There are around 14 Leonardo da Vinci  paintings, according to recent art history sources.  The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, boasts two of these Leonardo da Vinci paintings, Madonna with a Flower (commonly known as Benois Madonna) of 1478, and Madonna and Child (or Litta Madonna) from the 1490s.

Not surprisingly, these famous paintings attract teeming swarms of sharp-elbowed visitors (and even of art museum guides), despite the sweltering heat blanketing Russia.  Studying these Leonardo da Vinci paintings, though, is all about patience, ignoring those furtively snapping flash photos (and reminding me to discuss Large Crowd Etiquette with my teenage sons).

Benois Madonna

The Benois Madonna, one of the few paintings from the early career of Leonardo da Vinci, is a genre scene of the Madonna and Child, a topic Leonardo favored in various sketches and drawings in his earliest years as an artist.

Leonardo da Vinci.  Madonna with a Flower (Benois Madonna), 1478.  Oil on canvas transferred from panel. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Attired in fashionable clothing and a hairstyle current at the time, the Benois Madonna gazes at her baby in pure adoration while he plays with a four-petalled flower, a symbol of the Cross. The simplicity and purity of her reverence is palpable, yielding a seemingly spontaneous interaction between the two.  Leonardo used oil paints in Benois Madonna, a relatively new technique for Italian painters of the 1470s.

Madonna Litta

Over a dozen years later, Leonardo da Vinci returned to this favored theme in the Madonna Litta, probably painted in Milan; Leonardo moved there in 1482 to work for Duke Lodovico Sforza (perhaps best remembered in art history as the commissioner of The Last Supper).

In contrast to the earlier Madonna, Leonardo da Vinci presents here an idealized version in which she epitomizes ultimate maternal love and devotion for a child.  This is the humanist dream of Ideal Life, with pure love and idyllically peaceful surroundings.

The child, brilliantly modeled in chiaroscuro, is all roundness; his direct gaze lures the viewer into the painting with one of those riveting gazes that tracks with you as you move. These two famous paintings are a startling reminder that even the genius of Leonardo da Vinci evolved and changed over time.

There’s nary a peep in the Hermitage description that attribution of Madonna Litta has been questioned.

Some art history scholars contend it was at least partially painted by a talented assistant to Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466/67 – 1516).  (Ring a bell? In the tale of whether Salvator Mundi will join the ranks of authenticated Leonardo da Vinci paintings, Boltraffio is believed by some to be its creator).

Above right: Leonardo da Vinci.  Madonna and Child (Madonna Litta), 1490s.  Tempera on canvas, approximately 16″ by 13″. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Read about other Leonardo da Vinci paintings in the past art exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.

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