Mona Lisa – Keyvisual

Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci that he began around 1503 and worked on until his death in 1519. It depicts a mysteriously smiling woman known as the Mona Lisa. The identity of the Mona Lisa is unclear, but the majority of researchers assume that it is Lisa del Giocondo (born Lisa Gherardini). The Mona Lisa is considered the best known and most famous work of art in the world and is often considered the epitome of Renaissance art. She is famous for her finely crafted details and subtle expressions. The portrait is called La Gioconda ('the serene one') in Italy and La Joconde (from the Italian 'Gioconda') in France. The painting is now in the Louvre in Paris.

Facts

Painter Leonardo da Vinci
Year of creation 1503-1519
Epoch Renaissance
Genre Portrait painting
Technique Oil on poplar wood (Sfumato technique)
Dimensions 53 × 77cm
Exhibition place Louvre Museum, Paris (Room 711/ Salle des Ètats)
Owner French state
value over 1 billion dollars (estimated), is considered the most valuable painting in the world, but is not for sale

 

Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?

The Mona Lisa is the conclusion of a three-part series of portraits by Leonardo and demonstrates his painting technique to perfection. Many people are fascinated by the beauty and grace of the Mona Lisa and consider it a masterpiece of art. The painting, which appears exceedingly vivid, is famous for the subtle emotions it conveys and shows numerous references to Leonardo's mind, geometric symbolism, double images, and is also excellently painted in terms of craftsmanship. Mona Lisa's famous smile seems to hide something mysterious and it almost seems as if she is responding to the viewer. Before Leonardo's Mona Lisa, there has been no portrait that achieved such interaction. 

The Mona Lisa is also famous because it is one of the most studied and analyzed paintings in the world. There are many theories about who the woman in the painting is and why she is smiling, and so many myths and legends have grown up around the painting over the years. All this has contributed to the Mona Lisa becoming one of the most famous works of art in the world.

The portrait proves that painters can create in an instant what poets need thousands of words to create. Accordingly, the timeless portrait is a visual poetry and shows the Mona Lisa as an educated mother on planet Earth.

Who was the Mona Lisa?

The portrait originally showed a lady from Florence, probably Mona Lisa del Giocondo, née Lisa Gherardini. Mona, or Monna, is not a given name, but the ancient Italian abbreviation of the salutation Madonna ('My Lady'). Between 2004 and 2015, with rare permission from the Louvre, physicist Pascal Cotte examined the valuable painting. Using a new method, he was able to prove that today's Mona Lisa is the overpainting of a portrait underneath, which resembles today's Mona Lisa, but whose face is very different from today's Mona Lisa. Thus it could be shown that Leonardo changed the original portrait of Lisa del Giocondo over many years until an idealized female figure was created. It is highly probable that today's version does not show a real person.

Was the Mona Lisa sick when she was painted?

The Mona Lisa shows three symptoms of diseases. First, she has a yellow spot between her nostril and her left eye. Second, there is a bump on her right hand. In addition, the Mona Lisa is missing her eyebrows. Since Leonardo had very extensive knowledge of human bodies and their diseases through his anatomical studies, he is also considered the best painter of all time, and today's Mona Lisa probably does not show a real person, Leonardo must have imagined these symptoms. Her skin, on the other hand, which shimmers yellowish today, was not originally painted that way by Leonardo. Rather, over the centuries, the painting has discolored slightly.

The different perspectives of the Mona Lisa

One of the many peculiarities of the painting is the multiple perspectives. Although the Mona Lisa is shown from the front, the background of the painting has been painted from other angles. However, multiple perspectives at the same time are impossible in reality and therefore the painting cannot possibly show a real scene.

Leonardo used central perspective to depict the wall. The edges of the column bases can be extended to form vanishing lines. They intersect in the central vertex of the Mona Lisa, the vanishing point. The first horizon line runs through this
A second horizon can be discerned in the foggy structure in the background, which Leonardo indicates by horizontal light blue lines. While the horizon line thus created is absolutely horizontal on the left, it is slightly inclined on the right side
The blue in the background is sharply delineated from the earth tones below. The demarcation takes place in a circular shape reminiscent of the curvature of the earth, which forms the third horizon
Mona Lisa, composition sketch (For clarity, the cuboid column feet at the edges of the picture have been extended upwards).
The edges of the column feet on the wall serve as vanishing lines. They meet in the vanishing point, which is exactly in the middle vertex of the Mona Lisa (green lines). The sketch clearly shows that the architecture of the loggia is viewed from above, as if the observing gaze were directed at the wall while standing. However, this contradicts the representation of the Mona Lisa, which is shown frontally
Mona Lisa, construction sketch
The second horizon line, visible through the foggy structure in the background, is lower than that of the central perspective. This means that the horizon line is now viewed from a higher point of view
Mona Lisa, construction sketch
The circular third horizon line is at its lowest point. Such a curved earth horizon can only be explained by a view from very high altitude, e.g. from a stratospheric balloon or a space station.
Viewed one after the other, the three perspectives are reminiscent of a cinematic upward movement that begins in a room and ends far up in the sky

Did Leonardo use the golden ratio?

Leonardo da Vinci's paintings are very harmonious in their composition. To achieve this harmony, he always used the division ratios, angles and shapes known from classical geometry. Among other things, the golden ratio, the best known of the classical division ratios, can be demonstrated in the Mona Lisa. However, to prove this, it is important that the painting is viewed in its original dimensions - an unframed copy can be found on the Louvre's website - and that the measurements are made accurately. Thus, a very common representation of the golden section in the Mona Lisa turns out to be erroneous when examined closely.

Mona Lisa, inaccurately depicted golden section.
This sketch is often used to relate the eye of the Mona Lisa to the golden ratio. From the upper edge of the picture, the angles of the lines EL and KD must be 36° and the angles of the lines KF and LF must be 72°, so that the line KD is in relation to the line KM in the golden section. However, the angles here are inaccurate and drawn with too wide a line. They deviate by 0.5° and 1.5° respectively from the correct angles
If the angles are drawn in with accuracy, the difference to the left sketch becomes quickly clear
The lines EL and KD (blue/orange) no longer intersect exactly in the eye. Likewise, the lines CA and CB (18°) no longer lead exactly to the edge of the image. Also, KF and FL no longer meet in the middle of the lower image border. It is often falsely claimed that the painting was cropped at the edges. But the physicist Pascal Cotte, in cooperation with the Louvre, was able to prove in 2005 that this is not the case
Nevertheless, the right eye of the Mona Lisa is important with regard to the image composition. The iris of the eye is located vertically exactly in the center of the image (red line). If the painting is divided in height in the golden section, both column feet are exactly at this height (left stripe). If the resulting larger section is divided again in the golden ratio (continuous division, right stripe), the new golden ratio leads exactly through Mona Lisa's eyes

Does Mona Lisa's gaze haunt the viewer?

Many who look at the portrait have the feeling that the gaze of the Mona Lisa follows them. However, upon closer inspection of the eyes, the Mona Lisa is not looking directly ahead, but slightly to the right of them. Basically, the direction of the eye's gaze is determined by the position of the iris and the pupil. If they are located at the right edge of the eye, a person looks past the observer on the right, analogously if they are located at the left edge of the eye. Only if the iris is located in the center front of the spherical eyeball, the person looks directly forward and thus at the observer.

Leonardo da Vincis Mona Lisa – Detail des Gesichts
To change the direction of the Mona Lisa's gaze, Leonardo plays with human perception. First, he painted the iris and pupils a bit too small in relation to the size of the eyes, which is especially obvious on the right side. The same applies to the eyes, which are a bit too small compared to the head. In both eyes, it is clear that the iris is not centered on the imaginary eyeball, but is slightly shifted to the right. Thus, the Mona Lisa looks past the viewer on the right. For the actual optical illusion Leonardo surrounded the eyes with an unnaturally strong shading, in particular the brown iris, in each case on the right side
Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci
The further away the painting is now viewed, the less the human eye can recognize the differences in brightness in the area. Human perception assembles the surrounding shadow with the iris to form a new, larger iris. As a result, the impression of the size of the iris and also of the eye, which only now appears in a natural size, changes with increasing distance. Since the iris now appears to be centered on the eyeball, viewers have the feeling they are being looked at directly by the Mona Lisa, although she is actually looking past them on the right

The smile of the Mona Lisa

The smile of the Mona Lisa is the most studied subject of the painting in art history. It has already become clear up to this point that Leonardo condensed many different aspects in numerous details into a wonderful painting. Mona Lisa's smile is just another - albeit the best known - of these details. It changes its meaning depending on the context and the level of knowledge of the viewer and can therefore not be interpreted unambiguously. Clearer, however, is the optical trick that Leonardo used.

