Madonna of the Yarnwinder

The Madonna of the Yarnwinder (Italian: Madonna dei Fusi, "Madonna of the Spindles")[1] is a subject depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in at least one, and perhaps two paintings begun in 1499 or later. Leonardo was recorded as being at work on one such picture in Florence in 1501 for Florimond Robertet, a secretary to King Louis XII of France. This may have been delivered to the French court in 1507, though scholars are divided on this point. The subject is known today from several versions of which two, called the Buccleuch Madonna and the Lansdowne Madonna, are thought to be partly by Leonardo's hand. The underdrawings of both paintings show similar experimental changes made to the composition (or pentimenti), suggesting that both evolved concurrently in Leonardo's workshop.

Red chalk study by Leonardo

The composition shows the Virgin Mary seated in a landscape with the Christ child, who gazes at a niddy-noddy used to collect spun yarn. The niddy-noddy serves both as a symbol of Mary's domesticity and as a foreshadowing of the Cross on which Christ was crucified. The painting's dynamic composition and the implied narrative were highly influential on later High Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Child by artists such as Raphael and Andrea del Sarto.


Madonna of the Yarnwinder
(The Buccleuch Madonna)
ArtistAttributed to Leonardo da Vinci and another artist
TypeOil on walnut
Dimensions48.3 cm × 36.9 cm (19.0 in × 14.5 in)
LocationScottish National Gallery, Edinburgh (on long-term loan from the Duke of Buccleuch’s collection)
OwnerRichard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch

The earliest reference to a painting of this subject by Leonardo is in a letter of 14 April 1501 by Fra Pietro da Novellara, the head of the Carmelites in Florence, to Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua. Leonardo had recently returned to his native city following the French invasion of Milan in 1499; the intervening years he had spent first in Isabella's court, during which brief stay he produced a cartoon (now in the Louvre) for a portrait of her, and then in Venice. Isabella was determined to get a finished painting by Leonardo for her collection, and to that end she instructed Fra Pietro, her contact in Florence, to press Leonardo into agreeing to a commission. Two letters of reply by the friar survive. In the second, written after he had succeeded in meeting with the artist, he writes that Leonardo has become distracted by his mathematical pursuits and is busy working on a small painting for Florimond Robertet, which he goes on to describe:

"The little picture which he is doing is of a Madonna seated as if she were about to spin yarn. The Child has placed his foot on the basket of yarns and has grasped the yarn-winder and gazes attentively at four spokes that are in the form of a cross. As if desirous of the cross he smiles and holds it firm, and is unwilling to yield it to his Mother who seems to want to take it away from him."[2]

The passage is valuable for being one of the few descriptions by a contemporary viewer of a work by Leonardo; it matches the composition of the Buccleuch and Lansdowne Madonnas in all respects except that there is no basket in either painting.[3] Robertet's painting was probably commissioned late in 1499 just before Leonardo left Milan, and was possibly begun there.

Scholars disagree on whether Robertet received his painting or not. In January 1507 Francesco Pandolfini, the Florentine ambassador to the French court in Blois, reported that “a little picture by [Leonardo’s] hand has recently been brought here and is held to be an excellent thing”.[4] The Madonna does not, however, appear in a posthumous inventory of Robertet's collection made in 1532 (though the authenticity of the inventory has been called into question).[3] One hypothesis holds that it passed from Robertet's collection into that of the French king, thus explaining its absence from the inventory. It is unclear, however, why it would have left the royal collection.[5]

In 1525 two inventories were drawn up of the possessions of Leonardo's assistant and heir Salaì, who died the preceding year. These mention a “Madonna with a Child in her Arms”. This is thought to be evidence that one of the prime versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder remained in Leonardo's possession while the other was sent to Robertet.[6]

Neither of the paintings accepted as prime versions has a provenance that can be traced back to Robertet or Salaì, or further back than the 18th century, though the Buccleuch Madonna was in France at that time. However, the Lansdowne Madonna could easily have been bought by its earliest known owners from a French collection in the period following the French Revolution, when many works with a French aristocratic provenance were bought by British collectors.[7]


The Lansdowne Madonna (left) and the Buccleuch Madonna (right) at the monumental 2019–2020 exhibition Léonard de Vinci of the Louvre.

