Dr Tatiana Kustodieva,

Kurator of Hermitage Museum

The Madonna with the Children at Play in a Moscow Private Collection
in the Context of Leonardo da Vinci’s Art


When the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception (Confraternita della Immacolata Concezione) contracted Leonardo da Vinci and the brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis on 25 April 1483, it was only a year since Leonardo had moved in search of a new patron from Florence to Milan, to the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza (il Moro). The contract was to create painted panels for the Confraternity’s chapel in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. The painters were to produce three panels, including images of the Madonna and the Christ Child with angels. Leonardo was to be responsible for the central part, while the de Predis brothers would produce the side panels. Work continued over several decades. The Franciscans complained to the artist about the time taken, while Leonardo claimed that the monks refused to pay him properly and was outraged by their incompetence, asserting that “a blind man cannot judge colour.”[1] The members of the Confraternity justly expected to receive a traditional altarpiece with an image of the Madonna, but the final result was The Virgin of the Rocks, utterly unlike anything seen in Italian art ever before.


As so often happened with him, Leonardo did not observe the agreed timescale for completion of the painting. Many years later he created the second version of The Virgin of the Rocks (1491/92 and 1506–08; National Gallery, London), while the first (1483–1503),[2] which he had set aside, later somehow reached France, where it today hangs in the Louvre in Paris.


Stereotypes were alien to Leonardo da Vinci, who remained a pioneer in all his works, from the early Benois Madonna (Hermitage, St. Petersburg), to The Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre, Paris; National Gallery, London), The Last Supper (Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan), St. Anne (Louvre, Paris) and others. In The Virgin of the Rocks Leonardo proved particularly innovative: instead of the usual Sacra Conversazione he created a scene of unusual iconography, setting the Virgin Mary, the infants Jesus and John and the angel within a mysterious grotto beside an expanse of water.


It is now thought that the artist took the name of the Franciscan Confraternity that commissioned the panel ­– the Confraternita della Immacolata Concezione – as his starting point for an image that encapsulates the idea of the Immaculate Conception.[3] Whatever the master’s original concept, the main impression the painting creates is of mystery and drama.


It is not by chance that we here recall the first major commission that Leonardo received from the Church in Milan. The subject of this study, The Madonna with the Children at Play in a Moscow private collection, also presents a very particular resolution of the subject and has echoes of The Virgin of the Rocks and the drawings for Leda. It is clearly closely connected with the art of Leonardo.


Attractive in appearance, the painting is indisputably of high quality. Originally the effect must have been even more striking, before the ultramarine of Mary’s cloak, decorated with gold, turned black.


Painted in oil and tempera on a poplar panel measuring 71.5 x 50.5 cm, the picture shows the Madonna kneeling in a rocky landscape, her hands stretched out above the two children. To right Jesus offers a bird to the infant John, while the Baptist, his head turned towards the Saviour, hugs a lamb lying beside him. This composition is as innovative as that of The Virgin of the Rocks. Traditionally Mary would be portrayed kneeling in The Nativity or The Adoration, but this painting shows neither of those. Though the Madonna’s pose certainly hints at the adoration of Jesus, the main idea is of Mary as protector, the embodiment of purity and divine mercy. There was an independent canonical iconographic type, the Madonna della Misеricordia, but this showed the Madonna full-length, standing with the folds of her cloak sheltering the faithful (for example, works by Simone Martini, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Piero della Francesca). In this painting all is far more subtle, more meaningful. The artist repeats the famous and extremely eloquent gesture of the Madonna’s hand used in both versions of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. Scholars sometimes see the hand of Mary in those paintings as almost predatory, but the artist of the work under discussion slightly alters the perspective. Could anything more eloquently convey the sense of peace and safety of those whom this hand protects than this? It seems the embodiment of Leonardo’s maxim: ‘The attitude of a figure must be so conducted in all its parts as that the intention of the mind may be seen in every member.’[4]


Leonardo’s well-known study of hands (Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice), which lays behind the painting in question, was used by artists of his school numerous times. This gesture, so fitting in both versions of The Virgins of the Rocks, was inordinately attractive to Leonardo’s followers: loaded with meaning, it became something of a touchstone, the gold standard of emotional resonance.


At the same time the Moscow painting is characterised by a guileless vivacity that is easily understood by and appealing to the viewer, a vivacity rooted in the art of the Early Renaissance. The Madonna’s figure is graceful, hidden tenderness sparkles in the gaze she turns on Jesus. She wears a red dress and a blue cloak (which now looks very dark, but was originally painted in lapis). There is also jewellery: a precious pin sparkles in her hair, a brooch fastens the dress on her breast, and the low neckline leaves her slender neck open. The observant artist has captured the behaviour typical of little children: Jesus crawls out from underneath His mother’s cloak (echoing the iconography of the Madonna della Misericordia), using one hand on the ground to give him stability since his movements are not yet fully coordinated. John hugs the lamb tightly, protecting it from the goldfinch, as if afraid that someone will take away his favourite toy. The spring landscape echoes the characters’ mood: nature is suffused with peace. There are rocks in the distance to left, an expanse of water shimmers in a bluish haze, a slender tree with lace-like leaves rises up behind Mary, who watches the children with a serene smile, enjoying their play and protecting them.