Basically, the more the corners of the mouth are pulled up, the more intense a smile is. For Mona Lisa's smile, Leonardo used the same optical trick he already showed for her eyes. He placed strong shading around the corners of the mouth, blurring the actual contours of the corners of the mouth as the distance increases. Leonardo also emphasized the two muscles of the mouth, which are mainly responsible for lifting the corners of the mouth ('zygomaticus'), with very soft shadows on the left and right above the mouth. Although both muscles appear to be more or less equally tense, the right corner of the mouth is higher than the left one
Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci
The exact position of the corners of the mouth becomes increasingly unclear with increasing distance. The shadow around the right zygomatic muscle is increasingly supplemented by human perception to form an extension of the mouth line. Therefore, the right corner of the mouth seems to lift with increasing distance, making Mona Lisa's actually only slight smile more and more intense.
Instead of physically increasing the distance to the image, viewing eyes can also change the focus, e.g. by alternately looking at Lisa's head as a whole and then only at her mouth

Mona Lisa's anagram

An anagram is a word formed by reversing the sequence of letters of the original word. Thus, the anagram "Mon Salai" (French: 'My Salai') can be made from Mona Lisa. Salai was a long-time employee of Leonardo's workshop. Also possible is "Mon Alias" (French 'My Pseudonym') or "Nom Alias" (French 'Alias Name'). Hence the legend that the portrait may show Salai or even Leonardo himself.

Theft and vandalism

  • The painting was stolen in 1911 and remained missing for two years. In 1913, the thief was caught and the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre. At times the painter Picasso was suspected of having commissioned the theft
  • The painting has repeatedly been the target of attacks. It has already been pelted with a stone, showered with acid, sprinkled by a sprinkler system for a night and smeared with a cake, in that order. Since the acid attack it is behind bulletproof glass

No one should enter without knowledge of the geometry.

Legendary inscription at the entrance of Plato's Academy
Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci's paintings cannot be understood without examining the geometry of the picture

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Unframed version of the painting against a black background provided by the Louvre. It is clear from the margins that Leonardo did not paint the entire wooden panel. The section used for this analysis is indicated by a white border (Mouseover/ Tap)

I

The painting shows the scene in several perspectives. The sitter, the wall and the landscape each have their own horizon lines. This actually depicts three pictorial spaces

II

The painting is laid out in the aspect ratio of 2:3. This allows it to be divided into six squares of equal size. The central perpendicular runs through the left eye of the sitter as in the Belle Ferroniere

III

The massive blue on the right side makes you think of a tidal wave. The bridge is inclined at an angle of 5° (blue line), the orbital inclination of the moon. The moon causes high and low tide.

IV

The landscape on the left has a completely different character than on the right. Interesting is the double image of the head of an old man in the hair of the Mona Lisa looking at the base of the column on the left edge of the picture

V

The free space between the first two supporting columns of the chair back is exactly in the center of the picture and looks like the entrance of an architectural construct.

VI

The portrait of the Mona Lisa can be divided steadily in height in the golden section. Thus, all prominent points of the portrait above the wall are connected by the golden section: Column feet, eyes, head end, head veil, nose, mouth and shoulder (Mouseover/Tap)

VII

There are numerous geometric relationships of prominent points and lines in the painting. All triangles created have in common that their upper angles are symbolic angles and increase towards the bottom

VIII

A 120° angle forms the roof of an architectural structure in the lower part of the painting. The apex of the roof is the center of an equilateral triangle with the apex exactly in the left eye of the Mona Lisa

IX

45° angles of the fingers form a geometric crab (red areas). The lower triangle can be moved to the upper edge of the image. From its base, a 45° angle leads to the lower left and right edges of the image (yellow line). The elegance of the geometric design becomes clear on mouseover

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Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci
1503-1519
Oil on wood (poplar)
53 x 77 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Who was the Mona Lisa?

The identity of the Mona Lisa could not be determined without doubt until today. But the majority of researchers assume that it is Lisa del Gicondo, born Lisa Gherardini.

What makes the identification of the Mona Lisa so difficult is the fact that no commission documents, contracts, invoices or the like exist for the portrait. Leonardo da Vinci did not mention the painting in his notes, nor are there any clear descriptions from contemporary witnesses.

Theory I – Lisa del Giocondo

The majority of Leonardo researchers consider the sitter to be Lisa del Giocondo. Now all arguments are listed, which support this thesis.

The Heidelberg Note

That Leonardo worked on the portrait of a Lisa del Giocondo is proved by a source published in 2005.

A book about the ancient politician and writer Cicero was found in the Heidelberg University Archives, printed in 1477 (call number D 7620 qt. INC). It could be proved that the book belonged to one Agostino Vespucci. Vespucci was a scribe and close associate of the famous Florentine politician Niccolo Macchiavelli. Macchiavelli supported Leonardo at the time with commissions from the Florentine city government. It was probably at his instigation that Leonardo was commissioned to paint the huge mural "Battle of Anghiari". For this purpose, Vespucci translated an account of the battle from Latin, which is still preserved today, and gave it to Leonardo. Vespucci and Leonardo thus knew each other well, which increases the credibility of the source.

Agostino Vespucci left a short handwritten note in the book praising Leonardo's painting and mentioning that the latter was currently working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. The note also confirms Leonardo's work on the paintings "Anna Selbdritt" and "Battle of Anghiari" for the Council Chamber of Palazzo Vecchio. This note is considered an important document on the history of the creation of the Mona Lisa, even though the authenticity of the note can hardly be proven.

Agostino Vespucci – Notiz über Leonardos Arbeit an der Mona Lisa
The Heidelberg note, at this point the ancient painter Appeles is mentioned by Cicero. The handwritten note on the right refers to this. It reads translated: "The painter Apelles. This is what Leonardo da Vinci does in all his paintings, such as the Face of Lisa del Giocondo and Anna, Mother of the Virgin. We will see what he will do regarding the great council chamber, about which he has just reached an agreement with the Gonfaloniere. October 1503."

The mention of the Mona Lisa by Vasari

Vasari is the second source, besides the Heidelberg note, that associates Leonardo with the "Mona Lisa", the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. Vasari was a famous architect and painter in Florence. He is considered the first art historian because of his biographies of artists. Vasari published the biographies in 1550, about 30 years after Leonardo's death.

"Leonardo also began painting the portrait of the Mona Lisa, his wife, for Francesco del Giocondo. He spent four years of effort on it, then left it unfinished, and it is now in Fontainebleau in the possession of King Francis of France."

Mona is an old Italian short form of the title Madonna (Ital. 'My Lady'). Vasari made other statements about the portrait, but they are too general to clearly describe today's Mona Lisa. Nevertheless, his information makes a portrait of the "Mona Lisa" del Giocondo by Leonardo da Vinci very likely.

The historians Kemp and Zöllner have been able to prove that Vasari was acquainted with two cousins of Francesco del Giocondo. It is therefore quite possible that Vasari was still able to meet the older del Giocondo couple personally, since Lisa del Giocondo lived until 1542. Moreover, Vasari grew up in the care of the Medici family and was educated along with their children. The Medicis were well connected in Florence and also well acquainted with Leonardo. It is therefore probable that Vasari knew exactly that Leonardo was making a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.

Was there a Mona Lisa?

Historically proven is the Florentine noblewoman Lisa di Antonmaria Noldo Gherardini.

The Gherardini family was a long-established Florentine family. However, much of their once enormous land holdings had been lost due to political missteps. Their castles were destroyed to the ground around 1300. Nevertheless, they were not impoverished and continued to maintain close contacts with the most important families of Florence.

For example, Lisa's father Antonmaria Gherardini had married Camilla, a daughter of the influential Ruccelai family. The Ruccelai in turn were connected by marriage to the Medici family. Antonmaria owned a centrally located townhouse in Florence and an estate in San Donato in Poggio just outside Florence.

Lisa Gherardini was born in 1479. When she was sixteen years old, she married Francesco del Giocondo in 1495. Francesco, who was 30, had previously been married to Lisa's stepmother Camilla's sister, who died young. He was a wealthy fabric merchant and was also from Florence. They had six children, one daughter dying shortly after birth in 1499.

