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Mother & Child : Da Vinci & Egypt

Updated on June 5, 2015
Isis nursing Horus - British Museum
Isis nursing Horus - British Museum

Mother and Child images have been a part of human history throughout at since Prehistoric times. It became a regular theme in Egyptian times, and has been continued through to modern day art.

Two of the biggest examples of who portrayed the Mother and Child theme was the Egyptians in their portrayal of Goddess/God and also known as Queen/female Pharaoh with her Son, Isis and Horus; and also Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mother and Child”. Da Vinci’s “Mother and Child” is also known as the “Burlington House Cartoon”; his version shows the Mother and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist.

The Burlington House Cartoon was done in the Early Renaissance period in charcoal and chalk, dates are ranging from 1499 - 1501 to another possibility of 1507-08 due to a recent restoration work done to the piece. Now located in London, England in the National Gallery; in Room 51 with Inventory number NG6337.

It’s suggested that there is an unknown patron for the Burlington House Cartoon; “ constitutes in reality as preliminary project executed around 1500 after Leonardo returned to Florence but which was finally abandoned. It is documented to be done April 1501. Production can be deducted thanks to several clues, from a description given by Fra Pietro de Novellara, who knew of it directly as well as from the existence of preparatory drawings…”(

“This large drawing is a cartoon, that is, a full-size preparatory study for a painting. Usually, in order to transfer a design onto a panel, the outlines of cartoons were pricked or incised. His example is intact. It must been preserved in its own right as a finished drawing, although some areas have deliberately been left inconclusive or in rough outline.”(Bender, Leonardo da Vinci 197 drawings) It’s done on eight sheets of paper that were glued together mounted on canvas. It’s “not perforated, missing the tiny dots which are used as a way to trace to transfer onto the final canvas. The Cartoon is different from the traditional; the chiaroscuro, the slow gradations – with everything being soft and smoky it shows a great sense of three dimension. It also shows very intimate moments between the characters – with each other; Virgin (Mother) and Anne and the Child and John. A way of looking at the Divine and Human relationship. Unification was also very important to Leonardo; it looks as he looked at classical sculpture as an example.” (Harris and Zucker, Smarthistory)

The Burlington House Cartoon  - Leonardo Da Vinci
The Burlington House Cartoon - Leonardo Da Vinci

St. Anne is being portrayed as another Mother in the Cartoon; the Mother of the Virgin/Mother, who is shown sitting in her lap while she holds her Child who is depicted “blessing his cousin Saint John the Baptist (the child who is on the right). Mother/Virgin in St. Anne’s lap raises questions. No one is sure of the significance of this posture. Possible cultural or traditional references are unclear with this. “This subtle yet perceptional distortion in size was utilized by Leonardo to emphasize the mother/daughter relationship between the two women despite the apparent lack of visual clues to the greater age of St. Anne that would otherwise identify her as the Mother.” (Bender, Leonardo da Vinci 197 Drawings) There is another idea that St. Anne is actually being St. Elizabeth. This comes from her age and how she seems to be related to St John intimately.

The Renaissance was a time of many changes, but changes for the good – majority of the time. Often there were some conflicts, but people overall were into broadening their horizons to use the modern term. The apprenticeship system began to take shape; with the house of Medici making a challenge to this – they felt that an artist should challenge their mind as well as train their hands to draw/paint/sculpt.

In regards to the artists and their changes, they began to make a preference for the classics, such as classical Greek, both with figures and in architecture. Leonardo took the interest in anatomy very seriously, as you can tell in looking at his works and his notebooks. This interest lead to a more accurate human (or in some cases animal) body. Elements were also borrowed from everyday life; from how people actually looked, their clothing; even landscapes.

