19 May 2011

St. Dismas and the Immaculate Conception: What I Didn't Know about the Virgin of the Rocks

The above paintings (click to enlarge) are two versions of the painting known as The Virgin of the Rocks, or alternatively, Madonna of the Rocks, by Leonardo da Vinci.  Though the paintings are very similar, there are notable differences.

Also, unless you lived under a rock last decade, you will recall the execrable work of Dan Brown called The Da Vinci Code.  In this book, the two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks were claimed to prove super-de-duper secrets about the falsehood of Christianity and the two-millenia-old "cover-up".

One version of the common description of the painting comes from the National Gallery website:

An elaborate sculpted altar was commissioned by the Milanese Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception for their oratory in San Francesco in 1480. A new contract was drawn up in 1483 with Leonardo and the de Predis brothers: a central panel was to be painted by Leonardo alone, and there were to be two side panels showing angels singing and playing musical instruments. [...]

'The Virgin of the Rocks' seems not to refer to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, but depicts the type of subject that Leonardo might have painted in his native Florence where legends concerning the young St. John the Baptist were popular.


Legendary tales of a childhood meeting between Jesus and his cousin Saint John the Baptist first became popular in the 14th century. It was claimed that when King Herod ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, the Holy Family fled to Egypt and on their way met Saint John, who also escaped the massacre.

Dan Brown has a more fanciful explanation of the paintings, briefly described in the Wikipedia entry on the paintings:

[I]t is claimed the earlier Louvre version contained hidden symbolism which contradicted orthodox Christian belief, notably the fact that Jesus is shown praying to John rather than the other way round (the novel implies that the baby at the left must be Jesus rather than John, because he is with the Madonna). It is also claimed that the Virgin appears to be holding an invisible head and that Gabriel appears to be "slicing the neck" with his finger. For this reason the painting was rejected by the Church, and a second, more orthodox, version was painted.

However, historical evidence shows that these claims are completely unfounded. (I include this sentence in case anyone needs the reminder). 

In one of those wonderful learning-by-teaching moments homeschooling parents sometimes experience, I learned that both interpretations are likely wrong.  The confusion stems from a misidentification of the infant boy on Mary's right. This infant is none other than St. Dismas, the Good Thief, and the painting is, indeed, one of the most sublime representations of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the art appreciation text Art Through Faith 8 by Mary Lynch,  published by Seton Press, there is a beautiful essay explaining the paintings.  I cannot find it online, nor can I find any other online site that describes the story (though one site lists the painting as a painting "of St. Dismas"), so I cannot provide an easy link.  Therefore, I must post this (rather long, but beautiful) excerpt from the piece here:

Look again at the two paintings.  Art historians believe the child on the left to be St. John the Baptist.  The attention of the Blessed Virgin, the angel, and the Christ Child are all directed toward this child.  Why would their focus be directed to a child if the theme of this picture is the Immaculate Conception?  Historically, whenever the Christ Child and another child are depicted, it is assumed that the other little boy is His cousin, John the Baptist.  However, perhaps da Vinci has created a visual riddle and chosen another, less obvious, identity for the second boy.

There is an ancient tradition that during the Holy Family's flight to Egypt, they paused to rest in a cave belonging to a thief and his family.  The robber and his wife had an infant son who was the same age as the Infant Jesus.  Sadly, the little baby had leprosy.  The Blessed Mother took pity on the poor child and his mother.  In gratitude for the shelter and food the robber's family had provided, Mary performed a wonderful miracle.

Our Lady told the mother to place her son in the bath water that had been used to wash the Christ Child.  As soon as the robber's son was bathed in the water, his sores were healed.  His skin was completely restored and renewed.

Many years passed and the two infant boys grew to manhood.  While the Christ Child "grew in age, wisdom and grace," the cured little boy grew into the trade of his father and became a thief.  One fateful and terrible day, the two men met again.  This time it was not in a cave, but on a hill.  The leprous baby boy was now the thief who hung on the cross to the right side of Jesus and said, "Lord, remember me when You enter Your Kingdom."  His mother's kind deed of long ago had won the thief the grace of faith and repentance.  On Calvary, Dismas (the Good Thief) was assured salvation with Christ's promise, "This day, thou shalt be with Me in paradise."