The composition of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder shows the Christ child twisting his body away from his mother's embrace, his eye caught by her niddy-noddy whose arms (crosspieces) give it the shape of a cross; he precociously recognises it as a symbol of his destiny. The Virgin's reaction is ambiguous, a mixture of alarm at the harm her son will come to and resigned acceptance of it. The gesture of suspense made with her right hand is repeated from Leonardo's Milanese altarpiece The Virgin of the Rocks. The use of a symbol of the Passion as an object of childish play recurs throughout Leonardo's paintings, appearing for instance in the Benois Madonna and the Virgin and Child with St Anne.[3] The depiction of the Virgin spinning also alludes to her antitype, Eve, who was sometimes portrayed spinning wool after her expulsion from Paradise, accompanied by her infant sons Cain and Abel. The iconography therefore recalls humanity's fall, its ensuing travails and its redemption through Christ's sacrifice.[8]

As with later works by Leonardo, the figures appear in a vast unpopulated landscape. The rocky outcrop in the foreground of the Buccleuch Madonna is painted with a minute attention to geological detail. A major difference between the Buccleuch and Lansdowne Madonnas is in their background landscapes. Whereas the background of the Buccleuch version is a watery landscape indifferently painted, that of the Lansdowne Madonna has a dramatic mountain range far more typical of Leonardo. It has been proposed that this is a specific location in the valley of the river Adda, as it runs from Lecco to Vaprio, an area familiar to Leonardo and which he mapped.[9] It is possible that the landscape of the former picture was added by a pupil after Leonardo failed to complete the work.[10] For Martin Kemp the “late” character of the landscape in the Lansdowne Madonna suggests that it was the later painting to be completed and that the Buccleuch Madonna was the one sent to Robertet in 1507.[11]

The underdrawings of both the Buccleuch and Lansdowne Madonnas show several features not in the finished works, but present in some copies; it is likely that these were originally copied from the prime versions during an early stage of the composition's development. One such feature, which appears in both underdrawings, is a group of figures identified as Saint Joseph making a baby walker for the Christ child, who appears with his mother[12] and another female figure, probably a midwife.[13] It has also been suggested that the child learning to walk is the infant John the Baptist, appearing with his mother Saint Elizabeth, as Leonardo would have been unlikely to depict the figures of Mary and Christ twice in the same painting.[14] Leonardo also experimented with including some kind of beast of burden – a horse, ass or ox – which appears in different positions in the two underdrawings. Behind these an architectural structure with an arched opening was planned. At a later stage the landscape of the Buccleuch picture seems to have had a bridge like that of the Lansdowne Madonna, which was then painted over.[15]

Buccleuch Madonna


The version of this painting often regarded as the most likely to be by Leonardo is now in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, on loan from the Duke of Buccleuch. It hung in his ancestral home in Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, until it was stolen in 2003. It entered the Buccleuch collection in 1767, with the marriage of the 3rd Duke to Lady Elizabeth Montagu, the heiress to a substantial collection of works assembled by her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Montagu. This Madonna of the Yarnwinder was bought at auction in Paris in 1756 from a sale of the collection of Marie-Joseph duc d’Hostun et de Tallard, its earliest documented owner.[16]