Everything in this work refers back to the art of Leonardo. Above all, to a number of drawings with a similar composition. One of these is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York: measuring 19.5 x 16.3 cm, in pen and brown ink and silverpoint, it shows four sketches of the kneeling Madonna, with separate depictions of reclining infants. Two of the sketches are of particular interest here. Bottom left, Mary spreads her arms in adoration of her Son, undoubtedly for a Nativity scene, since we see indications of an arched building in the background. The Madonna’s figure is repeated in the central sketch but her head is shown full face and not in profile and there are two children before her: Jesus lies to right, while St. John stands to left, turning towards the Saviour in prayer. Even in these drawings Leonardo achieves a wonderful painterly effect with the play of light and shade in the folds of the Madonna’s cloak. Both sketches are believed to predate The Virgin of the Rocks, the composition looking forward to both the Paris and London versions. But it has been justly noted with regard to The Virgin of the Rocks that “These sketches seem more closely related, however, to an undocumented painting by Leonardo of a Nativity that includes the infant Saint John the Baptist, from about 1480­–85, which must have been brought at least to the stage of a complete cartoon (full-scale drawing). Several contemporary copies of this composition survive; it is possible either that the painting was not executed or that it disappeared.”[5] The author, Carmen Bambach, cites the example of a painting that is “a copy after Leonardo da Vinci”, with a composition similar to that of the Moscow panel, in the Galleria Palatine in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence. We will look more closely at the Florentine piece below.


Another drawing (black chalk, touched with pencil and brown ink, 21 x 14.2 cm) in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles also relates to the work in question: it repeats three times an image of a seated child hugging a lamb's neck. Not present in the cartoon for St. Anne (National Gallery, London), the motif does appear in the painted version of the subject (Louvre, Paris): there the place of John the Baptist is taken by the symbolic lamb, the infant Jesus tries to scramble onto its back. Leonardo's followers would later make frequent use of various combinations of this group, but here we must emphasise that the American drawing, dated to 1503–6, is more closely associated with the Moscow painting than with St. Anne.


A study of a small child with a lamb in the Royal Collection at Windsor appears in the corner of a sheet of which the centre is occupied by a seated naked youth in profile (black chalk, 17.3 x 14 cm). Here again it has been justly noted that the drawing is close to the panel in question: “ It does, however, some resemblance to  Child with a lamb in a composition of the Madonna kneeling with two holy children, known to us in several replicas (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Uffizi depot, Melzi d’Eril Collection, Milan) of sufficiently high quality to suggest that they go back an original by Leonardo.”[6] We cannot but agree with this statement.


Leonardo persistently returned to this group – a child with a lamb – as we see, for instance, in a small drawing in the same collection at Windsor (black chalk, 8.2 x 6.9 cm). Here, however, it is hard to read the child’s posture due to the numerous lines crossing the figure.


The central problem when studying the art of Leonardo da Vinci and his school is the lack of consistent attributions. There is hardly any work by a follower of Leonardo that has never changed its author. This is mainly due to these artists’ strong dependence on the Maestro’s manner. From the second half of the nineteenth century, when art history gradually developed into a true science, Leonardo’s heritage was gradually “cleaned up”, the wheat separated from the chaff. Suffice it to recall the history of the Hermitage collection: The Holy Family by Cesare da Sesto, St. Sebastian and St. Catherine by Bernadino Luini, an Angel and Donna Nuda from the school of Leonardo, Christ with the Symbol of the Trinity by Giampietrino and Francesco Melzi’s Flora all entered the museum under the name of the great master himself. Flora has been given to a variety of authors, to Bernardino Luini, Giampietrino and Andrea Solario, before agreement was finally reached with the name of Francesco Melzi.


Another difficulty lies in that there are thought to be a number of lost works by Leonardo. These include an Angel described by Giorgio Vasari,[7] The Madonna of the Yarnwinder,[8] Leda[9] and a Flora mentioned in old sources.[10]


Leonardo left some works unfinished (The Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, St. Jerome in the Wilderness in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums). Of a shield with the head of Medusa, for instance, Vasari wrote: “… but since it was a work that took time, it remained unfinished, as happened with almost all his [Leonardo’s – T.K.] things.” [11]


There are several painted variations on the composition of Madonna with the Children at Play that are close to the Moscow version. One of these (72.2 x 50.5 cm), in very poor condition, has been in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, since 1950.[12] The painting has been harshly cleaned on a number of occasions, especially the figure of the Madonna. The landscape is better preserved; the face of Jesus is heavily retouched.