After the birth of their second child on 12.12.1502, they moved into a townhouse in Via della Stufa in Florence in March 1503. The house was in the immediate vicinity of the Medici Palace and demonstrates Francesco's economic success. Because such a move was a typical reason for commissioning a portrait at the time, some scholars assume that the portrait was begun at this time.

The Mona Lisa as the mistress of Giuliano de Medici

Nevertheless, the painting may actually have been commissioned by Giuliano de Medici. When Leonardo was living at the French royal court in Amboise during the last three years of his life, he was visited by a delegation of Cardinal Luigi d'Aragona in 1517. His scribe Antonio de Beatis made a report of it. It is the last eyewitness account from Leonardo's workshop.

"In one of the districts my lord and the rest of us went to see the Florentine Leonardo Vinci, more than 70 years old [Here the scribe is mistaken, Leonardo was only 65 at the time], an excellent painter of our time, who showed his illustrious lordship three paintings: One of a certain Florentine woman, a very beautiful painting made at the request of the Magnifico Giuliano de Medici, the other of a young St. John the Baptist, and one of the Madonna and her son being placed in the lap of St. Anne, all very perfect, ..."

By the "certain Florentine" is meant, in all likelihood, the Mona Lisa. Lisa Gherardini's family was distantly connected to the Medici by marriage. Florentine youths Giuliano de Medici and Lisa Gherardini were the same age and grew up in close proximity. It is very likely, based on the family connection, that the two knew each other. It is speculated that Giuliano fell in love with Lisa.

The Medicis were expelled from Florence in 1494 and were not allowed to return until 1512. The 15-year-old Giuliano was also forced to leave the city and stayed at the court of the Duke of Urbino. The following year Lisa married the merchant Francesco del Giocondo.

Leonardo da Vinci was at the court of Milan at this time and did not return to Florence for a few years until 1503. According to the thesis, Giuliano de' Medici, who was living in exile, asked Leonardo to make a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, who was now married, for sentimental reasons. This would explain why the painting was never in the del Giocondos' possession.

Giuliano de Medici was the brother of the later Pope Leo X. At his request, Leonardo went to Rome in 1513. When Giuliano died unexpectedly early in 1516, Leonardo left Rome for France. This shows how closely connected Leonardo and the Medici were. Giuliano's early death also explains why the portrait was in Leonardo's possession, because the patron had died.

The only evidence of this thesis is - besides the mention of the "certain Florentine" by de Beatis - a letter from 1515 that Giuliano's brother Piero sent to his son Lorenzo. It is about Francesco del Giocondo, who has declared his loyalty, but nevertheless fears the enmity of the Medici, because his wife Lisa is desired by an unnamed Medici. This Medici is said to be Giuliano.

The play on words with Lisa del Giocondo's last name

In the Renaissance, word games were very popular. Leonardo da Vinci also had a penchant for them.

His famous portrait of a lady with an ermine shows Ceciila Gallerani. The ermine belongs to the weasels. The ancient Greek word for weasel is galê or galéē.

Another portrait shows the lady Ginevra de' Benci. She is sitting in front of a juniper. Juniper is called ginepro in Italian.

This penchant of Leonardo's for puns now also speaks for the identification of the lady as Lisa del Giocondo. The most striking feature of the painting is her serene facial expression. Gioconda is the Italian word for "the cheerful one." Therefore, it is believed that her serene smile alludes to her last name "del Giocondo".

Salai's estate

Salai was one of Leonardo's longest standing collaborators and was included as one of Leonardo's heirs in his will. A few years after Leonardo's death in 1519, Salai died unexpectedly in a duel in 1524. His wife and sisters subsequently fought over the inheritance. A document about this has been preserved and so it is known that Salai owned a painting that is labeled "La Joconda". "La Joconda" is briefly described as a "woman moved backwards".

The Mona Lisa is still called "La Joconda", or "La Joconde" in France. La Joconde was not originally a French word and goes back to the Italian Gioconda. This designation from Salai's estate thus relates that portrait to the surname of the Florentine lady Lisa del Giocondo.

The value of Salai's "La Joconda" was set by the notary at 100 scudo (= 175 florin = 612.5 gold). This was a very high sum by the standards of the time and strongly suggests that Salai's "La Joconda" was an original painting by Leonardo. Then it can only have been Leonardo's portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.

Theorie II - Pacifica Brandani

In addition to the identification of the Mona Lisa as Lisa del Giocondo, a few researchers argue that it could be a portrait of Pacifica Brandani. Since the thesis is conclusive in itself, it should not remain unmentioned.

The starting point of the thesis is the already known travelogue of de Beatis from 1517, who wrote "[...] one of a certain Florentine woman, a very beautiful painting, made at the request of the Magnifico Giuliano de Medici".

Giuliano's biography includes the sad fate of his only son Ippolito. When Giuliano was in exile, he had an affair with the lady-in-waiting Pacifica Brandani at the court of Urbino. She became pregnant, but died giving birth to their son Ippolito in 1511. Since Ippolito could no longer know his mother, Giuliano is said to have commissioned Leonardo to paint an idealized, serene mother figure. The painting was intended to comfort the young Ippolito over the death of his mother. That is why the portrait is said to have been given the name La Gioconda (Italian for the cheerful one).

Ippolito, however, is said not to have received the painting. When his father Giuliano also died in 1516, Leonardo is said to have kept the still unfinished painting when he left for the French court in 1516. Even if this theory seems plausible in its narrative, it is based only on the remark "at the request of the Magnifico Giuliano de Medici " in de Beati's travelogue.

The study by Pascal Cotte

Pascal Cotte is a renowned French physicist. He developed a novel physical method to reconstruct the chronological order of the application of layers of paint in paintings. The Louvre gave him rare permission to study the Mona Lisa between 2004 and 2015. He came to the significant realization that underneath the portrait of the Mona Lisa is an overpainted earlier portrait showing a much younger lady.

The Mona Lisa and the portraits of Raphael

The result of Pascal Cottes investigation clarifies many open questions in connection with the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa has always been associated with numerous portraits of the world-famous Raphael, which he made between 1505 and 1508. They show striking similarities in posture, clothing, armrest and architecture.

The similarities cannot be coincidental. Leonardo's portrait style was revolutionary at the time. The dynamically rotated postures were absolutely novel, replacing the widely used profile and frontal view portraits. Raphael was the most prominent of Leonardo's first students in this respect.

Raphael was in Florence between 1504 and 1505. At the same time, Leonardo is said to have been working on the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. It is therefore likely that Raphael saw the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo in Leonardo's workshop. That Leonardo and Raphael were in close contact is beyond question, as is the younger Raphael's deep admiration for Leonardo. It is already mentioned by Vasari in Raphael's biography. Leonardo's motifs are also constantly reflected in Raphael's work.

Through Pascal Crote's investigation, it is now clear why Raphael's portraits, while strikingly similar to Leonardo's Mona Lisa, nevertheless differ greatly from the contemporary version. Raphael must have seen an earlier version of the Mona Lisa, the one that Pascal Cotte has pointed out.

The identity of the Mona Lisa

The extensive copies of Raphael and the analysis of Pascal Cottes now allow a simple conclusion, which coincides with all previous findings.

Leonardo was commissioned in Florence in 1503 to paint Francesco del Giocondo's wife, Lisa del Giocondo. He began the portrait but did not complete it. Raphael must have seen the unfinished work in Florence between 1504 and 1505 and imitated it in at least three paintings.

By the time Leonardo left Florence for the second time around 1508 and went to Milan again, the four years of unfinished work on the portrait that Vasari mentions had passed.

An idealized female figure

Since the original version that Pascal Cotte pointed out is very different from the one we see today, Leonardo must have heavily reworked the unfinished painting after 1508 until it took its present form. This supports the thesis that Leonardo did not portray today's Mona Lisa after a real person, but created an idealized female figure.

Whether, according to the Pacifica-Brandani theory, this was done by order of Giuliano de' Medici to give his grieving son a comforting image of a mother, or whether Leonardo revised the work on his own initiative, however, remains unclear. Likewise, it is unclear on whose behalf the original portrait of Lisa del Giocondo was commissioned and why it was not finished.

Overall, this represents what is currently the simplest explanation of how the Mona Lisa came to be. This does not exclude the possibility that there were copies by students of his workshop at the same time as Leonardo was working on the work. However, when viewed objectively, these do not come close to Leonardo's Mona Lisa in terms of their painterly quality.

Is the Mona Lisa a self-portrait?

