Art restoration is the unraveling of a mystery: how did the artist do it, what did he do, and what instrument did he use to do it with?
At the Louvre, an exhibition devoted to the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci's great The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is like a visual police procedural. It examines Leonardo's intentions, motivations, first attempts and final realization of his painting, using preparatory drawings, drafts and contemporary versions created by artists working in Leonardo's studio, as well as paintings created by other artists as homage to Leonardo.
The exhibition attempts not only to show the evolution of the painting, from drawing, to revision, to those copies by other artists, but also to justify the process of the restoration that the Louvre undertook. So the accumulation of a wealth of materials, from the Louvre itself and from other institutions, including Britain's National Gallery and the collection of Queen Elizabeth at Windsor, are used to provide an understanding of the genesis of the painting – from its shifting iconography and Leonardo's painting techniques – to the scientific analyses the restorers used to determine the state of the work and the best way in which to repair it.
The exhibition also traces the history of the painting, from conception to legacy. At one point, scholars had thought that The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne was the work of Leonardo's studio, rather than the master himself, but seeing the many copies of the work along the walls that lead up to the glorious, restored original, you have to wonder if scholars had eyes to see, considering that the Leonardo original could really not have been painted by anyone else. Even the greatest copies, or paintings done in the wake of the Leonardo original, such as Raphael's magnificent Virgin and Infant Jesus with the Baby Jean the Baptist, known as "La Belle Jardinière," have little of Leonardo's particular style.
Leonardo, a famous perfectionist who rarely finished his works, labored over The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne for two decades. His efforts are visible in the many drawings that display different poses for the infant Jesus, different and shifting hair and veil for the Virgin Mary and her mother, different figures within the scene. Leonardo famously replaced the John the Baptist figure (as a boy) with a lamb whose leg is tangled with that of Jesus: a prefiguring of Jesus' sacrifice, and in the figure of the sacrificial lamb a symbol of sacrifice and the message of peace from the adult Jesus.
Viewers and visitors will certainly be familiar with the picture, as it is one of the most recognizable in Western art. Mary, seated on her mother's lap, reaches down toward her son, who's playing with the lamb. The picture has a strong downward diagonal from the human grandmother to mother of God to the god and man in one, from heaven to earth, as if to emphasize the mortality of Jesus and the heavenly directive of his mission. From the drawings, and from the great Burlington House cartoon on loan from the National Gallery, you can see how Leonardo shifted with the grouping of the figures. In the drawing from the National Gallery, Mary seems to be seated on her mother's lap, but the two women are regarding each other, and Mary's head is inclined toward her child who gives a blessing to the figure of John, who leans inclined toward her child.
The triangular grouping of the final painting as a kind of trinity symbol has a powerful radiating force: a geometric rendering of a tenet of faith. Jesus as savior is made implicit rather than explicit, and his playing with the lamb emphasizes his humanity rather than his divinity.
This is evident to anyone who's seen these works before. What's new is the restored painting, suddenly so luminous (and doubly so next to the cartoon from the National Gallery, which hangs to its left here). Mary's gown – the shape of which was wrongly misinterpreted as a vulture by Freud in one of his most famous essays – gleams, the lapis lazuli blue radiating from the center of the frame, the sky on earth, heaven made tangible.
The exhibition builds suspense as you walk through it, first encountering the early drawings in which Leonardo explored facets of his figures – their torsos, legs, neck, hair, clothing – then the various copies made during the time that Leonardo painted his work, and copies made around the time it was "finished" (if it ever actually was). One particularly beautiful drawing is a haunting, ethereal study for the head of Saint Anne, from Windsor Castle.
Leonardo da Vinci, Sainte Anne, la Vierge et l’Enfant jouant avec un agneau dit La Sainte Anne, Vers 1503-1519, Huile sur bois (peuplier), H. 168,4 ; L. 112 cm (1,299 m avec agrandissements latéraux); Paris, musée du Louvre, département des Peintures, INV. 776, APRÈS RESTAURATION © RMN, musée du Louvre / René Gabriel Ojéda
At the end of the long gallery you find, at first half-hidden by a wall, the restored Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, as if it were the solution to a particularly arduous puzzle. By the time you get up to it, and can see closely the restorers' work (which, to my not over-critical art-historian eyes looks good), you've become quite familiar with the images that Leonardo set out into the world with this painting. You feel you know the painting well; but this being a painting by Leonardo, even its refurbished gleam leaves you puzzled as to intent: there's a mystery, always, to the faces. He conveys a world of withheld thought in the half-smile of everyone he paints.
Just beyond the restored work is a wall of scientific explanation, with details about how the restorers went about their difficult task. There are also reproductions of images that were discovered on the reverse of the Saint Anne; Leonardo never stopped sketching.
A small adjacent exhibition looks at the art of copying, and here you can see the restored Mona Lisa's "sister," which was found at the Prado, and which was also recently cleaned. The best thing about this copy, which was created in Leonardo's workshop at the time he himself was painting his Mona Lisa, is that you can see more clearly the background which, in the Leonardo painting, is now too dark to see under its centuries of weathered varnish.
Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916), Hommage à Léonard de Vinci. Vers 1914. Pastel sur papier. H. 145 ; l. 63 cm. Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum © Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
This exhibition also has works inspired by Leonardo's Saint Anne, including those by Odilon Redon and Degas. They illustrate the immense influence this painting has had and continues to have some half a millennium after its creation.
The exhibition is crowded, as you might expect given that it centers on Leonardo, and that it's at the Louvre. But try to go early in the day, before the masses descend, and try to walk through it slowly, trying to understand how Leonardo's genius and particular view of the human head, the human body and the representation of the numinous in the everyday, reverberates still.
(Image on top right: Leonardo da Vinci, Etude pour la tête de sainte Anne. Vers 1502- 1503. Pierre noire sur papier blanc. Windsor Castle, Royal Library, 12533. The Royal Collection © 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)