I recently spent time in London and while touring the National Gallery full of Michaelangelos, Monets and Rembrandts, my breath was taken away from me when I entered a small dark room with a light shining down on a single painting by Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist, also known as the Burlington House Cartoon.
There was a bench in the small room, and I remember sitting there with tears. I had never felt so touched by the beauty of art.
With the use of charcoal and chalk, this unfinished, soft and smoky piece moves from dark to light then back to dark again. It is thought to have been a preparatory piece, which would have eventually been transferred to a panel or wall to paint on by using a perforation technique, although there are no tiny dots or perforations in this piece.
The subtle interaction between the gazes of the four saints tell a story. St Anne smiles adoringly at her daughter Mary, as many mothers do when they see their own child with a little one, but also possibly the veneration due to the one who “all generations will call…blessed”.
Mary’s eyes are fixed on Baby Jesus who raises his hand in a gesture of benediction over the cousin who thirty years later would carry out his appointed task of baptizing Jesus. St Anne’s sketched hand, her index finger pointing towards Heaven, is positioned near the heads of the children, perhaps to indicate the original source of the blessing and that Christ and his future sacrifice is part of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind.
Da Vinci was known for his unification. Not only did he combined the human and the divine, but also physically link all the figures together with a sort of intimacy. Their glances and movements all lead toward Heaven, which is the very point of the drawing.
A print of this beautiful drawing is hung in our home. Through this drawing, I’m reminded of the community of saints, the love a mother has for her children and Christ’s love for us.