In addition to the Neoplatonism, humanism was the backbone of these times. It was “emphasizing the potential for individual achievement and stipulating that humans were rational beings capable of truth and goodness. In keeping with the principles of humanism, Renaissance scholars celebrated the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans for their own sake, rather than for their relevance to Church doctrine.” (

Politically things were in midst of change. Italy had many city-states that had own government within them. “Florence was a republic in the sense that there was a constitution which limited the power of nobility ( as well as laborers) and ensured that no one person or group could have complete political control (so it was far from our idea of everyone voting, in fact a very small percentage of population had the vote). Political power resided in the hands of merchants, a few wealthy families (such as Strozzi and Medici) and powerful guilds.” (Smarthistory)

Religion was changing as well during this period; the strongest movement of the time was the Protestant Reformation, began by Martin Luther in Germany. “Believing that the Roman Catholic Church of his day had turned from a Biblical understanding of faith and salvation, particularly in its practice of selling indulgences, Luther posted his historic Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517, and thereby birthed religious revival across Europe. The Reformers (known as "Protestants") called Christians back to four main points: (1) Sola Scriptura, meaning "Scripture alone"; (2) Sola gratis, meaning salvation by "grace alone" apart from works; (3) Sola fides, meaning "faith alone"; and (4) The "priesthood of all believers," which contradicted the Catholic Church's belief in the pope as a human mediator between God and man. The Reformation ended in division and the establishment of new institutions, most importantly Lutheranism, the Reformed churches, and Anabaptists, a radical branch whose name means "those who baptize again".

During the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant leaders struggled to articulate the precise beliefs and practices which were believed necessary for salvation. In addition, Catholic authorities sought unsuccessfully to halt the circulation of the unauthorized Protestant translation of Scripture by William Tyndale, a translation which challenged doctrines and institutional structures central to the Catholic faith. These doctrines and structures, namely the interpretation of the ritual of the Eucharist (or the "Lord's Supper"), became contested with such intense fervor that the lives of martyrs such as Anne Askew and Robert Aske were sacrificed for their respective causes.

The Reformation also led to the Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Paul III initiated the Council of Trent, a commission of cardinals tasked with institutional reform, such as corrupt bishops and priests, indulgences, and other financial abuses. The Council clearly repudiated specific Protestant positions and upheld the basic structure of the Medieval Church, its sacramental system, religious orders, and doctrine. It rejected all compromise with the Protestants, restating basic tenants of Roman Catholicism. The Council clearly upheld the dogma of salvation appropriated by faith and works. Transubstantiation, during which the consecrated bread and wine were held to become (substantially) the blood of Christ, was upheld, along with the Seven Sacraments. Other Catholic practices that drew the ire of liberal reformers within the Church, such as indulgences, pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and relics, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary were strongly reaffirmed as spiritually vital as well. The Council of Trent solidified the rift between Catholics and Protestants, a division which would lead to the breakup of large European empires into the modern nation-state system.” (

Isis and Horus  -  Met Museum
Isis and Horus - Met Museum

On the other side of the same coin, Isis and Horus are still recognized today, and I dare say more so that Burlington House unless you are a follower of da Vinci. Not only are they still being found within dig sites in Egypt, and their hieroglyphs and temples, but they are also represented today by statues, amulets, paintings/pictures, books, tarot cards and much more. Many people follow older traditions, and will integrate them into their lives and beliefs; even mixing traditions if they so choose.

Isis is often shown sitting wearing a headdress in the shape of a throne, or a pair of cow horns with a sun disk; whereas Horus is mainly shown still nursing; on rare occasion as an older child or as an man ( in this form Isis is nursing him while standing). “Isis nursing Horus (the Pharaoh) is literally thousands of extant statues, stiles, and drawings: sitting for the infant – as is most common, or standing for the rarer boy or adult male.” (

The main question for this is Isis nursing Horus the basis for Madonna/Virgin/Mother and Child? “1. Isis suckling Horus in the papyrus swamps. 2. Thoth giving the emblem of magical protection to Isis.

