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Art and Images in Psychiatry
December 2009

The Virgin of the Rocks

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Copyright 2009 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.2009

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(12):1286. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.169

Indeed, the great Leonardo remained like a child for the whole of his life. . . . it is said that all great men are bound to retain some infantile part. Even as an adult he continued to play, and this is another reason why he often appears uncanny and incomprehensible to his contemporaries.—Sigmund Freud1(p77)

In Biblical accounts when Herod, King of Judea, learned from the magi about the birth of Jesus, King of the Jews, he ordered the execution of all newly born male children in the village of Bethlehem. Mary and Elizabeth, the mothers of Jesus and John the Baptist, fled with their sons into Egypt. In The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) illustrates the first meeting of the infants Jesus and John the Baptist in a protected rocky grotto where, in the midst of their flight, they have paused to rest. The meeting is not recorded in the Christian Bible but is reported in the apocryphal book of James. Tenderly Mary protects both children. Her right arm, placed around the infant St John the Baptist, comforts him as he leans forward to make homage to the Christ child; his hands are joined together in a gesture of prayer. Mary's left hand hovers protectively over the head of her son, Jesus, as he looks toward John and raises his right hand in a gesture of benediction to bless him. The angel Uriel, who by tradition rescued John from the slaughter of the innocents, draws the viewer's attention to St John by pointing directly to him. The pool of water in the foreground of the painting may anticipate Christ's later baptism by John. Both artist and scientist, Leonardo accurately portrays the rock formations in the grotto based on his geological observations north of Milan.

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