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”. Fig. 1. Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486). From his studies of geology, Leonardo learned how the Earth works and improved the realism of his paintings. Location: Louvre, Paris. Oil on panel transferred to canvas. Height: 199cm. Width: 122cm. (The image is in the public domain.) 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 … Read More

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