Leonardo – An Immersive Experience at the National Gallery

We’ve just returned from “Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece” at the National Gallery. We are huge fans of this bedrock of the British museum scene.

One of the things we like a lot about it is that the standing collection with all the masterpieces is free. This usually includes Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. So why, you might ask, would anyone in their right mind pay an exorbitant £20 per person (we paid £10 using our National Art Pass) to see something that they can normally see for free? £20 to see one single painting? If the standing collection charged admission at the same rate, then the tickets would be £5,000 a pop. What?!! Well, the idea is that you pay for an immersive experience, kind of get into Leonardo’s head and the heads of the people that discovered this painting’s secrets.

Fifteen years after a hidden drawing beneath Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks was discovered, you are metaphorically donning your lab coat, taking out your magnifying glass, tweezers, and goat hair brush to uncover more of the mystery.

There are two versions of the painting. It is the later version from the first decade of the 16th Century that found its way into the halls of the Gallery in 1880. The work on the first version started the year before Columbus set foot on the Bahamas, eight long years after it had been commissioned by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan. It would be years before the work was going to be finished. Leonardo was famous for taking his time. He finished fewer than 20 paintings during his lifetime. (In his defence, they are all pretty decent, and, depending on definition, he kept busy inventing the helicopter, the airplane, the car, the bicycle, scuba diving, the parachute, the robot, and, of course, the machine gun.)




Unfortunately, the religious bunch failed to come up with the kind of dosh that secures the services of the world’s most brilliant universal genius of all time. As a result the first version went straight to an extremely wealthy and equally generous private art collector and can today be found in the Louvre, a few yards away from La Gioconda. Not willing to risk his luck with the godly ladies, Signore da Vinci did take his time, but in the end came up with the second version of the painting, which he sold to the lay order for the small change they were offering.

It was in 2005 that a team of scientists examined the second Virgin, hoping to find an underdrawing. Instead they found a completely different design under the paint, using a technique called infrared reflectography: the drawing was also depicting Mary, but in a much different pose and setting. While both versions of the painting were intially on wooden panel, the Louvre version was transferred to canvas, because the wood had started to rot.



More than a dozen years later in early 2019, after many months of cutting-edge research, more of these details have been revealed. Hyperspectral imaging (HSI) made it possible for the first time to give clearer images of the drawing.

The second version of the painting is not simply a reproduction of the original composition, but instead it shows Leonardo’s development as an artist. The lighting effects are much more sophisticated, based on many years of research into the physiology of human vision and optics. A National Gallery exhibition eight years ago showed both versions of the painting next to each other.

The painting with the two versions has been at the centre of a myriad of conspiracy theories over the years. The Paris version even pops up in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and the Hollywood re-enactment of it. It is being interpreted by Tom Hanks alias Robert Langdon as a secret allegory of the master’s contempt for the church, complete with a reversal of the roles of Christ and Madonna, a range of phallic rock formations and even a concealed scene of occult decapitation where Mary holds up an invisible head for the angel Uriel to cut off with his dagger-like fingers.

More than a century earlier, writers like Walter Pater and John Ruskin claimed to find evidence of Leonardo’s homosexuality and decadence in the painting. The pointing angel, with full hair and enticing eyes, was seen as androgynous character, perhaps a proxy for Leonardo himself.


There has been an outright craze of immersive art experiences and most art critics have received it with little appreciation or even only basic civility. A Van Gogh thingy is currently doing the rounds, where huge projections of the one-eared man’s seminal works are being beamed over walls, floors, and ceilings. Even the usually level-headed Louvre is doing a “Mona Lisa – Beyond the Glass” virtual reality tour. Apparently it is so realistic that some people left it screaming, because they thought they were about to fall off a rock cliff depicted in the fake reality.

Ms B and I didn’t mind the more restrained and conventional Leonardo show too much, as a matter of fact, Ms B was more or less completely bought in. It is hard to see why 59 Productions, the company behind the video design used for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, was paid a cool one million quid to set up five rooms with a bit of digital hotchpotch, but even I have to admit it was fun.


The opening room creates a pixelated outdoor landscape out of metal boxes, interspersed with the big guy’s artwork and quotes, and with a background sound of water flowing over rocks.

From there you walk into the small central hall, which doesn’t contain any exhibits or gimmicks, and simply serves to access the remaining four exhibition rooms.

Room #2 is a replica of the Gallery’s research lab, in my view by far the most interesting room, quite atmospheric. I particularly liked how the light and the digital projections slowly but constantly change. It is here that you learn more about the drawing under the paint and how the second version differs from the first one. Perhaps I would have appreciated more information and more detail.

The next room explores Leonardo’s focus on shadow and light. The chiaroscuro effects (starkly contrasted light and shade) are part of his unique signature. Among others, you can look at objects in glass trays and adjust the strength of half a dozen lights inside the respective trays in order to get a feel for how the changing light affects the way the objects present themselves to the eye of the observer. There is also a projection of the masterpiece where the lighting of the painted scene changes as if it were real life and not canvas. Pretty cool effects.

The penultimate room is dark and black and involves rotating gold-coloured projections of the San Francesco Maggiore church in Milan in which the Confraternity had a chapel where the painting once hung. Some half-way decent visual effects, nothing too out of the ordinary, though.

The final room contains a digital recreation of the altar with the Gallery’s original second version of The Virgin of the Rocks. This by itself probably would have done the job for me, to be frank.

Would it not be for Ms B’s very positive vote, I probably would have given this exhibition a 2.75 out of 5, but happy to change it to a 3.5 out of 5, after all she represents the younger generation in our relationship, so I better listen to her.

Looking for more posts about art exhibitions? Check out our posts about Banksy’s Dismaland, Picasso at the National Portrait Gallery just next-door, or Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy.

We also wrote about Porto, Nuremberg, the Cotswolds, and Canterbury.

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