The most famous version is in the Galleria Palatina in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, and has been covered in the literature since the late nineteenth century.[13] In 1929 Wilhelm Suida already pointed out that there were numerous copies of the painting. He noted the “beautiful simplicity” of the Madonna’s gesture and the expressive nature of the infants who seem to revolve around Maria “like small moons around a planet.”[14]


Emil Möller published a paper entitled “The Madonna with the Children at Play”, which he had delivered in 1928 at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence.[15] He linked to the composition a number of drawings that had previously been associated with St. Anne and cited different versions of the work. Möller referred to a letter from Leonardo of 1508 in which the artist reported that he had started two paintings of different sizes showing the Madonna, which would soon be completed. Möller felt that the Pitti version matched this description, although he did not see it as the work of Leonardo himself, noting that he “passed on the drawings and cartoons to his assistants so that they bring them up to the level of a painting which would then go under his name.”[16] He named Cesare da Sesto as the author, but cited the influence of Lorenzo di Credi and Albertinelli. This attribution was never to be repeated by later scholars.


Tancred Borenius was, in turn, the first to reproduce The Madonna with the Children at Play mentioned by Möller, now in the Ashmolean Museum but then the property of Henry Harris of London. He declared the author to be Leonardo da Vinci himself.[17] This article is brief and Borenius provides no convincing arguments in support of Leonardo's authorship. His first argument was that the painting is unfinished, like many of the master’s other works, the second lay in the superior skill revealed when compared to other versions: “... the Harris version is artistically head and shoulders above the Uffizi one, evincing as it does in every point an altogether superior sense of form, of line, of movement.”[18] In my opinion, however, it was only just that Borenius' attribution found no support among scholars, who saw the English painting as either a copy or a version of Leonardo’s lost original. In the Ashmolean the painting is today described as being from “the school of Leonardo.”[19]


In size the Pitti picture (oil on wood, 73 x 50 cm) is almost identical to those in Oxford (72.2 x 50.5 cm) and Moscow (71.5 x 50 cm). Well-preserved, it differs from the Moscow painting mainly in the foreground, with some minor changes in the background. The Pitti composition features St. John's cross placed at the Madonna’s feet and a banner with the traditional inscription: “ecce Agnus Dei” – “behold the Lamb of God”. The Saviour holds a different bird, the infants have slightly different facial proportions; there is no halo above the Madonna’s head, and her hair falls onto the shoulders in light individual strands. Blue and white flowers grow in the grass, only their stems and petal shapes indicated, making it impossible to identify them. This immediately sets the vegetation apart from the work of Leonardo himself. Remember the Maestro’s numerous sketches of plants, which have the accuracy of a botanical textbook, and which he then imbued with symbolic meaning in his paintings.


There is an extensive body of literature dedicated to the Pitti version. Summarising its attribution, it was first mentioned in a 1704 inventory of the Palazzo Pitti as “1/4 cubits in height and 5/6 cubits in width, depicting a kneeling Madonna dressed in red and with a turquoise cloak, with the infant Jesus holding a bird in his right hand, showing it to St. John, who sits on the ground hugging a little lamb, as if hiding it from Jesus, all this with a view of a landscape in the distance.”[20]The author was not given and the picture appeared in subsequent inventories without any name. In the early nineteenth century it was considered the work of the school of Leonardo and was later given to Bernardino Luini.


The Pitti Madonna with the Children at Play has been widely exhibited, its attribution changing each time. At an exhibition in Florence in 1998 it appeared under the name Fernando Llanes (?).[21] In Vinci (2001), the painting featured in the catalogue as the work of a Florentine master “after Leonardo da Vinci.”[22] In the catalogue of the Paris exhibition (2012) it was attributed to a follower of Leonardo of Spanish origin, either Fernando Llanos or Fernando Yañez de la Almedina, with a date of 1502–3(?).[23] Most recently, at a temporary exhibition in Florence (2013) it is listed as the work of Fernando Llanes, without any question mark.[24] None of these catalogues provides compelling evidence in favour of such attributions.


Two Valencian artist, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (ca. 1475–1536) and Fernando de los Llanos (active 1505–25), were in Florence, working in the orbit of Leonardo, until 1506. A certain “Fernando Spagnolo” is mentioned among Leonardo’s assistants in 1505, in connection with payments made while the master was working on the fresco of The Battle of Anghiari for the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo della Signoria. Although many years of study were devoted to determining which of the two Fernandos might have been Leonardo’s assistant,[25] today the problem remains unresolved. Researchers are currently inclined to think that it was Fernando Llanos, since his work shows more influence of the art of Leonardo. Both artists returned to Spain in 1506.