The story of St. Dismas was well known during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Da Vinci would have been very familiar with the account.

The genius of da Vinci continues to challenge his viewers.  More than five hundred years have passed since he painted the Mona Lisa, and numerous experts have studied the painting carefully over the course of the centuries.  Yet no one can say with certainty what hides behind her enigmatic smile or even if she is smiling.  With this in mind, let us return to the twin pictures of The Virgin of the Rocks.  The setting is a rocky cave.  In the background, there is a pool of water.  In the National Gallery version, the copy, the little boy on Our Lady's right, holds a cross-- a foreshadowing of his end.  Jesus blesses him bodily, and more importantly, spiritually.

Studying the Louvre version, we see that the little boy genuflects and his hands are folded in prayer.  Yet, there is a duality to his posture because this is also the position of someone who is about to dive into a pool, the pool of water before him.  Our Lady holds the boy in a protective, solicitous manner.  Could this not be the setting in the robber's den and the story of St. Dismas?  Placed in this context, suddenly the theme of the Immaculate Conception becomes apparent.  Da Vinci shows by this tender account, how the Virgin Mary, even during the trials of fleeing to save the life of her own Son, was ever ready to mediate between God and man.

Why, though, does the copy contain details not found in the original?  Da Vinci, a master of subtlety, was not one to overstate the obvious.  He left plenty of clues to show the child was St. Dismas: the frontal pool of water, the diving position, the Christ Child blessing before the other child dives, and most significantly, the angel's pointing finger as he looks at us.  He is telling us where to look.  Leonardo, known for his wit and innovation (and a rather trying temperament), expects the viewer to put a little effort into discovering the message and mystery of his work.

The second version, although begun by the Master, was completed by the de Predi brothers.  Perhaps the de Predi brothers were the first ones to misunderstand the subtlety of the painting.  Or, perhaps da Vinci's assistants thought signs of a more obvious nature were needed for the viewer to discern its content.  Halos were added.  A more distinct set of wings identified the angel.  The pointed hand, which served to direct the viewer to where he should look, was removed.  The pool was eliminated and thereby the duality of the child's position is no longer recognized.  Finally, a cross was inserted for little Dismas to hold.  It is not known for certain, but experts believe that the cross was added at a much later date.  And so, rather than serve to clarify the figure of Dismas, the addition of the cross became a source of confusion.  St. Dismas is mistaken for St. John the Baptist, and a cloud of perplexity has been cast over the entire scene, leaving everyone to wonder how the painting could possibly be a depiction of the Immaculate Conception.

An argument may still be made that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, meaning that Mary was immaculate from the moment of her conception in the womb of St. Anne, is still not shown in either painting.  Indeed, this is true; there is no representation of Our Lady's formation.  However, the infallible doctrine also teaches that because of her Immaculate Conception, because of her exalted position as the Mother of God, she possesses the fullness of sanctifying grace, all the infused virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Leonardo chose to exhibit her attributes rather than the moment of her own conception.

In both paintings, the position of the Blessed Virgin is highly significant.  Her hand comforts, but it also directs little Dismas.  As she was instrumental in bringing about his bodily cure in infancy, she would later serve to bring about his spiritual cure, his repentance.  On Calvary, the Blessed Mother, her heart pierced with a sword of sorrow, stood at the foot of the Cross of her Divine Son, but she also stood at the foot of the cross of Dismas.  The Immaculate Conception, in spite of her grief, and through the strength of her presence and prayers, was a source of comfort and guidance to Dismas in his last agony.

I don't know about you, but I found this account beautifully compelling.  There is more to the essay, but this excerpt is already far too long for a blog post.  Perhaps The Virgin of the Rocks should be the "official" painting of the movement to declare the fifth Marian dogma:  Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of all Graces, and Advocate. 

O Mary, conceived without original sin, pray for us sinners who have recourse to thee!


Fr. Andrew said...


Beautiful. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting! This connection is also made in the current edition of the Roman Martyrology, which lists the good thief on the same day as the Annunciation.

ATW said...

Fascinating post. The subtlety in the original painting is magnificent.

Thanks for posting this.