Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London.
Detail of Virgin of the Rocks, the National Gallery, London. 

Leonardo da Vinci always impressed on his students the importance of depicting nature accurately. He wrote: “Painter, you should know that you cannot be good if you are not a master universal enough to imitate with your art every kind of natural form.” Indeed, his own paintings and drawings of the natural world are as scientifically accurate as beautiful.

Five centuries on, scientists and art historians are trying to work out to what extent Leonardo had a hand in both versions of Virgin of the Rocks – the one in the Louvre, in Paris, and the replica in the  National Gallery in London.

Doubts have long been cast over whether the Renaissance master made the London painting. Until 2010, the  the National Gallery  thought it was the work of assistants, but, after restoring it, declared it possible that Leonardo painted all of the picture himself. Now, analysis of the vegetation and geology in the landscape around the central figures is reviving the debate.

Detail of plants in the London version of Virgin of the Rocks.

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