The name of Yáñez was put forward for the Florentine painting by Franco Moro,[26] while P. Giannattasio named Llanos as the author,[27] citing similarities he saw between the Pitti panel and such works by Llanos as The Adoration of the Magi and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which forms part of a retable in Valencia Cathedral. Indeed, the first is based on an unfinished work by Leonardo, The Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, and in the second the figure of the Mary derives from the lost Madonna of the Yarnwinder (in both cases, the composition is in reverse). In our opinion, there is little in common between these Spanish paintings and The Madonna with the Children at Play. The proportions of the figures are very different. Llanos always preferred stocky, rather short figures; the shape of his female faces is different, with a characteristic elongated oval; the drapery folds are rendered differently, with echoes of Gothic painting and wooden sculptures. None of this corresponds with what we see in the Florentine panel.


Separating the work of the two Fernandos is complicated, particularly since they collaborated on works such as the large altarpiece in Valencia Cathedral. Even those works today given with some certainty to one Fernando or the other have changed their attribution so often that it is too early for us to agree that the final word has been said. There seems to be insufficient basis for a definitive attribution of the Pitti painting to either.


Comparing the Florentine panel with an entry in the Gallery’s inventory of 1635, describing a painting said to be by “the hand of Valerio Marucelli after Leonardo da Vinci”, Alessandro Conti felt the work to be a seventeenth-century repetition, but Nicoletta Baldini pointed out the difference in size between the painting now in the Palazzo Pitti and that in the inventory.[28] Although we are clearly dealing with two different works, we are reminded once again that artists regularly took up Leonardo’s iconography.


Cesare da Sesto is seen as the most likely author of the version currently in Villeneuve-d'Ascq, France (75 x 53 cm). Not of particularly high quality, it has been heavily repainted and has little in common with Cesare’s known works. With good reason Marco Carminati did not even mention it in his monograph on the artist.[29]It is, however, interesting to note that we see the same blue flowers of unidentifiable variety in the foreground to right as appear in the Pitti panel. This detail suggests that the Florentine work was known to the artist.


Other works further develop the subject of The Madonna with the Children at Play: a painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest (113 x 76.5 cm) repeats only the figures of Mary and Christ, altering everything else. A different landscape with a rock appears behind the Madonna; St. John does not embrace the lamb but instead reaches out to Christ with hands clasped in prayer; the meadow is densely covered with flowers. The top of the painting is rounded. Though the artist based his work on Leonardo’s motifs, he allowed his imagination free rein, paraphrasing and reworking the image to his own taste. That painting has been given to Marco d'Oggiono, an attribution in which we concur. Its execution is utterly in keeping with the characteristic manner of most of Marco’s works, particularly the infant to left (it is difficult to determine which child is Christ and which the Baptist), whose foetal pose was so often used by the artist. The composition as a whole produces rather a strange impression: the mountain seems to hang so low over the Madonna that it apparently grows out of her head. Museum catalogues give the work to Salai (Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno , known as Il Salaino), with a question mark,[30] but this artist is an almost mythical figure who is unsurprisingly sometimes called “the painter who never was”.[31]


There was another version in a private collection in Ludwigsburg, its present whereabouts not known, which we can judge from an old photograph.[32] Here the master painted the main characters but removed the lamb from St. John’s arms and reduced the landscape. The work has been ascribed to Franciabigio, but it is hard to judge the soundness of this attribution from the photo.


A number of artists who repeated the composition preferred to set it in a tondo. Such, for example, is a round panel (77 cm in diameter) in the Gallarati-Scotti collection in Milan. The author reproduced only the main characters, altering the surroundings and the background. The Madonna and the children appear before a low hill, in a grassy meadow. Beyond the hill is a forest, to its left we see a castle. The slender trees visible behind Mary are retained. From the late nineteenth century this piece was attributed to a follower of Leonardo, Cesare da Sesto. In 1991 Franco Moro gave it, like the Pitti panel, to Fernando Yañez.[33] Marco Carminati also rejected the authorship of Cesare, making what seems to us a more convincing attribution simply to an anonymous artist of the sixteenth century. [34] 


A round panel in the Faringdon Collection at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, is given to Niccolò Soggi with a question mark. Soggi was a second-rate painter, a pupil of Pietro Perugino, who was close to Leonardo when the latter was in Florence working on The Battle of Anghiari. In the Oxfordshire tondo he swapped the infants’ positions, placing Christ leaning on the lamb to the left of the circle, while the Baptist holding a cross is depicted to right. In mood and the nature of the landscape the tondo seems to this author rather to evoke associations with the Sienese School and the circle of Il Sodoma.


