Mona Lisa – 500 Years of Mystery

Lucille Turner, author of Gioconda, has written an intriguing article on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and tells us how the artist and his famous painting influenced her writing. Over to you, Lucille!

Gioconda-Lucille-TurnerLeonardo da Vinci was a major player in the evolution of human understanding. Few men have incarnated such a strong, early connection between art and science, and few have retained such an aura of mystery over such a long period of time. We know Leonardo best for his portrait of the Mona (Madonna) Lisa, a 500 year old icon of popular culture and myth. But why all the mystery? I asked myself this question when I first began to research the life of Leonardo da Vinci for a book I had in mind, called GIOCONDA. The answers I found made me something of a Leonardo devotee, because the man behind the painting was, in the end, the biggest mystery of all.

The first thing that struck me about the portrait was its non-delivery. Leonardo kept it closely guarded at his side for years, refusing to deliver it to the man who had commissioned it as a wedding portrait, Francesco del Giocondo. By the time the painting arrived in France in the year 1516, exactly five hundred years ago, it was quite well travelled. By then, Leonardo had worked on it for almost twenty years, layering his paint on in fine applications until the portrait gradually acquired the depth it still has today. But other things also contributed to the mystery of the Mona Lisa, and one of them became a sort of Leonardo fallacy, a “Da Vinci Code”.

Where there is mystery there is rumour, and over the years Leonardo has been accused of dabbling in many things, from sodomy to alchemy and beyond. Hardly surprising that author Dan Brown was drawn to the aura of legend that surrounded him. In ‘The Da Vinci Code’ Leonardo is said to have been a member of the Sanhedrin: an order connected to the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians. It is doubtful that he was, but history leaves the door open to the novelist, and anything is possible when there is no evidence against it. Still, there was one thing in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code that rang true to me as far as Leonardo was concerned.

The beliefs of religious orders like the Rosicrucians owe their origins to the ancient Mystery Schools and Gnosticism. The Knights Templar were originally formed as guardians of the Holy Grail: the cup that was said the have been used by Jesus during the Last Supper. In The Da Vinci Code it was the nature of the Holy Grail that caused the sensation: person not cup. The grail was therefore symbol rather than object. The link to Leonardo resided, for Dan Brown, in the theory that Leonardo’s work was rich in symbolism, or to use a Dan Brownism, that a ‘Da Vinci Code’ did in fact exist.

Before we all get out our decoders, it would be more accurate to say that Leonardo’s art contains symbols rather than codes. It could also be said that the painting of the Mona Lisa owes its fame and enduring quality to the symbolism embedded within it. We see a woman sitting on a balcony against the backdrop of a view, smiling. On the surface of it, there is nothing particularly extraordinary or symbolic about that — or is there?

Perhaps the mystery lays not so much in the woman herself as in the associations she provided. From Leonardo’s perspective, these associations form the fabric of the painting. They are the link between Lisa and her background; they are Leonardo’s particular connection between science and art.

By the time he painted the portrait of Mona Lisa, Leonardo had understood how the eye works, and peripheral vision in particular. He had also understood that the brain receives the images we see upside down, and that it corrects these images. In short, he sensed that what we see is not exactly the whole picture. Sight must be processed; the old rules of linear perspective, which had marked the art of pre-Renaissance Italy so strongly, were incorrect. The three dimensional image that we see is recreated essentially in the brain, not in the eye.

How likely would it have been that Leonardo brought all his discoveries to bear in one painting, and that the painting in question was Lisa’s portrait? Quite likely, I think. Picture, if you can, the face of the portrait. The eyes, it is said, appear to move, to look in all directions at one time. The smile, it is said, is either a smile or it is not a smile. Or is it just half a smile? As it is with the eyes in the portrait, it would seem to depend on who is looking and where they are looking at any one time. But it could also depend on how they are using their peripheral vision.

The power of peripheral vision always strikes me when I think about a juggling act. The juggler can only keep going if he uses peripheral vision. The moment he focuses on one ball, instead of all the balls at once, the spell is broken, the balls fall. Apply this to Leonardo’s portrait, and we sense the same process at work. We focus on the smile and it vanishes. We focus on the face and it reappears. We focus on the eyes, and the smile vanishes again. We step back and focus on nothing at all, and the smile is there. When Leonardo painted Lisa, was he giving us peripheral vision in a portrait? Does he force us to use our peripheral vision when we look into his painting? Many people say that when they look at Mona Lisa’s face she elicits a response. Are we then mesmerised, held in the trance of the juggler?

The idea that Leonardo has painted the secret of sight in Mona Lisa is an entrancing one, but there is more to his painting than one pretty face. There is also the background. It would have been common practice at the time to provide a simple background of drapes or flowers for a portrait, but Leonardo being what he was, preferred something a little more spectacular. It is unlikely that Lisa del Giocondo would have been aware of the mountainous, primeval landscape that was being conjured at her back when the portrait was being painted. But since Leonardo had no intention of delivering it anyway, that would not have worried him. The landscape is certainly a strange one. Rivers are being formed and mountains are being made. The slow work of time is taking place behind Mona Lisa’s back. What did Leonardo mean by it?

To understand the background, we need to see Leonardo and his painting as one complete whole. A man who is curious about everything, and especially about the connections between everything, will sooner or later produce these connections in his work. This is really what he achieved with the Mona Lisa, and it has given the painting its enduring quality and its air of almost supernatural mystery. He did not just paint a woman; he placed her in the centre of a world that he had understood better than anyone else of his time. The slow work of time and paint made the miracle of the Mona Lisa. Five hundred years have passed, and we continue to wonder how he did it.

What a story, Lucille! Many thanks for being on the blog today and best wishes for continued success with your writing.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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7 Responses

  1. This is a really interesting post…and viewing the Mona Lisa is a very special experience:):)

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