Theft and recovery


In 2003 the Buccleuch Madonna was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle by two thieves posing as tourists, who said "Don't worry love, we're the police. This is just practice" to two tourists from New Zealand as they exited through a window carrying the Leonardo.[17] In 2007 a Chartered Loss Adjuster acting for the Duke of Buccleuch's insurers was contacted by an English lawyer, who claimed that he could arrange for the painting's return within 72 hours. The lawyer, Marshall Ronald of Skelmersdale, Lancashire, was visited by two undercover policemen who posed as an art expert and an agent for the Duke. The painting was then taken to a lawyer's office in Glasgow;[18] this was raided by police officers from four anti-crime agencies during a meeting of five people. Four arrests were made, including of two solicitors from different firms. The Scotsman, describing the Glasgow firm as "one of the country's most successful and respected law firms", quoted a source as saying their arrested member "was not involved in any criminal act, but was acting as a go-between for two parties by scrutinizing a contract which would have allowed an English firm to 'secure legal repatriation' of the painting from an unidentified party."[19][20][21]

The 9th Duke of Buccleuch never lived to see the Madonna's recovery as he had died unexpectedly only a month beforehand.[22] The painting was lent to the National Gallery of Scotland (now the Scottish National Gallery) in Edinburgh in 2009,[23] and remains on display there as of 2020.[24] In 2010 Ronald was cleared of the charge of holding the Duke to ransom; in 2013 he mounted legal action against the 10th Duke and the Chief Constable of Dumfries and Galloway, demanding a reward of £4.25 million, which he claims he was promised in the meeting with the undercover policemen six years earlier.[18] In 2015, the judge, Lord Brailsford, ruled these "arrangements were no more than a scheme designed and controlled by the police in an attempt to obtain the return of the stolen property" and rejected Ronald's claim against the Duke, who said "my involvement in supporting the 'sting' operation which involved an undercover police officer was entirely at the request of and under the direction of the police".[25]

Lansdowne Madonna

Madonna of the Yarnwinder
(The Lansdowne Madonna)
ArtistAttributed to Leonardo da Vinci and another artist
TypeOil on panel (transferred to canvas and later re-laid on panel)
Dimensions50.2 cm × 34.6 cm (19.8 in × 13.6 in)
LocationPrivate collection, United States

The painting sometimes considered the second prime version of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder takes its name from the Marquesses of Lansdowne, who owned it in the 19th century. John Henry Petty, then Earl Wycombe and later the 2nd Marquess of Lansdowne, bought it some time in or before 1809, possibly from the Earl of Darnley.[26] It is first recorded in a sale of the Dowager Marchioness of Lansdowne's collection in 1833, from which it was withdrawn.[27] The painting remained in her family until 1879, when her daughter sold it to Cyril Flower, later Lord Battersea.[28] In 1908 the Madonna was bought from his widow by the Paris-based art dealers Nathan Wildenstein and René Gimpel. They consulted Bernard Berenson, the leading connoisseur of the day, on the attribution in 1909; he confirmed an earlier attribution to il Sodoma but thought that Leonardo had been responsible up to the cartoon stage.[29] During restoration work in around 1911 the painting was transferred to canvas and several alterations were made, most significantly the removal of a loincloth covering the Child's genitals and the fingers of the Virgin's left hand.[30]

The painting was bought as a Sodoma in 1928 by Robert Wilson Reford, a Canadian industrialist and shipping magnate.[31] In the 1930s it underwent X-ray and ultraviolet examination for the first time, led by a team which included the art historian Wilhelm Suida.[30] He concluded that the Christ child and the landscape were by Leonardo and the remainder was by a Milanese pupil.[32] During a loan to the New York World's Fair in 1939 the painting was damaged and further restoration work had to be undertaken.[33] Reford's family put it up for auction in 1972, but by then the attribution had reverted to Sodoma, inevitably resulting in a lower price than had it been accepted as a Leonardo. It was bought back by Wildenstein & Company, who arranged for it to be transferred a second time, this time onto a composite panel, in 1976.[34] They sold the Madonna (as a Leonardo) to its current owner, an anonymous private collector, in 1999.[35]

Influence and copies


Nearly forty versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder made by pupils and followers of Leonardo survive today.[36] Many show elements which were discarded as the prime version, or versions, evolved over a long period of time. Some include the figure group in the middle ground visible in the Buccleuch and Lansdowne underdrawings; others show the basket of wool described by Fra Pietro da Novellara, though to Christ's side rather than beneath his foot. Eight paintings, including the copy in the Louvre, show a different kind of rocky outcrop in the foreground from those in the prime versions; many of these are probably by Lombard Leonardeschi.[37] Some artists elaborated on Leonardo's composition with the addition of still lives or extra figures.[38]