It is not our task here to suggest attributions for the above-mentioned works. What is important is to stress that they were created by different artists who were nonetheless drawn to the same prototype.


There is a certain resemblance between The Madonna with the Children at Play and Leonardo’s drawings for Leda (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Collection of the Duke of Devonshire, Chatsworth), in which Leda is down on one knee, embracing the swan's neck with one hand and reaching the other out to her children, newly-hatched from an egg. In the first drawing, her head leans towards the regal bird. There are of course no semantic parallels between the Madonna and a mythological character, but from the formal point of view the figure in both cases is shown kneeling, and in both cases the subject is the emergence and protection of life. We know that Leonardo loved puzzles and encrypted messages. No wonder that his works often have a dual semantic reading: Medusa is both a woman and a monster; Bacchus is transformed into St. John the Baptist, and the angel (in the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks) adopts the pose of the Sphinx. We find a further contrast between Leda as the personification of voluptas, sinful sensual desire, with Mary as the embodiment of purity and innocence.


Now, in a private collection in Moscow, another work has emerged, previously unknown to scholars, that fits into this context of compositions showing The Madonna with the Children at Play. Such situations always give rise to a certain amount of suspicion: where and how could such a work have remained hidden from public eyes for such a long time? The apocryphal tale is that the Moscow panel belonged to some noble Italian family, a story that cannot now be proved. It first emerged at Sotheby's in London on  22 July 1952 (lot 127) under the name of Leonardo da Vinci. Some considerable time later, The Madonna with the Children at Play reappeared at auction, this time at Christie’s in New York, on 29 January 2014 (sale 2819, lot 141). It was sold to the current owner as “circle of Leonardo da Vinci.” It appeared in the literature in passing, mentioned among other versions as having passed through Sotheby's in 1952. A reproduction in the Fondazione Federico Zeri (University of Bologna), no. 34220, again places it in the circle of Leonardo da Vinci, but gives its location as unknown.


It remains for us to resolve an extremely complex question: what exactly is this work and what is the place it occupies in the series of similar paintings?


For we do not know whether there was ever an original work by Leonardo that was later lost, or whether only a cartoon was produced; we do not know when and on the basis of what the various copies were made; we do not even known which of the copies should be seen as primary, i.e. closer to the original. It is nonetheless logical to assume that there was such an original painting – or more probably a cartoon – since those numerous repetitions must have been based on something, and it would hardly have been a workshop composition.


We must give due credit to the current owner of the painting. He has done everything possible to determine its authenticity and authorship. The panel has been identified as poplar, the tree always preferred by Italian artists, in view of environmental conditions. The painting was examined under X-ray, in ultraviolet and infrared light; the pigments were analysed and shown to fully correspond with those in use in the proposed period of the painting’s creation. Ultramarine was identified in the Madonna’s cloak. (Technical and technological reports on the examination of the painting are set out in the following articles.)


Research has demonstrated that work on the painting was carried out in several stages. In contrast to the Pitti panel, there is visible original underdrawing on the Moscow painting. Its outline is not always discernible, however, possibly since it was drawn in silverpoint (a technique typical of Leonardo himself, and later of his pupils). The artist introduced changes into the composition: there was originally a halo over St. John’s head, with a cross and a banderole containing the traditional inscription “ecce agnus Dei”. These details were later painted over and today they are visible only in infrared light. It should be pointed out that the versions in the Palazzo Pitti and at the Château de Flers (Villeneuve-d'Ascq) both have depictions of the cross and the banderole with an inscription, but just as tellingly we must remember that no such inscriptions are seen in Leonardo’s own works.[35]To him they were essentially anachronistic. He expressed everything he had to say through gesture, gaze and posture, and he was so successful that no explanatory text was needed. On the prepared ground of the Moscow panel the artist outlined the figures and only then put in the landscape. Pentimenti – author’s corrections and changes – have been uncovered in different parts of the panel, including in the face of St. John and Mary’s hand. Such details are central to defining the primacy of a work. Nothing of this kind, for instance, is seen in the Pitti version.


It seems to us particularly significant that there are alterations – however minor – in the original underdrawing: the lamb’s tail was initially significantly longer than in the final version. Such changes are the work of an author and not a copyist. Study has also shown that part of the landscape, or rather the vegetable ornament visible behind the figure of St. John and near Jesus, is in the upper layers of paint, i.e. it is not original but was applied later. Even the naked eye reveals that these bushes with their flowers seem somewhat strange and alien in the context of the image overall.


