Hidden baby Jesus revealed under Leonardo da Vinci’s 'Virgin of the Rocks'

An image shows part of the Virgin on the Rocks. The hidden baby Jesus is in the right side of this frame.
An image shows part of the Virgin on the Rocks. The hidden baby Jesus is in the right side of this frame. (Image credit: The National Gallery, London)

The Leonardo da Vinci painting the "Virgin of the Rocks" was hiding another image beneath its surface: a winged baby Jesus, a new X-ray examination has revealed.

This isn't the first signal that the "Virgin of the Rocks" hid older sketches that might have led to a different masterpiece. A similar effort, using infrared light in August 2019, revealed a sketch of a different Virgin Mary posed higher in the frame, as Live Science previously reported. But this new scan of the painting using a technique called macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) —  as well as a new algorithm to interpret the data — revealed the head and wings of this unseen baby Jesus.

 "It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but such a great feeling to see the wings and head finally uncovered," Pier Luigi Dragotti, a professor at the Imperial College London's Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, said in a statement.

Related: 5 things you probably didn't know about Leonardo da Vinci

MA-XRF works by exciting individual chemical elements in the paint, causing them to faintly glitter in ways a sensitive scanner can pick up. It's been used for a bit more than a decade to study old paintings, according to a paper published March 2018 in the Microchemical Journal. The newly uncovered baby Jesus was found thanks to a new algorithm to interpret the MA-XRF data. Developed by Dragotti, it turned more of the task of hunting through huge piles of MA-XRF data over to a computer, which was able to help discern the patterns of the hidden sketches and reveal features humans might have missed.

The new scan revealed this hidden tracing of a winged baby Jesus.

The new scan revealed this hidden tracing of a winged baby Jesus. (Image credit: The National Gallery, London)

The key element that's been helpful in revealing the sketches was zinc. Da Vinci's original sketch must have used a substance that contained it. Once that feature was identified, the researchers knew what to look for in order to reveal new hidden details.

"Before, we were getting very weak signals from the zinc within the painting due to its overlap with other elements, but the algorithm has given us more confidence in the signals that relate to the underdrawing," Catherine Higgitt, a researcher at the National Gallery in London who was also responsible for the sketch's discovery, said in the statement.

It's unclear why da Vinci covered up his original sketch. This is the second time da Vinci painted a Virgin on the Rocks scene but the final painting looks much more like the original, separate painting he made than the hidden sketch did. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Rafi Letzter
Staff Writer
Rafi joined Live Science in 2017. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of journalism. You can find his past science reporting at Inverse, Business Insider and Popular Science, and his past photojournalism on the Flash90 wire service and in the pages of The Courier Post of southern New Jersey.
  • Isabella
    admin said:
    Baby Jesus and his wings are just some of the images hidden beneath da Vinci's "Virgin of the Rocks".

    Hidden baby Jesus revealed under Leonardo da Vinci’s 'Virgin of the Rocks' : Read more

    ....So, you are saying, you found Jesus?

    Really, if the "baby Jesus" has wings, it's NOT the baby Jesus. It's a cherub. They are very common in any religious painting.
  • Damany
    DaVinci obviously was not a true historian or maybe he did not read the Bible because Christ was not white but was Black! How else would He have been able to hide in Egypt whilst Herod made the order attempting to destroy Christ? If He was white he would have stood out like a sore tumorous thumb used for hitchhiking in Kemet (Egypt). Plus the Bible gives a description that does not equate to a white guy.
  • VernaS
    The image in the article looks like a winged animal of some kind. I don't see a baby. Look at the legs. I guess they should have had a few moms look at the image before announcing :-) Don't artists reuse canvas? It could have been any old painting behind that one..... not necessarily a first version.
  • jejo1950
    This looks to me like an angel watching over the baby, not baby Jesus with wings. If that's what it is, that's some beautiful imagery!
  • JoyceDill
    I majored in Art History in college and have NEVER seen the Christ Child depicted with wings. NEVER. My guess is that this was likely a preliminary sketch for something else that was subsequently painted over with the new image once the inspiration struck. To the best of my knowledge, Leonardo da Vinci NEVER depicted Christ at any age as winged. Any winged child-like depiction is obviously intended as a cherub, not as a reference to the Christ Child. Would be very interested in the sourceof the claim that this is a winged Christ Child!