The thesis that the Mona Lisa represents a self-portrait or even his disciple Salai has two causes.

The anagram to the Mona Lisa

Anagrams were very popular during the Renaissance. It is known from Leonardo's notes that he was preoccupied with them.

If the letters of "MONA LISA" are reversed, the result is the French "Mon Alias" ('My Other'). This is understood as a reference to a self-portrait.

Alternatively, the result is "Mon Salai" ('My Salai'). This is understood as a reference to a portrait of Salai.

Leonardo, however, left the painting unnamed, as he did all his paintings. Vasari was the first to name the portrait in this way. The will of Leonardo's pupil Salai suggests that the painting was called "Gioconda" (French Jaconde) in Leonardo's circle.

The bearded Mona Lisa - An optical illusion

The portrait of the Mona Lisa is designed in such a way that large dark areas were painted around the very bright face. They frame the largest light area with the strikingly light décolleté.

When looking at an object for a longer period of time, an effect occurs that is called afterimage in the physiology of perception. The human eye creates a phantom image, a hallucination. The afterimage has the property that it no longer shows the original image, but a negative image, as is known from analog photography (image negatives).

Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci

If the black dot on the nose of the Mona Lisa is fixed for approx. 10s and then the white dot on the right black surface, the negative image of the Mona Lisa can be seen there, although the surface is only black.

Leonardo da Vincis Mona Lisa – Negativbild

The negative image of the Mona Lisa from the experiment above. If this is now also fixed for approx. 10s (black dot on the nose), the original image of the Mona Lisa appears afterwards on the right side.

Mona Lisa – Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vincis Mona Lisa – Negativbild

It can be assumed that Leonardo painted the décolleté of the Mona Lisa so brightly only in order to create the afterimage of a large dark spot, reminiscent in its shape of a beard, when viewing the painting for a longer time. This is simulated here by moving the negative image up over the original image by exactly 1/7 of the image height.

To simulate the effect itself, the area around the blue dot under the chin can be fixed first. After that, changing the view to the tip of the nose creates the impression of a bearded Mona Lisa, which is enhanced by the dark shading in the area of the chin.

The dark patch of cleavage from the negative image now looks like a beard. Therefore, it is often claimed that the painting is actually a self-portrait of Leonardo. But since until today no portrait of Leonardo is known that verifiably shows him, it can also not be seriously said that the Mona Lisa bears Leonardo's facial features.

In painting, the effect of the afterimage is often played with. Often surprising double images arise from it. The way Leonardo used these effects always looks extraordinarily elegant.

History of the painting

The Leonardo biographer Giorgio Vasari reported the creation of the Mona Lisa in 1550. Since the Mona Lisa was at the time in the private possession of the French king at Fontainebleau Castle, as he himself reports, Vasari may never have seen the portrait himself and is reporting hearsay. However, since he was closely associated with the Medici family, which married into the French royal family three years earlier (the marriage of Caterina de' Medici to King Henry II of France), it cannot be ruled out that he saw the original painting.

Vasari's report on the Mona Lisa

"Leonardo also began painting the portrait of the Mona Lisa, his wife, for Francesco del Giocondo. He spent four years of effort on it, then left it unfinished, and it is now in Fontainebleau in the possession of King Francis of France.

Anyone who wanted to see how far it is possible for art to imitate nature could see it in this beautiful head. All the small details were depicted in the finest way, the eyes had luster and moisture, as we see it in life, all around one noticed the reddish-blue circles and the veining, which can only be executed with the greatest delicacy. On the brows, where they are fullest, where they are sparest, one saw them emerging and arching from the pores of the skin, as natural as can be imagined. On the nose, the fine openings were rosy and delicately reproduced in the most faithful manner. The mouth, where the lips close and the red unites with the color of the face, had a perfection that it did not appear as painted, but really like flesh and blood. If you looked carefully at the throat pit, you thought you could see the beating of the pulses.

In short, one can say that this painting was executed in a way that made every exquisite artist and everyone who saw it tremble. Mona Lisa was very beautiful, and Leonardo still needed the caution that, while he was painting, there must always be someone present who sang, played and joked, so that she would remain cheerful and not acquire a sad appearance, as is often the case when one sits to have his portrait painted. Over this face, on the other hand, hovers such a lovely smile that it seemed to be of heavenly rather than human hand; and it was considered admirable because it was completely like life."

The fact that Vasari praises the painting of the eyebrows of the Mona Lisa is often considered an indication that he did not see the painting himself, because today the Mona Lisa no longer has visible eyebrows. The already well-known physicist Pascal Cotte was able to prove between 2004 and 2015 that the Mona Lisa was painted over several times and at a certain point actually had eyebrows. The fact that these are no longer visible today may be due to an overpainting by Leonardo, but may also be the result of a failed restoration.

Leonardo malt die Mona Lisa – Cesare Maccari
Leonardo paints the Mona Lisa, Cesare Maccari, 1863
Maccari was inspired by Vasari's narrative

Salai's estate

Today it is assumed that Leonardo had the painting with him until his death in 1519. After that it probably came into the possession of his pupil Salai. For when the latter died in a duel in 1524, a painting entitled "La Joconda" is mentioned in a legal dispute over his inheritance. Since it is also valued relatively high in the notarial document at 100 scudo (= 175 florin = 612.5 gold), it is probably the Mona Lisa. Shortly thereafter, the French King Francis I must have acquired the painting.

In the possession of the French kings

How the painting came into the possession of the French king is unknown. The paintings are not mentioned in Leonardo's will. The portrait of the Mona Lisa was then probably shown at the court of Francis I in Amboise Castle. Vasari reported in 1550 that the Mona Lisa was now at Fontainebleau Castle. The painting remained there until around 1682, when Louis XIV had it moved to the Palace of Versailles.

The French Revolution and Napoleon's bedroom

Like all paintings in the royal collection, the Mona Lisa was transferred to the Louvre after the French Revolution in 1789 and put on public display for the first time in 1793.

However, the Mona Lisa remained there for only a few years, as Napoleon had the painting moved to his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace around 1799. The portrait hung there until Napoleon's banishment in 1815, since when the Mona Lisa has been on public display in the Louvre.

The theft of 1911

The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre on August 21, 1911 by the Italian Vincenzo Peruggia in a tricky action. He saw it as a patriotic act to bring the painting to Italy, the home of Leonardo da Vinci. The theft remained unsolved for two years. Only when Peruggia wanted to sell the painting to the Florentine museum "Uffizi", he could be arrested during the planned handover.

The painting was exhibited in Italian cities for a few more months before it was returned to the Louvre on December 31, 1913.

Second World War

During the Second World War, France was occupied by Germany. Even before the Germans took Paris, the Louvre in Paris, fearing robbery or damage, had anonymously packed and sealed almost the entire art treasures of the museum and moved them to Chambord Castle. The Mona Lisa was in an inconspicuous box. In the course of the war, the valuable painting was moved several times to different places in France, without coming into the possession of the Germans.

With the end of the war, the Mona Lisa was able to return to the Louvre, where it was again publicly exhibited from October 1947.

Vandalism

In 1956, the painting was doused with acid by an unknown person, causing severe damage to the lower part of the painting. In the same year a visitor threw a stone at the painting. The painting was damaged at the left elbow. Since then, the Mona Lisa has been behind bulletproof glass.

The Mona Lisa in the USA

In 1961, the wife of the American President John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, convinced the then French President Charles de Gaulle to have the painting exhibited in the USA. In an elaborate operation, the painting was transported across the Atlantic in January 1963 under the highest security precautions and exhibited in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, shortly thereafter in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The museum's director at the time, Thomas Hoving, writes in his memoirs that the Mona Lisa was exposed to the flowing water of an accidentally triggered sprinkler system for one night. However, because the painting was under water-repellent bulletproof glass, the Mona Lisa remained undamaged.

The Mona Lisa in Japan and Russia

In 1974, a second foreign exhibition followed in Tokyo and Moscow.

Public exhibition at the Louvre in Paris

The painting is now in the largest room of the Louvre in Paris, the Salle des États.

Painting analysis

About the image template

The starting point of this picture analysis is the unframed version of the portrait as it can be found on the website of the Louvre. Thereby the geometrical relations of the painting can be examined on the basis of the actual dimensions of the painting.

The merely indicated columns at the left and right edges of the picture are often explained by the fact that the painting has been trimmed at the edges. This is not so. In the 2000s, the Louvre allowed the renowned physicist Pascal Cotte to examine the work. He found no evidence of subsequent trimming of the wooden panel. It can therefore be safely assumed that the painting now in the Louvre was created exactly as Leonardo intended.