Underdrawing recently discovered on the London version of The Virgin of the Rocks seems to me to provide a very important starting point when clarifying the dating of the Moscow painting. It shows an entirely different figure to that which appears in the final version: placed higher, the head turned in three-quarter view towards us, the figure in the underdrawing has her left hand pressed to her breast while the gesture of her right hand coincides with that on the Moscow panel.[36] The obvious conclusion would be that in the first half the 1510s Leonardo was looking back to his own earlier designs, particularly sketches on which he had worked in the 1480s, and developing them further. If this idea is correct, then it resolves the gap that has so worried scholars, between the 1480s and the first decades of the sixteenth century, in which Leonardo’s drawings of the infant and lamb are usually placed. They are usually associated with St. Anne, but, as we have said, they seem to relate quite closely to the composition of the painting under discussion.


There are many common aspects to The Virgin of the Rocks and The Madonna with the Children at Play, though the concept behind the Louvre version is somewhat different. The Madonna's virginity is emphasized in both cases by the rocks – symbol of purity. But if the Paris version may contain a hint at Jesus’s altеr ego, the second Messiah, whom he met and kissed according to apocryphal legend, the roles of the characters are very clear in the London painting and the panel in question. The Saviour in the Moscow work holds a bird, an allusion to Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, while St. John has a lamb, symbol of the imminent Advent of the Almighty.


I tend not to believe that there were many more of Leonardo’s works that are today lost. In this case, however, I feel we should address the question as follows. I am not convinced that the Maestro ever produced a painting of this composition but it is very possible that there was a cartoon, in which the artist brought together some of his characteristic motifs, which then served as a model or basis for a whole series of versions and copies, the paintings we know today. This idea is supported by the fact that although the main figures are depicted in similar manner, all the backgrounds are different – they are never the same even in the closer variations, indicating that each painter introduced something individual. We might also allow that Leonardo then have made corrections to the compositions copied by his pupils. Perhaps the Maestro’s own hand touched the panel in question during its initial stages, making or correcting the drawing? Such a thing is not improbable, particularly when we bear in mind that the painting overall, while in no way suggesting that Leonardo himself was the author, is nonetheless made up of individual motifs that can each be traced back to his works. This is very important, for the body of works by the artist of Vinci is not large; each work that bears the mark of his genius, of his ideas and images, is of great value.


Facts, as we know, are stubborn things. We can base our conclusions only on data obtained through technical and technological research, and on the logic that emerges from a study of the art of Leonardo and his circle. Even those experts who have examined the painting have arrived at different conclusions.


Scientific research undertaken by Alexander Kosolapov in 2015 led him to state categorically that the Moscow painting is undoubtedly the work of Leonardo da Vinci and his school. To this author, such an emphatic pronouncement is incorrect. When the name of Leonardo is given first, it suggests that the Maestro was the author. But in this case, even the general appearance of The Madonna with the Children at Play is such that it cannot be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci himself: neither the modelling of the infants’ bodies and their facial expressions, nor the vegetation or the somewhat primitive depiction of the rocks are characteristic of Leonardo.


On the other hand, a report produced in 2014 at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London states that since X-ray examination of the Moscow panel revealed no significant compositional changes it can be assumed that it was either copied from another work or transferred from a cartoon. But why would there be any significant change to the composition if it was painted from Leonardo’s cartoon? Suffice it to recall here that there is a preparatory drawing which shows a number of changes.


How do the two versions of the same composition, those in Moscow and Florence, correspond to each other? Is one a copy of the other, or were they painted simultaneously by different artists from the same lost cartoon by Leonardo? Was the underdrawing on one done by the master, with his student finishing the rest? It is extremely difficult to provide answers to these questions.


We will try and build a sequence that is at least permissible, in our opinion. Leonardo never painted such a work, but there was a cartoon that served as a pattern for pupils, not created all in one go but completed while the artist was working on The Virgin of the Rocks, around 1506, since those drawings with a child embracing a lamb relating to The Madonna with the Children at Play are dated to around this year.


The cross and the banderole with the inscription “ecce agnus Dei” are present in both the Florentine and French versions (the Ashmolean variant is omitted from this discussion due to its ruined state); the underdrawing shows that it was also originally present in the Moscow painting. Technical research cannot alas tell us precisely when or in what period the vegetation around the infants Jesus and St. John was painted – perhaps it was at this time that the attributes of the Baptist were painted over? Or perhaps the author himself painted them out, since the absence of textual explanation is in keeping with Leonardo’ own views, and it was enough to depict a lamb to identify the infant John. We see no need to prove the primacy of one version over the other: pupils might well have been making copies from the cartoon at the same time. Yet it seems unquestionable that the Moscow panel is superior to that in Florence. We have already mentioned the underdrawing, with its alterations, however minor, and the pentimenti, things which are not found in the Pitti version, which is thus less creative and more secondary. Again, a purely visual evaluation gives the Moscow picture the advantage (although it must be borne in mind that the Florentine panel is covered with a layer of dirty and unrestored varnish). The differences arise out of very tiny nuances, but those nuances nonetheless exist. In the Moscow version Mary’s face has slightly different proportions and seems far more alive; the artist has worked up the chiaroscuro more thoroughly in rendering the children's bodies. The landscape is superb, the bluish haze gradually melting away, light shimmering on the blue surface of the water. We should also note the treatment of the hair of both children: we know that Leonardo demonstrated particular interest in hairstyles, his study of them almost a hobby, as we see in numerous drawings. Leonardo’s fascination with hair was particularly mentioned by Giorgio Vasari: “In Milan he took for his assistant the Milanese Salai, who was most comely in grace and beauty, having fine locks, curling in ringlets, in which Leonardo greatly delighted.” [37]