3. Amen-Ra presenting the symbol of “life” to Isis 4. The Goddess Nekhebet presenting years and life, stability, power and sovereignty to the son of Osiris and 5. The Goddess Sati presenting periods of years, and life, stability, power and sovereignty to the son of Osiris.” (

As part of the myth under the XVIIIth Dynasty, Isis is a witch Goddess and protectress of Osiris. “The news of the death of Osiris was brought to Isis, and she at once set out to find his body. All legends agree in saying that she took the form of a bird, and that she flew about unceasingly, going hither and thither, and uttering wailing cries of grief. At length she found the body, and with a piercing cry she alighted on the ground. The Pyramid Texts say that Nephthys was with her, “that Isis came Nephthys came, the one on the right side, the other on the left side, one in the form of a Hat bird, the other in the form of a Tcherb bird, and they found Osiris thrown on the ground in Netat by his brother Set.”

The late form of the legend goes on to say that Isis fanned the body with her feathers and produced air, and that at length she caused the inert members if Osiris to move, and drew from him his essence, wherefrom she produced her child Horus.” (Wallis-Budge, Legends of the Egyptian Gods) There are many stories as to how Isis came about with her Child, in my opinion the difference is that we know for certain that Osiris is involved with Horus due to all the written and pictorial evidence; whereas Mother and Child in da Vinci’s version it is based on doctrine, which can be questioned depending upon views.

The statuette of Isis and Horus was done in Faience from the Macedonian-Ptolemaic period; dated 332-30BC. Its six and 11/16 in high by two in wide by three and 1/16 deep. This is a powerful symbol of rebirth – ancient conventions indicating childhood. Isis’ vulture headpiece is normally worn by Queens and Goddesses, so in being Mother is she a Mother/Queen or Mother/Goddess, bringing in the humanity/Divinity aspect. There is also a throne hieroglyph with her name on it. Horus is now wearing clothing while he is being held to her breast to nurse, a lock of his hair falls on the right side of his head, as is tradition. This was transferred to Rome, where a Cult of Isis was established.

Another figure of Isis and Horus is from North Saqqara, Egypt. Made in bronze, it stems from the Late Period – after 600 BC, with a height of 22.8 cm and a length of 14.8 cm.

This statue “shows the Divine Mother nursing her Infant. Family groups of deities became very popular in the Late Period (661-332 BC), and were placed in temples by wealthy individuals. The most important group of deities was the Triad 9 a group of three persons) of Osiris, his wife Isis and their son Horus. They represent the King of the Dead, the Divine Mother and the Living King respectively, together they were the perfect family.” (

The only time that Isis and Horus were not represented was when the Pharaoh Akhenaten know as Amenhotep IV was in power. He is famous for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism and introducing worship centered on the Aten; along with being Tutankhamun’s father. Other than his reign, they were represented in homes and temples; on walls in hieroglyphs throughout the Ancient world. They had a part in what’s known as sympathetic magic – everyone from royalty, priests and priestesses to common people said prayers and made offerings to them. When shown in the hieroglyphs, they often had twisted perspective, as was the normal depictions then; which could be found not only written on papyrus reeds, but carved into the temples themselves.

Even in being from two very different cultures, they both can have an effect on us today. In showing that the Mother and Child is something to be appreciated, no matter who is making the representation of it? Art is about showing us what we like and don’t like, evoking some sort of thought and/ or feeling from it. Many people now just buy on impulse without the consideration of what’s behind it; the true meaning if there is one. Catch is, the true meaning is different for all of us. Some of us can agree, while others can’t. There are so many ways to show them now; whether it’s being respectful and honoring tradition and making them as the Egyptians would or making them with modern techniques. I’m sure the Egyptians would be quite overwhelmed with all of our options. Mother and Child shows that this representation has and can continue to withstand the test of time.

Works Cited

Legends of the Egyptian Gods – Illustrated, Kindle edition, by E.M. Wallis-Budge, location 603

Leonardo da Vinci 197 drawings by Narim Bender, Kindle edition, pg. 222-23 speakers Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Leonardo Da Vinci: National Art Gallery Top 30


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