Image description

A lady in three-quarter portrait sits on a chair. The back of the chair circles the chair in a U-shape, and is connected to the seat by small columns. There are five columns visible.

The chair is oriented to the left, and so the lady turns to the viewer via a slight rotation of hip, shoulder and head to the left. In doing so, she looks slightly to the right past him at something behind him. She smiles.

Her two hands are folded over each other on the left back of the chair. The left hand holds a brown blanket laid over her legs. The index and middle fingers of the right hand are slightly spread.

She is wearing a dark green dress with orange sleeves that have been compressed into fine folds. The dark green part of the dress is folded up at the sleeves and pinned at the shoulder. The seam at the neckline is embroidered in fine patterns with orange stitching. The ruffled seam allows the dress to fall in fine waves. Her neck and cleavage are uncovered.

Her brown open hair falls left and right in fine curls from the center parting down to her shoulders. Her hair is covered by a very long veil that appears almost transparent. It has been rolled down and now hangs loosely over her left shoulder.

Directly behind her is a waist-high wall. At the left and right edge of the picture the feet of two columns are to be recognized, which are set on the wall.

In the background, a mountainous landscape with paths and crisscrossed by bodies of water. In the right half of the picture a bridge over a river.

The painting is unfinished in the lower part (ceiling, chair, and wall), as well as in large parts of the landscape.

I The wrong perspectives


A special feature of the painting is the use of multiple perspectives. This divides the painting into three spatial levels. This becomes clear when you look at the three levels of the picture on their own, that is, lady, wall or landscape.

The person - frontal representation

The portrayed lady sits on a chair and looks at the viewer frontally. Both are at the same height. The viewer is neither looking up at her, nor down at her.

The Wall - Central Perspective and Vanishing Point

An architectural vanishing point can be determined as soon as at least two vanishing lines are drawn in the painting. The vanishing point of a central perspective always runs through the horizon.

Even though the architecture in the painting is very reduced, it is still there. The wall behind the Mona Lisa and the feet of the columns resting on it can be recognized as vanishing lines. Where the two vanishing lines meet is the vanishing point of the central perspective. This is exactly in the central vertex of the Mona Lisa (white lines). Thus, the perspective horizon can now also be determined (white horizontal line).

The viewer thus looks at the wall from above at a comparatively steep angle. This perception, however, is in contrast to the frontally painted body of the Mona Lisa.

The background landscape - horizon lines

The horizon is not clearly discernible in this painting. Moreover, there seem to be at least two. On the right side of the Mona Lisa's head, a continuous light blue area can be made out as a horizon. It is oblique and straight. Such a horizon cannot exist. It would have to be slightly curved due to the curvature of the earth (blue line on the right). But this curvature would be hardly recognizable because of the small image width.

On the left side, the horizon is hidden by mountains, but a short horizontal line can be made out in the transparent veil of her hair. This line is at the same height as the higher end of the horizon on the right side.

The impossibility of such a horizon becomes clear now at the latest. While the right horizon runs slightly up to the left and in a straight line, the left horizon sits lower, as can be seen dimly through the transparent veil.

Almost like a hint of the painter to the course of the left horizon is the conspicuous light blue line at the left edge of the picture, which is also at the level of the upper end of the right horizon (blue line left). Mirror-inverted, this line points here from the left to the top right.

Conclusion about the wrong perspectives

Regarding the perspective, an inconsistent overall impression is created. Leonardo was a master of perspective, so that painterly incompetence can be excluded.

Depending on which of the three perspective-giving picture elements the viewer looks at - person, wall or landscape - a different perception of the perspective and the position of these elements to each other arises.

The vanishing lines of the wall show that the viewer must look at the scenery from above. The same applies to the horizon lines. Even though the horizon is lower here, the perspective implies a view from above. In contrast, the frontal representation of the sitter.

It seems as if Leonardo forces the viewer into three phases of movement. Depending on what he looks at first, the person or the wall and the landscape, his perspective changes in such a way that he either sits next to her first and then looks at the wall and the landscape as he stands up. Or vice versa, he stands first and looks at the wall and the landscape, and then sits down and gets on eye level with it. If the viewer turns his gaze away from it and looks again at the wall or the landscape, he rises again in perspective and the game begins anew as soon as he looks at it again.

Leonardo manages by this trick first to animate the viewer to linger, and then, like a painterly perpetual motion machine, to capture him in a cycle of looking and turning away.

II The six quadrants

The outer dimensions of the portrait are laid out exactly in the ratio 2:3. The portrait can thus be divided into 6 squares of equal size. This immediately reminds of the framing of the Belle Ferroniere in 4 equal squares.

The painting of the Mona Lisa is thus placed in a relationship to the portrait of the Belle Ferroniere. In both paintings, a wall was also placed. While in the Belle Ferroniere it separates the viewer from the sitter, the wall of the Mona Lisa brings the viewer together with her, because they are in the same room.

The central perpendicular of the Mona Lisa portrait runs exactly through her left eye (light blue dot), just as in the Belle Ferroniere. Leonardo is basically following a pattern that he also shows in his other portraits. Either the golden section or the central perpendicular run exactly through the left eye. In the case of the lady with the ermine, it is the left eye of the ermine.

III The day

Besides the division into six squares, the painting follows a threefold division in terms of content. The landscape on the left side shows a different character than the landscape on the right side. Both landscapes are in each case two of the total of six quadrants. The two lower quadrants also form a third sense unit with the wall of the loggia.

To illustrate the different nature of the landscapes, the person of the Mona Lisa is ignored along her silhouette by coloring and only the pictorial space in the background is considered, first the right background of the picture. An interesting observation occurs. If the viewer lets the view of the landscape thus created take effect on him, the perception of the same changes.

In the little worked out landscape two accents are set. The first accent is a bridge. It is located exactly at the lower first third of the two squares. It consists of 3, 4 or 5 arches, it is not possible to tell exactly. The bridge acts as the visual center of a calm and idyllic-looking area with orange and light shades.

Above it, in complementary contrast, an immense blue area. It begins and ends at the level of the golden section of the two upper squares (minor and major). Adjacent directly above is a bright light dividing dark storm clouds.

Overall, the scene now appears less peaceful. The plain spanned by the golden section now turns out to be a coherent blue mass of water making its way into a peaceful valley. There it will meet a bridge painted 5° to the upper right.

Leonardo dealt intensively with the subject of the Flood, especially in his last years. There are numerous drawings on this subject. The motif of ebb and flow is inevitably linked to the moon, which is the cosmic cause of the tides. This then explains the angle of the bridge. The orbital inclination of the moon is ~5°.

Noticeable is a much lighter blue painted bright area on the horizon. It is painted in monochrome. Its meaning is unclear. Conceivable would be a dense wall of fog. It could also be a high mountain lake.

Depending on what the viewer now focuses on, a different impression is created. The light blue surface of the mountain lake brings calm into the composition, the blue surface below it reminds one of an enormous tidal wave threatening the valley. However, as soon as it is looked at more closely, the same blue surface dissolves back into a mountainous structure.

Leonardo thus plays with the sharpness of the image. And analogous to the game with the three perspectives, we are also dealing here with three focal points: Mountain lake, mountain range and bridge.

It is not possible to say exactly whether Leonardo wanted to depict the power of masses of water breaking their way through the earth or whether the universal genius Leonardo wanted to demonstrate the influence of the cosmic power of the moon on earthly water. But basically the subject of the right landscape is water.

The Flood of the Mona Lisa by Martin Kemp

Martin Kemp was a professor of art history at the University of Oxford with visiting professorships at Harvard and Princeton, and is considered the world's most renowned Leonardo expert. He writes about the landscape of Leonardo's Mona Lisa:

"The landscape of the Mona Lisa, set on two levels - the higher water surface on the right [of the painting] is above its natural position - is the quintessence of what Leonardo had experienced in thinking about high and low places in Tuscany. The instability of one of the mountains to the left of the head [i.e., left as seen from her], which has an extremely pronounced rocky outcrop and is heavily incised below, suggests that things will change radically at some unknown time in the future. A tremendous change is imminent in which the gently meandering [curving] courses of the river in the lowlands below the balcony of the Mona Lisa with its neatly crafted bridge will be surprised and reshaped by a force majeur [tremendous force] and against which every human engineer is powerless."
(Kemp, Martin [2005]: Leonardo. Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck oHG, p. 176 f.)

