Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Adoration of the Magi and Da Vinci’s Unique Iconography

Leonardo da Vinci, The Adoration of the Magi, 1481

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi, despite its unfinished state, remains a complex and rich depiction of humanity within its biblical subject matter. In this article, Singulart examines the life and career of one of the world’s most famous artists and deciphers the meanings held within this unfinished masterpiece. 

The Adoration of the Magi and Da Vinci‘s Early Years

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian polymath and the archetypal “Renaissance Man”. Although he is most renowned today for his skills as a painter, his interests and skills ranged from drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and history to engineering, invention, anatomy, geology, astronomy and cartography. 

Da Vinci, author of Leonardo da Vinci, The Adoration of the Magi, 1481

Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of Piero Da Vinci, a notary, and a peasant woman named Caterina, and was born in Vinci, Florence. Ruled by the Medici family, Florence was considered the cradle of the Renaissance during Da Vinci’s lifetime. He was educated in the Florentine studio of the painter Andrea del Verrocchio in the mid 1460’s, where he received a thorough theoretical training. By 1472, he had qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of artists and doctors, and although his father helped him set up his own workshop, he continued to collaborate with Verrocchio.

Da Vinci’s earliest surviving work is a pen and ink drawing of the Arno Valley from 1473. Soon after he established his own workshop, he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of Saint Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio and another for the monks of San Donato in Scopeto. However, Da Vinci completed neither of these projects as he abandoned them to work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan from 1482 to 1499. During this time he painted, the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria Della Neve by Leonardo da Vinci made in 1473. The relationship between this early work an The Adoration of the Magi is clear.
Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria Della Neve by Leonardo da Vinci made in 1473

Political Tension Interrupts Da Vinci’s Career

Ludovico Sforza was overthrown at the beginning of the Second Italian War and thus Leonardo, along with his assistant Salai and his friend, the renowned mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled to Venice. Here he worked as a military architect and engineer, designing defense plans to protect the city from naval attack. He returned to Florence in 1500 and lived as a guest of the monks of the Santissima Annunziata monastery, where he painted The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, which according to the art historian Vasari, was hugely popular. 

Da Vinci then went on to work for Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, as a military architect, engineer and cartographer until he returned to Florence and the Guild of Saint Luke in 1503. It was at this time that he began to work on his most famous painting, a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, now known as The Mona Lisa. It is speculated that he worked on this until his final years. 

In 1515, King Francis I of France captured Milan and the following year Leonardo entered his service where he drew up architectural plans for a castle town and other inventions. Da Vinci died in France in 1519, in the house given to him by Francis I. 

The Adoration of the Magi: Deciphering the unfinished Composition

Leonardo da Vinci, The Adoration of the Magi, 1481
Leonardo da Vinci, The Adoration of the Magi, 1481

Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence to paint The Adoration of the Magi but left the work unfinished upon his move to Milan. Using charcoal, watercolour and oil paint on wood, Da Vinci has here sketched out the preliminary stages of a masterpiece depicting a common theme in Renaissance art. 

The Virgin Mary and Child sit in the center of the composition, with the Magi kneeling in adoration before them to form a triangular base to the composition, a shape often used in religious works to refer to the Holy Trinity. Behind them a group of figures look on in a semicircular crowd, in front of ruins and men on horseback fighting. Behind the Virgin, slightly off-center are two trees, a larger carob tree and a smaller palm tree set further back. The palm tree is thought to be a symbol of the Virgin, taken from the Song of Solomon which stated she was as “stately as a palm tree”.

The larger carob tree may be considered a symbol for royalty, indicating Christ’s place as the King of Kings and the Virgin’s as the Queen of heaven, as the seeds of the carob tree were used to measure crowns and jewels. The contrast between the peaceful scene in the foreground and the turmoil of the ruins and the violence in the background suggests a triumph of Christianity over Paganism. The rich variety of figures, from old to young, from conflict to the definitive depiction of mother and child, serves also to create an essentially human image from the biblical subject matter.

See similar contemporary artists in our Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci collection.

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