In the Florence and Moscow panels the hair on the infants’ heads is treated differently, the artist paying much more attention to fine details in the latter work, seeming to admire the lightness and fluffiness of each lock.


We shall make no pretence at identifying an author for the Moscow painting. So Leonardesque is it in every way that any of the author’s individual features seem to have dissolved in the ideas and techniques of the teacher. Certainly the painting was the work of a Florentine master of the first decade of the sixteenth century. If I see no reason to identify either of the two Fernandos as the author of the Florentine panel, this is even more true with regard to the Moscow panel. Undoubtedly of high artistic quality, the painting now in a Russian private collection may well have been created under Leonardo’s eye as the master observed his students at work; he may even have intervened during the original stage of its creation. Remember the words of Möller, that Leonardo “passed on the drawings and cartoons to his assistants so that they bring them up to the level of a painting which would then go under his name.”[38] Perhaps this is what Leonardo da Vinci did in the case of The Madonna with the Children at Play.

[1] Cited in: Leonardo da Vinci. Master Draftsman. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed. Carmen Bambach, New York–New Haven–London: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2003, p. 231.

[2] Since different dates are given for the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks in various publications, we refer to those given in Leonardo da Vinci. Painter at the Court of Milan, Luke Syson with Larry Keith et al, exh. cat., National Gallery, London; New Haven–London, 2011, cats 31­–34.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Farai le figure in tale atto, il quale sia sufficiente a dimostrare quello сhe la figura ha nell'animo.” Trattato della pittura di Leonardo da Vinci. various editions, maxim no. 290. English cited from the first English edition, A Treatise of Painting, London, 1721, p. 117.

[5] Leonardo da Vinci. Master Draftsman… p. 368.

[6] Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci. Drawings at Windsor Castle , London: Phaidon, 1968, I, p. 98. Clark dates this drawing 1503–6.

[7] “Questa è fra le cose eccellenti nel palazzo del duca Cosimo insieme con una testa d’uno Angelo che alza un braccio in aria, che scorta dalla spalla al gomito venendo inanzi, e l’altro ne va al petto con una mano.” [It [the head of Medusa – T.K.] is among the rare works of art in the Palace of Duke Cosimo, together with the head of an angel, who is raising one arm in the air, which, coming forward, is foreshortened from the shoulder to the elbow, and with the other he raises the hand to the breast.” Giorgio Vasari, “Vita di Leonardo da Vinci”, in: Le vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori e architetti…, various editions.

[8] The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is recorded in a letter from Fra Pietro Novellara to Isabella d’Este, Marchesa di Mantua, dated 14 April 1501: “El quadretino che fa e una Madona che sede como se volesse inaspare fusi, el Bambino posto el piede nel canestrino dei fusi e ha preso l’aspo e mira  atentamente que quattro raggi che sono in forma di Croce…”  [The little picture which he is making is of a Madonna seated as if she were about to spin yarn. The Child has placed his foot on the basket of yarns and has grasped the yarnwinder and gazes attentively at the four spokes that are in the form of a cross…].  Cited in: Carlo Pedretti, Melani M. La Madonna dei fusi di Leonardo da Vinci : tre versioni per la sua prima committenza francese, Poggio a Caiano: CB Edizione, 2014, pp. 8­–9. English translation by Martin Kemp in Leonardo da Vinci: The Mystery of the “Madonna of the Yarnwinder”, exh. cat., National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh, 1992, p. 11.

[9] “Forse la redazione “inginocchiata” non fu mai tradotta da Leonardo in una pittura; mentre la concretizzazione degli studi per la “stante” in un dipinto o, più probabilmente, in un cartone sembra essere suggerita dalla quantità di opere di artefici diversi che si rifanno al prototipo vinciano” [Perhaps the “kneeling” version was never translated by Leonardo into a painting; but the realisation of studies for the “standing” figure in a painting, or more probably in a cartoon, seems to be suggested by the quantity of works by various authors that refer back to Vinci’s prototype].  Leonardo e il mito di Leda. Modelli, memorie e metamorfosi di un’invenzione, a cura di Gigetta Dalli Regoli, Romano Nanni, Antonio Natali, Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana Editoriale, 2001  p. 65.