Kemp is thus of the opinion that Leonardo wanted to show the enormous force of water rushing into the valley. Kemp makes these remarks in the chapter 'Master of Water', specifically in connection with Leonardo's attempts to harness the unbridled power of water.

The figure in the window

The two squares of the right half of the picture now appear as the window of a dark room. The darkening made here by covering the other squares, as well as the Mona Lisa along her silhouette seem to be presupposed by the painter.

The basic shape of the Mona Lisa is painted in a triangle. This is unusual for the time and results from her posture. The triangle that her body spans is darkened at the edges from her head to her arms. Leonardo wrote about this in his Nuch on Painting that this had to be done to make the person stand out from the background. Leonardo goes even further here, however, and uses the face, neck and hands to set only a few points of light within the very dark border. In this way, the plasticity is increased, but also the silhouette of the Mona Lisa is overemphasized.

If we look at the landscape with this knowledge as a view through the window of a high dark room, we recognize in the left dark shadow the silhouette of a person looking out of a dark room into the distance of a landscape. She imitates, as it were, the viewer who is also in this room on the right behind her.

A second level of meaning emerges. For the themes of the tidal wave, the elevated viewpoint from a mountain, combined with the feeling of safety and light on the horizon have always been associated in a biblical context with the Noah narrative. The silhouette could therefore be Noah or his wife looking out of the ark at the approaching tidal wave.

The multitude of interpretive levels of Leonardo's paintings and how they merge into one another can be demonstrated exemplarily already in this part of the painting and has contributed much to the fame of Leonardo's paintings. For even if there are several levels, they are not arbitrary, but subtly built on each other.

Likewise, it could already be shown how much the geometry complements the content level and leads it out of arbitrariness. First the subdivision into six squares, of which, however, only two are focused. These are then divided by a horizontal golden section exactly below a dark blue area that can be made out as a tidal wave. And to support the movement of the water, the only architectural structure - a bridge - is tilted at an angle of 5°. The angle, therefore, that refers to the orbital inclination of the moon and thus to its influence on the water. For the gravitational pull of the moon causes the ebb and flow of the tide.

Leonardo's paintings cannot be understood without knowledge of pictorial geometry.

IV The night

After in the upper two squares on the right side the day and the water as leitmotiv were recognized, now the two left upper squares are to be examined.

Also here at first a clear color distinction is noticeable. The upper part is kept in a blue, the lower complementary in an almost glowing reddish orange. The averaged dividing line between the two color areas runs very precisely along the golden section of the height of the two squares (orange line).

The perspective of the surface of the lake, its abrupt transition into the landscape and the contrast in color make one think of the cross-section of a body of water. The surrealist painter Salvador Dali, who dealt with the Renaissance painters especially in his late work, developed a pictorial motif reminiscent of it.

Salvador Dali - Herkules, der die Haut des Meeres anhebt, bittet Venus einen Moment länger zu warten, bevor sie die Liebe weckt
Hercules, lifting the skin of the sea, asks Venus to wait a moment longer before awakening love, Salvador Dali
© Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2021

Analogous to Dali's painting, the blue of the lake now also appears as the skin of the sea, possibly concealing lovers in the orange. For the moment it shall suffice to note the sharp border of the calm lake above the restlessness of the orange.

The bearded man in the veil

The transparent veil in the Mona Lisa's hair does not allow her silhouette to be as clearly delineated from the background on the left as it is on the right. A face magically appears in the Mona Lisa's hair.

The person's gaze goes down to the left and looks at the column base on the left side. The column base now no longer appears as a real object, but rather as a vision of the person. The column base consists of a compressed cube and a compressed sphere. They appear very reduced in their geometry and almost archetypal. The fact that Leonardo deliberately painted the left column base with sharper edges, thus emphasizing its geometry, is striking in comparison with the column base on the right edge of the picture, which was painted much softer, almost blurred.

The long beard and the thoughtful look at a geometric figure make the person think of a philosopher of classical antiquity. Associations with Plato (428/427 B.C. - 348/347 B.C.) are awakened. He did not invent the five Platonic solids named after him, but was the first to study them scientifically. Plato's estate is well preserved. The investigation of the Platonic bodies can be found in his work "Timaios".

In the same work, Plato has a character named Kritias tell a story about a city that sank into the sea. Plato's narration in the "Timaeus" is the first mention of the Atlantis myth, which continues to fascinate people to this day. This connects the right half with the left half in terms of content, because Atlantis sank in a way that must have acted on its inhabitants like a tidal wave.

Raphael paints Leonardo as Plato with "Timaeus" in his hand

To those to whom the focus on Plato in a Leonardo work may seem strange, they will be reminded of a painting by Raphael, "The School of Athens." The massive mural was painted for the Pope's bedroom and shows Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right in the center of the painting, discussing with each other. Plato holds the book "Timaeus" under his arm and points upward in the iconographic manner of John the Baptist. John the Baptist is not only the last painting by Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist is also the patron saint of Florence.

It is undisputed in art history that Raphael painted Leonardo, whom he greatly admired, as Plato; he also painted himself and Michelangelo.

Raffael - Schule von Athen

The School of Athens, Raphael

Leonardo as Plato in the center of the painting, pointing his finger upward;
Michelangelo as Heraclitus in the foreground, thinking at a stone;
Raphael in the group of people at the right edge of the picture, looking in the direction of the viewer

The determination of the time of day

Analogous to the right half of the picture, the viewer also sees a window here. But he must look from the nightly darkness into an illuminated room, because the orange in the background seems like the orange of the fire of a candlelight. Almost the scene can be judged by the orange light as part of a romantic scene.

It is therefore night. Plato's figure is correspondingly dimly illuminated from the left edge of the picture. Above the golden section of the two squares (orange line) the light has a different mood. It could be glaring moonlight or also the morning sun. The observer would therefore use the night with Plato to pursue the virtuous geometry (ancient Greek: geo- "earth", -metron "to measure"), which is best possible in a starry night sky. They are accompanied by the visionary geometric forms of the left column. Sphere and cube, here compressed, act on astronomers like a compass.

 

V The vision of Plato's Academy

According to a legend, above the entrance to the academy of the ancient scientist and philosopher Plato there was the inscription "Without knowledge of geometry no one shall enter".
Leonardo knew this legend and adapted it with the following words: "He who is not a mathematician, let him not read my prinicples."

Leonardo also refers to this in this painting. The focus here is on the supporting columns of the back of the chair at the bottom of the painting. Despite the unfinished state of the painting in this area, five of these columns can be made out. If we trace them in color and connect them, we notice that the space between the first two columns is exactly centered (yellow lines). The golden section and the central perpendicular frame or intersect the space in such a way that, together with the back of the chair behind it, which now appears as a flat roof above it, it gives the impression of an ancient temple.

At this point, the Plato figure in the hair of the Mona Lisa is again invoked. Her gaze went in the direction of the column base reminiscent of Platonic bodies on the left side. At the column base is the horizontal golden section of the painting (horizontal orange line), from there the horizontal golden section directs the viewer's gaze to the vertical golden section of the painting (minor and major, vertical orange lines), which frame a temple-like representation at the bottom of the picture.

The viewer can no longer help but notice an architectural structure at the lower edge of the painting, reminiscent of an ancient temple, which in the previous context must be interpreted as a reference to Plato's Academy. Especially since the back of the chair, with its fine horizontal lines, really invites the viewer to write on it. For example, with the inscription that, according to legend, is supposed to have been written there: "Without knowledge of geometry no one shall enter".

VI The golden ratio

The portrait of the Mona Lisa is based primarily on the golden section in terms of height.

  • the first division is at the feet of the supporting columns on the wall (lowest blue line)
  • the second division runs through her two eyes (middle blue line)
  • the final division is above her head (top blue line)

Eyes and supporting columns are divided exactly in the golden ratio. Leonardo places the last one slightly above her head without hitting it exactly. This play with the expectations of an examining geometer is typical for Leonardo and usually points to further dependencies. So also here:

  • If in the upper golden section the larger part is exchanged with the smaller part, it is tangent to the top end of the veil on the forehead. This is possible because a line can be divided in the golden section starting from the left or right side
  • the height between the eyes and the line of the column feet can also be divided in the golden section (left black and white line). This is tangent to the overhang on the shoulder
  • The line under her chin (golden line) is the golden section of the portrait height, the counterpart of the height of the column feet. This line is the only one of these lines that does not mark a prominent point. It runs only approximately below her chin
  • If this height is divided along the minor again in the golden section, it runs through the tip of the nose and the lower end of the mouth (blue/orange line, the 3rd from the right and left, respectively)
  • If these divisions are continued in the golden section, this now tangents the upper lip and finally the area between the lips.

