Leonardo da Vinci, the great Renaissance master was known for his immense creative genius: his energy and interest in everything conceivable left prolific imprints in the fields of anatomy, engineering, and most notably painting. The exuberance resulted in beautiful notebooks filled with sketches and inventions, but relatively few finished paintings. Recently, a Scottish woman discovered that a painting from her family’s farmhouse may bear the mark of the esteemed artist and, consequently, be worth a fortune.
Expert connoisseurs are still in the process of determining the authenticity of the work, but the consensus leans in the favour of an original Leonardo, or at the very least, the work of the master’s school. In today’s market, Leonardo paintings are valued at approximately £100 million, with notable works including The Last Supper and the Madonna of the Rocks practically priceless.
If this is indeed a genuine Leonoardo, how did it end up in a Scottish farmhouse? The provenance of the work is murky at best, but in the twentieth-century it resurfaced. George McLaren, a physician working in London, received the work as a gift from a patient in the 1960s. The painting has remained in the family and resided on a landing and in a bedroom, locations almost blasphemous to a genuine Leonardo. In 1979 George McLaren passed away and the painting then transferred to his wife who subsequently gifted the work to her daughter Fiona McLaren on her fortieth birthday. Recently facing financial difficulties, Fiona had the painting valued hoping it was worth something, and much to her surprise it is likely worth much more than expected.
The work in question was referred to as Madonna and Child with John the Baptist by the late George McLaren, though contemporary expert research says it is likely a representation of Mary Magdalene with her son (1). Now while this may seem like an unwritten chapter in Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code, Leonardo was in reality interested in Mary Magdalene and her position as a foil of the Virgin Mary. The woman in the painting is depicted in red (5), the colour declared by Papal decree for representing Mary Magdalene as opposed to the traditional blue used for the Virgin Mary. Further evidence suggesting the subject of the work is a papal bull attached to the back of the work. This order from Pope Paul V dates from the early 17th century, significantly later than Leonardo’s lifetime, and clearly contains the word Magdalene, despite the majority of the text being illegible. If the subject is indeed Mary Magdalene, the work would have been seen as heretical and likely destroyed. Perhaps due to fear of repercussions by the Catholic Church, Leonardo’s painting vanished into obscurity, not to be rediscovered for over five hundred years.
Experts from around the world have been called upon to determine if Leonardo is in fact the author of the painting. In terms of the composition, this work bears a strong resemblance to the Louvre’s Madonna of the Rocks, though this sort of grouping was not uncommon during the Renaissance. Small details such as the unique v-shaped hairline (2) part and elongated second toe (6) are known to be Leonardo-esque qualities. The background by the woman’s left shoulder is left unfinished (4), as is characteristic of the endlessly active Leonardo, and creates the impression of an uneven horizon line as in The Mona Lisa. As Dan Brown’s fictional scholar Robert Langdon would be eager to point out – the inclusion of the fleur-de-lis (3) points to Leonardo’s involvement in the Priory of Scion, a secret society tasked with protecting the Holy Grail. Scholars have also noted that the contours of the woman’s body directly correlate to the figure to the right of Christ (John the Baptist) in the fresco The Last Supper.
While a conclusive verdict has yet to be reached, scholars and connoisseurs seem to agree that the Renaissance genius had at least a hand in the creation of the painting though perhaps not in its entirety. The work is undoubtedly a valuable piece of art that Fiona McLaren seems keen to sell stating she hopes it finds a home in a museum to be accessible to the public. The small work (measuring 23 x 28 inches) narrowly escaped numerous trips to the rubbish bin, and for that small miracle, future museum visitors will be quite grateful.
Words: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2012