Leonardo da Vinci art: 10 best paintings and sketches, from the Mona Lisa to The Last Supper

Lizzie Thomson
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Leonardo da Vinci art: 10 best paintings and sketches, from the Mona Lisa to The Last Supper

From the Mona Lisa to The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci's artworks are some of the best known in the world.

The artist was one of the most creative minds of the Italian Renaissance, with a passion for not just art, but invention, architecture and science too.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of his death and to honour the artist the Queen’s Gallery has opened the largest exhibition of Da Vinci’s work in more than 50 years. The show brings together 200 of his greatest drawings, highlighting his varied interests.

To mark da Vinci's big year, we’ve rounded up 10 of his best artworks.

Mona Lisa

(Chris Radburn-Pool/Getty Images)

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which lives in the Louvre, is probably the world's most famous painting. Museum visitors are often surprised at the size of the piece when they come face-to-face with it — it’s a lot smaller than other Renaissance masterpieces, coming in at just 77 cm by 53 cm. It was painted between 1503-1519, and is unsurprisingly one of the most visited - and most expensive - paintings in the world. While there is wide speculation on the identity of the model, many critics believe it to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. The detailed face shows off Da Vinci’s talent for shading, and is celebrated for the fact the subject's eye follows the viewer no matter where you stand in the room.

The Last Supper

(MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

This 15th century mural is Da Vinci’s visual interpretation of the last "supper" between Jesus and his disciples — an event documented in the Gospels of the Bible. At this point in the artist's career, he had no experience working on large paintings or murals, so painted it straight onto dry plaster (rather than wet plaster). As a result the piece has not stood the test of time — in fact, it’s thought very little of the original actually remains. Three of his students made copies of the piece, one of which can be found at the Royal Academy. It’s thought to have taken him three years to finish, and a number of mysteries remain around the work — with contemporary writers such as Dan Brown suggesting the figure to Jesus' right is actually Mary Magdalene.

Vitruvian Man

(GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Vitruvian Man is Da Vinci's own reflection on human proportion and architecture. Drawn around 1487, it depicts a man with arms and legs apart simultaneously and is accompanied by notes on the work of Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio. The scientific sketch, drawn with pen and ink on paper, explores proportions and is believed to be an attempt to illustrate Pollio’s theories.

Salvator Mundi​

(Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Christie's Auction House)

Da Vinci’s piece Salvator Mundi broke the record for the most expensive painting ever sold , going at auction for $450.3 million at Christie’s in New York back in November 2017. The costly painting depicts Jesus in Renaissance attire making a cross symbol with one hand and holding an orb in the other. Despite its price tag, questions remain about the painting’s authenticity as, unlike the Mona Lisa, the work is not universally recognised by Da Vinci scholars as being a true original.

Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk

(MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

This piece is widely accepted to be a self portrait of Da Vinci. It’s thought the artist drew it at the age of 60, although historians and scholars still dispute the true identity of the model. Da Vinci would have been around 60 at the time of this drawing and many critics argue the man in the work looks much older than this. Painted around 1512 using chalk, the piece was created using incredibly fine intricate lines. It currently hangs in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin.

The Virgin on the Rocks

(JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)

This artwork, also referred to as The Madonna of the Rocks, is actually the name of two paintings by Da Vinci, both on the same subject. The earlier work, and the one considered to be the prime version, hangs in the Louvre in Paris, while the other is in London’s National Gallery. Both show Madonna, Jesus and John the Baptist as children alongside an angel with rocky surroundings. The two pieces stand more than six feet tall.

Lady with an Ermine

(CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

The subject of this work is Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza — who was the Duke of Milan at the time. It’s thought Gallerani was around 16 years old when this piece was painted. Lady with an Ermine is one of four portraits of women by Da Vinci, and echoes the Mona Lisa with its three-quarter length focus. Research shows the artist painted this work in three stages — the first had no animal, the second had a small grey stoat and the last with the familiar large white creature.

Head of a Woman

(Alfredo Dagli Orti/REX)

The Head of a Woman is an unfinished portrayal of a woman with wild hair, which explains its nickname "La Scapigliata", which translates as "dishevelled hair". The softness of the subject’s face contrasts to her unruly barnet — showing the woman to be both beautiful and free. It also shows the dynamic style of Da Vinci, with both loose sketching and controlled detailing in one piece.

Ginevra de’ Benci

(Shutterstock / Everett - Art)

Painted around 1474-1476, this piece is a portrait of the 16-year-old Florentine woman​ Ginevra de' Benci. It’s thought the work was painted to commemorate either her marriage or engagement to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini. Ginevra was known for her intelligence and her beauty and had many admirers who wrote poetry in her honour. Much like the Mona Lisa, the expression of the female subject remains elusive. Many critics believe Da Vinci wanted to capture more than just beauty in his works — something that can be seen by the Latin motto "Virtutem Forma Decorat" ("beauty adorns virtue") on the reverse, emphasising both her aesthetic and goodness.

The Virgin and Child with St Anne

(Photo by Alinari/REX)

This piece of St. Anne, her daughter the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, is thought to have been originally commissioned by King Louis XII of France following the birth of his daughter Claude in 1499, but was never delivered to him because Da Vinci took too long on it. Originally the piece featured John the Baptist but sketches show he was replaced by a lamb as the piece developed. Critics believe the animal to be a symbol of innocence and of Jesus' sacrifice for humanity.