HERMITAGE, Benois Madonna And Madonna Litta, By Leonardo Da Vinci, Room 214

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The Benois Madonna is one of the first works painted by Leonardo Da Vinci after 10 years of apprenticeship at the workshop of Verrocchio. The oil painting, dated to between 1478 and 1482, is named after the Benois family, who last owned it before selling it to the Hermitage in 1914.

As you can see, the Madonna with the Child Jesus in her arms, is portrayed inside a dark room, barely lit by a window from which the sky is visible. Mary is holding her son on her lap, and the child is trying to grasp the little flower in her hand, with the 4 petals symbolizing his destiny on the cross. The young Madonna is smiling tenderly at her son’s clumsy attempts to reach the flower, in a serene, familiar atmosphere. Da Vinci avoided using traditional models in an attempt to portray a more authentic scene; this is particularly evident in the realistic appearance of the Child Jesus, shown with the disproportionate features typical of a baby. He used one of his characteristic techniques known as sfumato, which we can see mainly in the artist’s oil paintings, and which involved softening the contours of the figures and applying thin layers of paint on top of one another.

Now press pause and press play again when you’re in front of the Madonna Litta.



This is a tempera on canvas, painted by Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan in 1490. Once again, the name of the work is associated with the family who owned the painting, the Litta family, who sold it to Tsar Alexander II for a figure that would be equal to around 2.5 million euros today.

Some academics believe the painting could be a copy made by one of Da Vinci's apprentices, but this remains uncertain.

The Madonna is portrayed nursing Jesus, once again in a dark room, but with two windows open in the background. If you look closely, you’ll see that the sfumato technique has also been used here, but the figures are painted in the rather bright colors typical of the artist’s latter works. While they may appear less realistic than in the Benois Madonna, and in a pose that’s less natural, don’t you find the two subjects more aesthetically appealing? 


An interesting fact: The Benois family chose to sell their painting to the Hermitage for a sum far below its value just to ensure the masterpiece remained in Russia.


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