For Our Lady of the Rocks, by Leonardo Da Vinci

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1848
Rhyme: abbaabbacdedec
Meter: iambic
Genre: sonnet
Sources of the Work:
Pictorial Object: The Virgin of the Rocks (1503-1506)
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Location: National Gallery (London)


◦ Boos, The Poetry of DGR, 126-128

◦ Stein, Ritual of Interpretation, 132

◦ Wilson, “Leonardo Landscape in DGR”, (1978), 149-160


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1881 Poems First Edition text.

Scholarly Commentary


Behind this sonnet stands the famous Pauline text ( 1 Corinthians 13:12): “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face”. DGR uses this text to construct a statement about art as a “glass” through which one may attempt to represent, and view, the “occult” order of things that are the ground of a religious experience. In DGR's reading, the picture is an occult construction, all of its representational forms “dark” and “difficult”.

It is important to see how obliquely DGR represents the Virgin's face, which focuses the energies of Leonardo's painting. Not that she is scanted by DGR, but his poem concentrates its attention on the other elements. The paradoxical result is to heighten our sense of the Virgin's importance, as if to draw out our imaginations to an effort to understand her place in this ominous scene.

Placed as it is, at the head of the final section of the 1870 Poems (the Sonnets for Pictures), the poem inevitably recalls the first poem in the volume, The Blessed Damozel. That bibliographical rhyme urges the reader to read this text, and its Madonna figure, in the context of the book as a whole, where the Beloved Woman —with all her symbolic meanings—is the organizing focus of attention.

Textual History: Composition

In 1869 DGR said that he wrote the sonnet “in front of the picture in Brit: Inst: many years ago” (Fredeman, Correspondence 69.139 ); WMR dates the work 1848 (1911).

Textual History: Revision

The sonnet was not revised in the long proof process that culminated in the publication of the 1870 Poems.

Printing History

The sonnet was first published in the 1870 Poems; it was first printed in August 1869 in the Penkill Proofs, where it appeared—as now—at the head of the Sonnets for Pictures section.


The picture is not the one in the Louvre, but in the National Gallery in London, as DGR's reference to “that outer sea” makes clear (in the Louvre version that compelling moment in the London painting is hardly discernible). Needless to say, DGR's interpretation of the work is highly idiosyncratic, but quite in line with his general inclination, especially in the years 1848-1850, to give a programmatic turn to much of what he wrote and painted.

Subjective as is DGR's response, however, it follows Vasari more closely than one might expect: in the Lives of the Painters Vasari comments that Leonardo's genius culminated in paintings “so dark, that [...] his pictures had rather the character of things made to represent an effect of night, than the clear quality of daylight” (Vasari, Lives [1996], vol. I, p. 630 ). That Leonardesque gloom is recaptured as DGR's “darkness of the end” and given an explicit symbolic resonance.

DGR's reading of Leonardo also has much in common with Pater's famous essay in The Renaissance. This connection underscores the importance of Pater's seminal essay on DGR's work (Pater, "DGR," Appreciations ).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 5-1848.raw.xml