This painting was originally part of a large sculpted altarpiece, commissioned for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Francesco, Milan. It is in all probability the painting provided to the Confraternity in 1508 as a replacement for the earlier version commissioned in 1483, now in the Louvre, Paris.
The figures are entirely consistent with Leonardo’s style during the mid 1490s in Milan. Areas of the flesh show the finger-print technique that is widely apparent in his works before 1500. Studio intervention has been identified in subsidiary parts of the picture, and two other paintings of music-making angels which were parts of the same altarpiece, painted by Leonardo’s assistants, are also in the National Gallery, London.
As in the first version of the painting, the infant St. John the Baptist, who is Christ’s cousin, is seen on the left and might easily be mistaken for Christ, being so close to the Virgin. The cross and the scroll that he holds, which reads ECCE A(G)/NVS(DEI) (“Behold the lamb of God”) has been added by another artist to avoid confusion. St. John the Baptist joins the Virgin and the angel in adoring Christ, who is seated on the ground on the right of the picture.
Scientific examination of the painting has revealed numerous pentimenti or “small changes” to the original design in the underdrawing, such as the alteration of the position of the head and legs of the Christchild and the position of the Virgin’s left hand, which confirms that the painting was not intended to be a straightforward copy of the first version.
In this painting, the rocky outdoor setting of the earlier Louvre painting has been transformed into an enclosed grotto that gives rise to dramatic chiaroscuro effects of light and shadow, reflecting Leonardo’s intense study of the effects of light during the middle of the first decade of the sixteenth century.