[10] “Ne si deve tralasciar la Flora dipinta conmirabile vaghezze, e con aria eramente divina: la quale si conserva in Parigi…”  [Nor must we omit a Flora which he finished about this time, and which is still to be seen in Paris: The figure has an uncommon Grace and Sweetness in its air…’]. Trattato della Pittura di Leonardo da Vinci. Novamente dato in luce con la vita del stesso autore, scritta da Rafaelle Du Fresne, Paris, 1651 (without pagination); English cited from the first English edition, A Treatise of Painting, London, 1721, p. 17.

[11] “ma come opera, che portava tempo, e come quasi interviene in tutte le cose sue, rimase imperfetta.” Vasari op. cit.

[12] Christopher Lloyd, A Catalogue of the Earlier Italian Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1977, pp. 93­–97.

[13] Ivan Lermolieff, Kunstkritische Studien über italienische Malerei. Die Galerien Borghese und Doria Panfili in Rom, Leipzig, 1890, p. 149, footnote.

[14] Cited from an Italian edition: Wilhelm Suida, Leonardo e i leonardeschi, introduzione e cura di M. T. Fiorio, Venice, 2001, p. 73.

[15] Emil Möller, “Die Madonna mit den spielenden Kindern”, Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, LXII, 1928–29, pp. 217–27. There is a certain discrepancy in Möller's article: on the one hand, he points that “the painting could have been made not earlier than late second half of the eighteenth century” (p. 218), on the other hand he regards it as a copy after Leonardo by Cesare da Sesto.

[16] Ibid., p. 227.

[17] Tancred Borenius, “Leonardo’s Madonna with the Children at Play”, The Burlington Magazine, LVI, 1930, pp. 142–47.

[18] Ibid., p. 142.

[19] Lloyd op. cit., pp. 93–97.

[20] Leonardo e il mito di Leda…, p. 122.

[21] Fernando Spagnuolo e altri maestri iberici nell’Italia di Leonardo e Michelangelo, a cura di Fernando Benito Doménech e Fiorella Sricchia Santoro, exh. cat., Casa Buonarrotti, Florence; Generalitat Valenciana, Valencia; 1998, section III, pp. 204­–6.

[22] Leonardo e il mito di Leda…, cat. II 8.

[23] La Sainte Anne: l’ultime chef-d’ɶuvre de Léonard de Vinci, exh. cat., Louvre, Paris; Paris: Louvre éditions, 2012, cat. 83.

[24] Norma e capriccio. Spagnoli in Italia agli esordi della “maniera moderna”, exh. cat., Uffizi, Florence; Florence: Giunti, 2013, cat. II. 11.

[25] Fernando Spagnuolo… p. 8.

[26] Franco Moro, “Spunti sulla diffusione di un tema leonardesco tra Italia e Fiandra sino a Lanino’, in: I leonardeschi a Milan. Fortuna e collezionismo, Milan: Electa, 1991, p. 131.

[27] Fernando Spagnuolo…, section III, pp. 204–7.

[28] Leonardo e il mito di Leda… p. 125.

[29] Marco Carminati, Cеsare da Sesto 1477–1523, Milan: Jandi Sapi, 1994, p. 18.

[30] Katalog der Galerie Alter Meister, bearbeitet von Andor Pigler, 2 vols, Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1967, I, p. 612. No sound arguments are given to prove Salai’s presumed authorship. Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, Old Masters’ Gallery. A Summary Catalogue of Italian, French, Spanish and Greek Paintings, ed. Vilmos Tátrai, London: Visual Arts; Budapest: Startcolor, 1991, p. 106.

[31] Maurizio Zecchini, Il Caprotti da Caprotti: storia di un pittore che non c’è, Venice: Marsilio, 2013.

[32] Reproduced in: Leonardo e il mito di Leda… p. 124.

[33] Moro op. cit., p. 140.

[34] Carminati op. cit., p. 18.

[35] The only exception is the London version of The Virgin of the Rocks, where St John the Baptist holds a banderole with the corresponding inscription which may have been produced by Leonardo’s assistants.

[36] “All these stylistic changes are present in an alternative, quickly abandoned compositional design discovered recently under the paint surface – an image of the Virgin holding her hand to her breast with one arm extended.” Leonardo da Vinci. Painter at the Court of Milan…, p. 171.

[37] “Prese in Milano Salaì milanese per suo creato, il qual era vaghissimo di grazia e di bellezza, avendo begli capegli, ricci et inanellati, de’ quali Lionardo si dilettò molto.” Vasari op. cit.

[38] Möller op. cit., p. 227.