It is now clear that Leonardo constructed the Mona Lisa according to the Golden Section. All of the Mona Lisa's prominent points above the wall are in the golden ratio in terms of height: column feet, eyes, head end, head veil, nose, mouth, and shoulder. This expresses Leonardo's view that aesthetics and beauty are closely related to proportion. The most beautiful of all proportions, according to the doctrine of the time was the golden section.

The fact that all the divisions converge on the mouth of the Mona Lisa is due to the anatomy of a human face. The height of the head, the hairline, the position of the eyes, nose and lips can all be related to the golden ratio, as Leonardo shows on the face of the Mona Lisa.

VII Bridge construction

It is typical of Leonardo paintings that he sets painterly accents that give clues to geometric relationships. One typical feature has already been noticed, the central perpendicular runs directly through the left eye of the Mona Lisa (red line). Leonardo also regularly emphasized the central parting. In the painting of Belle Ferroniere, he emphasized her left shoulder, among other things. It is obvious to assume such references also in this painting.

  • From the middle parting of the Mona Lisa a 60° angle can be drawn to the lower edge of the already known left column foot, the other side of this angle intersects exactly the place where the lady's dress was folded over in such a way that a point was formed there. The angle from the lower left column foot to this point of the shoulder is 5°. It is the same angle by which the bridge in the right landscape is turned (light blue lines below)
  • the upper edge of the wall behind the Mona Lisa intersects the base of the triangle just formed exactly where it also intersects the vertical golden ratio (green horizontal and orange vertical)
  • from the upper edge of the wall (green line) a square can be drawn upwards (mouseover, red square). This intersects the oblique horizon line of the right landscape exactly where it meets the central perpendicular (lower of the three light blue points at the eye)
  • from the lower of the three light blue points at the eye downwards an equilateral triangle with an upper 90° angle is formed (triangle of green lines). Its right side runs exactly where the 5° inclined bridge begins. Through this triangle of green lines, the three blue lines are thematically connected: The bridge was significant for the right landscape, as well as the sloping horizon line. For the left landscape the lower column foot was significant, because its geometrical form, the anonymous bearded man in the hair of the Mona Lisa can be associated with Plato and his Platonic bodies
  • from where the oblique horizon line of the right landscape meets the left edge of the picture, a horizontal line can be drawn. If this meets the central perpendicular, a triangle typical for Leonardo paintings is created with the inner angles of 45°,60 and 75° (mouseover, green triangle). The base is the same as in the first triangle, which started from Mona Lisa's central vertex
  • From where her eye is intersected by the central perpendicular, there is an angle of 72° to the already known base of the other triangles. This angle is highly symbolic in geometry, as it is the central angle of a regular pentagon, which in turn is a symbol of the golden ratio. The knowledge of how to construct the regular pentagon using only a compass and ruler was considered secret in ancient times, which is why the regular pentagon has a mystical aura to this day.

Leonardo shows in this section his ability for complex image constructions. Especially through the references to "real" picture contents, such as the folded dress or the sloping horizon line, as well as the wall, it is impressively shown that Leonardo must have already planned the paintings to a large extent on a geometric level before he painted them. For example, he could no longer shorten the painting at will or change the position of the wall. Because that would have had consequences for the geometrical connections.

The blue dots are used here to mark the points at which Leonardo shows important and, above all, complex geometric relationships. For the moment conspicuous are the three points at the eye, which are set in a line one above the other.

Starting from the middle vertex, the upper angles increase from triangle to triangle downwards. All angles have a high symbolic character in geometry, because harmonious forms result from them. For example, the square from the 90° angle or the regular pentagon from the 72° angle.

Starting from the central vertex, the vertices of the four triangles so far are successively 60°, 72°, 75° and 90°. Still missing in the series of symbolic angles are the smaller angles of 30 and 45 degrees and the larger 120° angle, the central angle of an equilateral triangle.

If the angles increase downwards, the 120° angle should be below the three angles at their eye (blue dots), the two smaller angles correspondingly above the central vertex.

VIII Atlantis

The image motif in the right, as well as in the left background of the picture is water, as shown in III and IV. The earthy-brown hue of the lower two of the total of six image quadrants, stands in complementary contrast to the blue of the background landscape and the sky and thus sets a counterpoint. The water is at the top, the earth at the bottom.

The geometrical analysis so far has shown that from the middle vertex of the Mona Lisa, over her eyes, symbolic angles are marked, which moreover become larger and larger towards the bottom. They stand in a logical row, which however lacked a final 120° angle. Leonardo has staged this in a special way.

Exactly in the middle of the two lowest quadrants is the back of the chair on which the hands of the Mona Lisa rest. The shape of the back of the chair looks like a gate or the entrance to an architectural structure. The findings so far give reasonable grounds for the assumption that Leonardo unites two great and well-known themes of Plato in the two lower quadrants. The Platonic bodies as a symbol of the academy he founded, and Atlantis, the myth of the sunken city. Plato was the first to write about Atlantis. Both are an essential part of his famous book Timaeus. The book, therefore, that the leonardized Plato in Raffeael's fresco in the Pope's bedrooms in Rome also holds in his hands.

This impression is now confirmed by the geometric construction.

  • From the center of the golden section (horizontal orange line) a triangle opens downwards at an angle of 120° (red area). The base of this triangle is exactly in the middle of the lower edge of the picture and the lower edge of the wall (light gray line) behind the Mona Lisa
  • from the base of the red triangle upwards an equilateral triangle is formed, the apex of which is exactly in the left eye of the Mona Lisa
  • the tetrahedron is the smallest of the Platonic solids and consists of four equilateral triangles. If it is rotated in a central perspective with the tip facing forward and tilted slightly backward. It has the shape of an equilateral triangle. The three frontal faces of the tetrahedron then all appear to be the same size and look like the large triangle with the apex in the eye of the Mona Lisa, with the red face marking the lower face of the tetrahedron.

The viewer now cannot help but recognize the construction of the lower two quadrants as a house-like structure. In the color context of the picture, this part seems to be under water. For in the upper third, the surface of the water, blue tones predominate, while in the lower third, the muddy seabed, earthy brown tones predominate. Quite as if Leonardo had sunk Plato's Academy, like the buildings of Atlantis, into the sea in a picturesque way.

IX Water

The impression of an underwater architectural structure is enhanced by a geometric crab.

The geometric crab

The central element of the lower two quadrants, besides the back of the chair, are the hands of the Mona Lisa resting on it. On closer inspection, these are painted in a striking geometric structure that resembles a crab. This sits above the entrance to the sunken structure (red areas). It is created because of the angles at which the fingers were placed.

  • From the center of the horizontal golden section (orange horizontal line), a 60° angle can be drawn to the ring finger of the left hand (white line). From its end, a 75° angle leads over the knuckles to the upper left to the center of the height of the lower edge of the screen and the lower edge of the wall. The result is the triangle already known from above with the inner angles of 60°, 75° and 45°
  • the blue lines of the crab are all angles of 45°. They form an M-shaped network of lines. Exactly through the center of the "M" leads the golden section of the image width (mouseover, orange vertical)
  • Middle finger and index finger of the right hand are the only fingers slightly spread apart, the angle of the index finger is 30° (orange line). It now needs only a little imagination to make out the crab (red areas)
  • Between the fingers of the Mona Lisa runs the central perpendicular of the painting, which among other things also intersects her left eye (mouseover, red line). Above the crab is the triangle with the 120° angle, which now looks like a net hung in the water. It seems to be suspended from the central perpendicular
  • It is in the nature of a crab with scissors to use them. If the crab cuts the central perpendicular, the 120° triangle has a reason to rise upwards. It is striking that this triangle fits without changing its shape to the upper edge of the picture in such a way that the 60° angle which initiated the construction of the crab in the lower triangle is now exactly tangent to its right half of the head
  • in addition, from the center of the base of the triangle that is now at the top of the screen (white area), a triangle leads to the two lower corners of the painting (yellow lines). The upper angle of this triangle is above the eye of the Mona Lisa and is 45°. It is also exactly on the right side, of the triangle of left column foot, left shoulder and middle vertex recognized in VI (mousover, white lines)

Conclusion on image analysis

It has been made clear that, surprisingly, the Mona Lisa is based on a systematic network of geometric dependencies. In the whole, certain points of intersection are conspicuous, which mostly start from or run through exactly this respective point by further geometrical relations, e.g. the left bridge crossing (blue point). This is basically typical for Leonardo's works, but the complexity with which this is done here is unique for his portraits and at best can be compared with The Last Supper. It is particularly clear here that Leonardo understands geometry to be an essential component of his paintings in order to clarify the intent of the image. Without an understanding of the geometric relationships in the work, the Mona Lisa must remain a mystical painting.

