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“Mona Lisa” Through the Ages: Mysterious, Hypnotic and Forever Baffling

Leonardo's curiosity and invention were limitless. More scientist than artist, he created the supreme iconic symbol of "Woman", visited by 7 million people a year

by Pamela Goldman

Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci.

During the Renaissance in Italy, there was a rebirth of the ancient Greek notion that “man is the measure of all things.” For Leonardo da Vinci, an innate curiosity and close observance of nature remained the  central theme throughout his life from which all things stemmed.

Leonardo notebook

Sketch of Leaf.  C. Volodymyr Polotovsky

For him, the fields of science, anatomy, painting and engineering are all intertwined. Like Albert Einstein of the 20th Century who said, “God is the order of the universe,” Leonardo tried to understand this grand order, rooted in tirelessly careful, secular observation.

Leonardo’s paintings, the few that he did, were mainly portraits which broke away from the idealized, religiously pious ones that had come before him. Instead, Leonardo’s  had very human qualities and depths of psychology; he placed his subjects firmly in the present, grounded world. He painted like a scientist rather than a religious, God-fearing man. Newton and Galileo were both highly religious men of science, but they believed that discovering scientific laws of the universe was a way of glorifying God and his creations.

Mona Lisa in situ at Louvre, behind the triple glass that protects her. Image from Youtube

Leonardo da Vinci never delivered his painting of Mona Lisa. When he died in France it was still with him and not the merchant who had commissioned it. The idea was that it had never been finished, which parallels the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in nature. It is forever evolving.

“The wisest and noblest teacher is nature itself.” This is what Leonardo said and practiced. As an artist, he studied, drew and painted nature. As a scientist, he dissected animals and human corpses, making systematic observations and detailed drawings of the inner workings of anatomical features. He believed that science was the groundwork necessary in the study and meaningful contributions of any field or endeavor.

The “Mona Lisa” has been likened to the great Sphinx of Egypt. There are volumes written about the psychology hidden behind her eyes and smile. So much seems to be withheld in her eternal glance, leaving the viewer even more intrigued. Not only do her lips smile, but her eyes smile too.

Myth has said that while Leonardo was painting her, she was being entertained and charmed by clowns, musicians and storytellers. The facts are that Leonardo was in his 50’s when he began the painting. The sitter was was a Florentine woman named Lisa Gherardini, the wife of wealthy merchant Francesco del Giocondo who commissioned the work.

There have been so many interpretations of the Mona Lisa in bountiful poems, stories, plays and songs written about her that she has become an icon on a global scale. Some would say she is the most famous woman in world history.

Leonardo’s portrait hasn’t pleased all, and even driven some mad with frustration, this woman painted on a piece of poplar wood has been assaulted numerous times. In the 20th century alone, she has had acid thrown at her, been slashed across her face with a knife and even been kidnapped. Now she sits behind two layers of bulletproof glass and she cannot leave the Louvre Museum to go touring the world as she had done when JFK was President and she came to both Washington, D.C. and New York city.

A leaf from Leonardo’s Notebook. C. Felix Bensman

Descriptions of the Mona Lisa range from that of a diabolical femme fatale to a saintly Madonna. For some, solace is found in the enigma of the mysterious thoughts hidden in her mind, for others this is maddening. But what is true is that she seems to be breathing, and the moistness of her eyes give the illusion that she is really seeing.

What truthfully seems like divine intervention is that first, the piece of poplar wood she is painted on never seems to age and secondly, that even under a microscope not a single brushstroke can be detected. She is timeless and hypnotic. She is complex and will remain enigmatic for all ages to admire in wonder. Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” I believe that Leonardo da Vinci lived and breathed that very same idea.


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