The show’s central gallery is devoted to another dramatic face-off, between two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, one from the Louvre, the other from the National Gallery, united here for the first time. Both feature the Virgin Mary kneeling in a rocky grotto above the infant Christ, St John the Baptist and an angel, an arrangement that seems to cast her in the role of a tender nanny protecting her flock. Considering how similar the two compositions are, the huge difference in their impact is surprising. The Louvre’s picture is dark, smoky, sensuous, a companion in mood and tonality to the Mona Lisa. The National Gallery’s version has recently been cleaned and seems altogether brighter, paler, colder, as if painted on porcelain.
I expected the two rocky Virgins to hang side by side, but instead they occupy each end of the room, as if wishing to put as much distance as possible between themselves. It’s a situation that creates a sense of gladiatorial combat: the French approach to cleaning versus the British; the sensuous Leonardo versus the rational. I found myself preferring the Louvre’s.
The French argument that paintings should be allowed to grow old gracefully seems particularly persuasive here. It’s not that facelifts are necessarily a bad thing, just that you always notice them.
via The Sunday Times
Left, the Louvre version, and right, that of London’s National Gallery