The human being

The Mona Lisa is a compassionate being. The tips of the triangles under her left eye are arranged to resemble tears (light blue dots). Her famous smile is thus contrasted with sadness. She can thus rejoice with onlookers and also suffer with them. It is no coincidence that this becomes clear through geometry. The softly painted smile is contrasted with the hard drawn lines of geometry. The dichotomy of both feelings is thus most aptly expressed.

The Family

Hidden in the hair of the Mona Lisa is a double image of a man, clearly recognizable by his beard. In addition, she is embraced by a small child who presses her face against her bosom in a childlike manner, as children do when they are hiding from strangers or have just been teased. The Mona Lisa therefore appears as a triune being: Father, Mother, Child. The familial aspect of the Mona Lisa is probably the most perceived aspect of the painting, even if the cause of the impression is unclear to many.

The nations

Legendary nations are alluded to via the geometry. The triangle on Mona Lisa's head is reminiscent of a typical Asian rice hat. The triangle in the lower section is reminiscent of an Egyptian pyramid, and Plato's legendary Atlantis is symbolized by the tidal wave in the upper right section and the sunken temple in the armrest area. Leonardo's fascination with Plato is unquestionable, his work Timaeus (On the Legendary Atlantis and the Platonic Bodies) part of his thinking. In this context, knowledge of the Egyptian pyramids is self-evident.

Did Leonardo know China?

That Leonardo also became acquainted with Chinese culture through the internationally trading Italian merchants is equally unquestionable, at least in its stereotypes. Leonardo was acquainted with the Florentine adventurer Benedetto Dei. Benedetto made long journeys, e.g. to today's Mali in North Africa, as well as to Egypt or today's Syria. His travel reports were so impressive that Leonardo once wrote him a letter in which he accurately described the Caucasus without ever having been there himself. At the time, the Orient played a key role as a transshipment point for goods from the Far East.

In addition, the travelogues of the northern Italian trader Marco Polo (*1254) had come back into the consciousness of the citizens due to the emergence of printing. His journey to China is a well-known testimony to the exchange of cultures in Europe and the Far East at that time. Although Marco Polo's accounts have in the recent past, been considered fictional, recent research suggests that the accounts are true.

Leonardo's invention of the helicopter principle is often attributed in the literature to a Chinese children's toy ('Bamboo Dragonfly') that may have come into Leonardo's possession through international trade routes.

asiatischer Reishut
Asian cone hat,
a traditional asian headgear to protect from rain or sun

The religions

A Flood appears in many religions, for example in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, where the Flood and Noah's building of the Ark is told. Greek mythology also knew a Flood. But the Flood is not the only religious reference.

Mona Lisa's weeping eye is located at the apex of a triangle with a symbolic angle (45°) and leads to the lower corners of the painting (yellow line). It reminds of representations of the symbol of the eye of God, as it is also on the Great Seal of the USA. However, the eye in the triangle cannot be proved as a symbol of God before 1682, so that Leonardo might not have had this in mind.

However, as the eye of Ra, i.e. without a surrounding triangle and without a halo, it was already used by the Egyptians and symbolized the sun god Ra, the god of light. Since the symbol follows strict geometric proportions, it certainly fascinated Leonardo.

The fact that Leonardo places the eye of the Mona Lisa at the apex of a triangle highlights the importance of light in all world religions, regardless of the direct religious symbolism. For the eye serves the perception of light. Conversely, the highest being of every religion "sees" everything. Seeing, and therefore the eye, is therefore very prominent in every religion.

The science

In Plato's book Timaeus, the Platonic solids named after him are explained. Leonardo worked around 1498 with the mathematician Luca Pacioli on the book "Divine Harmony", which deals among other things with the Platonic solids, the golden section and its applications. Leonardo made 60 illustrative plates for it. The thesis of the book is the idea that all natural forms can be traced back to a few basic geometric forms. The book sees itself as a continuation of Plato's ideas.

The depiction of the old man in the hair of the Mona Lisa is reminiscent of an ancient bust of Plato, which Leonardo very likely knew because of the numerous copies.

In addition to the depiction of the tidal wave in the upper right area (the fall of Atlantis), a compressed cube and a compressed sphere at the base of the left column also allude to the Book of Timaeus. The old man in the hair of the Mona Lisa is looking at the strictly linear form of the left column foot, which contrasts with the column foot of the right side, which is painted in a strikingly softer and more transparent way.

Moreover, the column feet are exactly at the level of the golden section of the picture height (orange line).

The bridge, towards which the tidal wave in the upper right area is rushing, is inclined at an angle of 5° to the upper right. This clarifies a physical connection, because the orbital inclination of the moon is ~5°. The moon causes ebb and flow and is thus causally related to the tidal wave behind the bridge.

The five intersections at the left column, the right bridge and in its breast and shoulder area (blue dots) remind of the timeless and also internationally only clearly recognizable constellation, that of the Little Dipper. Constellations are among the best known symbols for astronomy. Astronomy, in turn, requires knowledge of geometry. One of the practical applications of astronomy is seafaring, which is important for trade.

Astronomy is also used for the determination of time. The year, weeks, months and days, as well as feast days go back to astronomical rhythms. Mona Lisa's right index finger appears to tap rhythmically on her left arm. It thus refers to steadily advancing time in the narrower sense and to astronomy or geometry in the broader sense. The tapping is an optical illusion caused by the strong light-dark contrasts in the area. As a result, the outline of her index finger can only be determined with a concentrated gaze, in the corner of the eye the position of the index finger is perceived sometimes here, sometimes there, which causes the impression of typing.

Symbolism of the Planet Earth

If all symbols are now brought together, it becomes finally clear that Leonardo wanted to create with the Mona Lisa a work that puts human culture in the foreground, not in detail, but in general. As characterizing aspects Leonardo emphasizes human coexistence (man, family and nations), religion (Eye of Ra and Noah's Flood) and finally science (references to Plato, ebb and flow, astronomy). The painting's fantastic background landscape can thus no longer be perceived as a specific landscape, but rather shows the earth in general, which is made clear not least by a circular horizon line I (green line). The Mona Lisa is the only one of Leonardo's undoubtedly genuine portraits that shows a landscape.

Outlook

The conjecture arises that Leonardo could also have connected his few other paintings with the planets known at that time. Planets such as Mercury, Venus and Mars were always associated with typical characters and colors, as were Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus and Neptune were not discovered until the 18th century, so Leonardo could have painted a total of six paintings corresponding to the six planets known at the time. However, seven Leonardo paintings are considered to be undoubtedly genuine. One of the seven would therefore not symbolize a planet.

Das letzte Abendmahl Bildanalyse – Perspektivlinien
The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1498
The vanishing point of the perspective lines shown here is not in Jesus' right eye, as often erroneously assumed, but at his right temple. The point of impact of a nail from which Leonardo stretched the threads can still be seen there

The greatest pleasure is the realization

Leonardo da Vinci

Downloads

Sources

Website of the exhibiting museum: Louvre-Museum, Paris

 

Frank Zöllner, Leonardo, Taschen (2019)

Martin Kemp, Leonardo, C.H. Beck (2008)

Charles Niccholl, Leonardo da Vinci: Die Biographie, Fischer (2019)

Johannes Itten, Bildanalysen, Ravensburger (1988)

Robert Descharnes und Gilles Néret, Dali – Das malerische Werk, Taschen (2001)

Die Bibel, Einheitsübersetzung, Altes und Neues Testament, Pattloch Verlag (1992)

Platon, Timaios, Holzinger (2016)

Especially recommended

Marianne Schneider, Das große Leonardo Buch – Sein Leben und Werk in Zeugnissen, Selbstzeugnissen und Dokumenten, Schirmer/ Mosel (2019)

Leonardo da Vinci, Schriften zur Malerei und sämtliche Gemälde, Schirmer/ Mosel (2011)

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