The Madonna of the Yarnwinder’s composition was especially popular in Spain, where it might have been brought over by Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina or Hernando de los Llanos (whose name also appears as Fernando de Llanos). Both painters were trained in Florence in the first years of the 16th century, and either might be the “Ferrando spagnolo” mentioned as a pupil of Leonardo when the master was working on the fresco of the Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo della Signoria in 1505.[39]

List of copies

From left: Private collection, Madrid; Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh; private collection (formerly Chicago)
From left: Louvre, Paris; Museo Soumaya, Mexico City; Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford.

See also





  1. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 16
  2. ^ Kemp 1989, pp. 273–5
  3. ^ a b c Syson et al. 2011, p. 294
  4. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 50
  5. ^ Syson et al. 2011, p. 296
  6. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 13
  7. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 186
  8. ^ Clayton 2006, p. 30.
  9. ^ Pezzutto, Donato (24 October 2012). "Leonardo's Landscapes as Maps". OPUSeJ. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  10. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 81
  11. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 57
  12. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 33 for the Buccleuch Madonna
  13. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 75
  14. ^ Penny, Nicholas (August 1992). "Leonardo's Madonna of the Yarnwinder. Edinburgh. National Gallery of Scotland". The Burlington Magazine. 134 (1073): 542–544. JSTOR 885186. (subscription required)
  15. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, pp. 105–6
  16. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 172
  17. ^ Seenan, Gerard (29 December 2003). "Thieves steal priceless art 'for status, not profit'". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2011.
  18. ^ a b Cramb, Auslan (8 February 2013). "Former lawyer sues duke for £4.2m 'reward' over stolen Leonardo". The Telegraph. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  19. ^ "Lawyer arrested as £37m stolen Madonna painting is found by police". The Scotsman. 5 October 2007. Retrieved 27 December 2011.
  20. ^ Times online, October 5th, 2007
  21. ^ "Arrests after da Vinci work found". BBC News. 4 October 2007. Retrieved 27 December 2011.
  22. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 104
  23. ^ "Stolen Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece back on display". BBC News. 17 December 2009. Retrieved 27 December 2011.
  24. ^ "The Madonna of the Yarnwinder | National Galleries of Scotland". Retrieved 2020-08-15.
  25. ^ "Legal action against Duke of Buccleuch over Da Vinci theft fails". BBC News. 18 June 2015. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
  26. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 167
  27. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 166
  28. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 215
  29. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 127
  30. ^ a b Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 133
  31. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 216
  32. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, pp. 216–7
  33. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 136
  34. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 137
  35. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 139
  36. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 193
  37. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 198
  38. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, pp. 202–3
  39. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 206
  40. ^ a b c Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 196
  41. ^ "Sale 2135 / Lot 6: After Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna of the Yarnwinder". Christie’s. 2009. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  42. ^ a b c Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 197
  43. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 207
  44. ^ "Rest during the Flight to Egypt". Web Gallery of Art. Retrieved 5 November 2012.
  45. ^ a b c d Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 201
  46. ^ Alexander, Harriet (20 February 2011). "Carlos Slim's Museo Soumaya: 'All desirable things must be accessible'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 27 January 2013.
  47. ^ a b Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 199
  48. ^ Howard, Lisa. "Madonna of the Yarnwinder". National Inventory of Continental European Paintings. VADS. Archived from the original on 12 February 2015. Retrieved 27 January 2013.
  49. ^ Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 202
  50. ^ a b Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 205
  51. ^ a b c d Kemp & Wells 2011, p. 209
  52. ^ "Marco Horak – Il mistero della Madonna dei fusi". Panorama Musei: Rivista Ufficiale dell’Associazione Piacenza Musei (in Italian). December 2010. Retrieved 11 February 2013.



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