his express orders, turned the refectory into a stable, and pelted the heads of the figures with dirt. Subsequently the refectory was used to store hay, and at one time or another it has been flooded. In 1820 the fresco was again restored, and in 1854 this restoration was effaced. In October 1908 Professor Cavenaghi completed the delicate task of again restoring it, and has, in the opinion of experts, now preserved it from further injury. In addition, the devices of Ludovico and his Duchess and a considerable amount of floral decoration by Leonardo himself have been brought to light.
Leonardo has succeeded in producing the effect of the _coup de théâtre_ at the moment when Jesus said " One of you shall betray me. " Instantly the various apostles realise that there is a traitor among their number, and show by their different gestures their different passions, and reveal their different temperaments. On the left of Christ is St. John who is overcome with grief and is interrogated by the impetuous Peter, near whom is seated Judas Iscariot who, while affecting the calm of innocence, is quite unable to conceal his inner feelings; he instinctively clasps the money-bag and in so doing upsets the salt-cellar.
It will be remembered that the Prior of the Convent complained to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, that Leonardo was taking too long to paint the fresco and was causing the Convent considerable inconvenience. Leonardo had his revenge by threatening to paint the features of the impatient Prior into the face of Judas Iscariot. The incident has been quaintly told in the following lines :
" Padre Bandelli, then, complains of me Because, forsooth, I have not drawn a line Upon the Saviour's head; perhaps, then, he Could without trouble paint that head divine. But think, oh Signor Duca, what should be The pure perfection of Our Saviour's face— What sorrowing majesty, what noble grace, At that dread moment when He brake the bread, And those submissive words of pathos said :
"' By one among you I shall be betrayed,'— And say if 'tis an easy task to find Even among the best that walk this Earth, The fitting type of that divinest worth, That has its image solely in the mind. Vainly my pencil struggles to express The sorrowing grandeur of such holiness. In patient thought, in ever-seeking prayer, I strive to shape that glorious face within, But the soul's mirror, dulled and dimmed by sin, Reflects not yet the perfect image there. Can the hand do before the soul has wrought ; Is not our art the servant of our thought ?
" And Judas too, the basest face I see, Will not contain his utter infamy; Among the dregs and offal of mankind Vainly I seek an utter wretch to find. He who for thirty silver coins could sell His Lord, must be the Devil's miracle. Padre Bandelli thinks it easy is To find the type of him who with a kiss Betrayed his Lord. Well, what I can I'll do ; And if it please his reverence and you, For Judas' face I'm willing to paint his. "
"... I dare not paint Till all is ordered and matured within, Hand-work and head-work have an earthly taint, But when the soul commands I shall begin ; On themes like these I should not dare to dwell With our good Prior—they to him would be Mere nonsense ; he must touch and taste and see, And facts, he says, are never mystical. "
The copy of the " Last Supper " by Marco d'Oggiono, now in the Diploma Gallery at Burlington House, was made shortly after the original painting was completed. It gives but a faint echo of that sublime work "in which the ideal and the real were blended in perfect unity." This copy was long in the possession of the Carthusians in their Convent at Pavia, and, on the suppression of that Order and the sale of their effects in 1793, passed into the possession of a grocer at Milan. It was subsequently purchased for £600 by the Royal Academy on the advice of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who left no stone unturned to acquire also the original studies for the heads of the Apostles. Some of these in red and black chalk are now preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor, where there are in all 145 drawings by Leonardo.
Several other old copies of the fresco exist, notably the one in the Louvre. Francis I. wished to remove the whole wall of the Refectory to Paris, but he was persuaded that that would be impossible; the Constable de Montmorency then had a copy made for the Chapel of the Château d'Ecouen, whence it ultimately passed to the Louvre.
The singularly beautiful "Head of Christ" , now in the Brera Gallery at Milan, is the original study for the head of the principal figure in the fresco painting of the "Last Supper." In spite of decay and restoration it expresses "the most elevated seriousness together with Divine Gentleness, pain on account of the faithlessness of His disciples, a full presentiment of His own death, and resignation to the will of His Father."
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