Geology in Leonardo’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’
Steven Wade Veatch (USA)
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), considered one of the greatest painters of all time, used his knowledge of geology to inform his art. Leonardo was also noted for his work in sculpture, anatomy, mathematics, architecture, and engineering during the Italian Renaissance (about 1330 to 1450). From a geological perspective, Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings present a realistic portrayal of nature. In his Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486), on display in the Louvre in Paris (Fig. 1), the geological accuracy is striking (Pizzorusso, 1996). The painting’s subject is both the Virgin and the rocks. The Virgin sits in front of a grotto or cave, various aspects of which, according to geologist Ann Pizzorusso (1996):
… are rendered with astounding geological accuracy. Leonardo has painted a rich earthscape of rock eroded and sculpted by the active geological forces of wind and water. Most of the rock formations … are weathered sandstone, a sedimentary rock”.
What looks like basalt, an extrusive igneous rock formed by the cooling of lava, appears above Mary’s head and at the top right of the picture. Leonardo even painted the columnar joints formed by the cooling of the rocks. Also, just above her head is a precisely painted seam between the sandstone and igneous formations, and a rock joint runs horizontally to the right of her head. Art historians believe that the landscape in this painting is not an actual place, but one conjured up by Leonardo’s experience, understanding of geology and observation (Issacson, 2017).
A second version of the painting, also called the Virgin of the Rocks (1495-1508), is exhibited in the National Gallery in London. This one fails to depict such a faithful rendering of geology as the one in Paris. Despite decades of analysis by scholars, there are doubts that it is an authentic da Vinci painting, but rather a copy of the original painting by another artist.
Leonardo da Vinci was ahead of his time in his understanding of geology, and he meticulously recorded his observations in notebooks and journals (Bressan, 2014). After his death, his notebooks ended up on the bookshelves in libraries and private collections throughout Europe, while other notebooks disappeared into history (Waggoner, 1996).
Da Vinci wrote in one of his notebooks – the Codex Leicester – about the fossils he found as he walked the countryside. He recognised that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms and relics of former times and other worlds – traces of a past hidden to other thinkers of the time. Da Vinci also observed that distinct layers of rocks and fossils covered large areas, and the layers were formed at separate times – not in the single biblical flood (Issacson, 2017). And centuries before Darwin, Leonardo conjectured through his understanding of rocks, fossils, and the slow processes of erosion and deposition that the world is much older than that proclaimed by the church fathers (Jones, 2011).
Leonardo da Vinci’s observations of fossils found on the tops of mountains wore a path through his thoughts. Since fossils are found in the mountains, the surface of the Earth, Leonardo posited, has changed over time. For example, an ancient sea is now dry land (Jones, 2011). Leonardo concluded that, as mountains formed, they lifted marine sediments – carrying fossil-bearing rocks skyward to become mountain peaks. Today, geologists know that tectonic plates and other geological processes form mountains, effectively, in exactly that way.
In another of his notebooks – the Codex Arundel – now housed in the British Library, Leonardo describes graded bedding in layers of sedimentary rocks (Pedretti, 1998). He also had a basic understanding of the superposition of rock strata, where the oldest rocks in a sequence of sedimentary rocks are at the bottom. This concept would not be recognized until the second half of the seventeenth century, when Danish geologist, Nicolas Steno, carrying the light of learning, took up the subject in 1669, laying the foundation for modern stratigraphy and geological mapping (Capra, 2013).
Da Vinci never published his theories. He only wrote his observations in his notebooks, which ended up scattered or lost. For more than three hundred years, his notes were not part of the progression of science. It was left for future scientists to rediscover Leonardo’s observations on the vastness of geological time, sedimentary layering and the significance of fossils, and to make these discoveries part of science.
Leonardo da Vinci’s endless curiosity and boundless creativity made him the quintessential Renaissance man. He was a keen observer of nature, whose interest led him to paint nature not only beautifully, but accurately.
Bressan, D. (2014, April 17). The Renaissance’s Contribution to Geology: Landscape Painting. Retrieved from Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/history-ofgeology/the-renaissances-contribution-togeology-landscape-painting/.
Capra, F. (2013). Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius. New York: Berrett-Koehler.
Issacson, W. (2017). Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Jones, J. (2011, November 23). Leonardo da Vinci’s earth-shattering insights about geology. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2011/nov/23/leonardo-davinci-earth-geology.
Pedretti, C. (1998). Il Codice Arundel 263 nella British Library. Florence: Giunti.
Pizzorusso, A. (1996). Leonardo’s Geology: the Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo, 440.
Waggoner, B. (1996, January 3). Leonardo DaVinci. Retrieved from University of California Musuem of Paleontology: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/vinci.html.