The geology of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks

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).

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