What if I told you the Mona Lisa is an optical illusion—one painting hidden within another? Well it’s true. And that’s what my first post on this blog is about. It’s not about the Da Vinci code or any existing theory. Since making this discovery months ago, I have been waiting to let the world know of my findings—a secret that has been hiding for five hundred years. I will tell you all about that in a moment.
(As part of a Liu Bolin project, the image above of Mona Lisa has been temporarily replaced.)
First, I want to tell you about a famous artist by the name of Leonardo da Vinci. As if you’ve never heard of him. For the sake of keeping this post shorter than it could be, I’ll give you his biography in CliffsNotes format. Leonardo: 101—famous Renaissance artist, scientist, zoologist, inventor and genius. He invented tools of flight for humans. He discovered cholesterol. He invented a diving suit. He invented an armored tank. He invented machines of death for war (but was really a peaceful man that did not want them used). He actually would pay bird keepers to release them back into the wild. He invented the helicopter. He invented a robot. Yes, a robot (look it up).
NASA has referred to some of his sketches for their own works. He was such a good painter as a young apprentice that his teacher quit because Leonardo had surpassed the teacher’s skills. He was that good (in case you didn’t know). He painted a portrait referred to as the Mona Lisa around 1503 and also painted the The Last Supper. You may have seen it.
He carried the Mona Lisa painting around with him for at least four years as he worked on it. He never left any hint as to whom the Mona Lisa really was (which was unusual for the time) and he wanted it kept that way.
Now fast-forward five hundred years. At one point, the painting had been stolen (1911) and was missing for two years (Don’t worry, it was found and returned to the owners). For centuries we’ve been trying to figure out who the Mona Lisa really is. It has been narrowed down to a few different women, but currently most people believe her to be Lisa Gherardini, since that is the best existing theory (but is still very short of proof).
Millions of people visit the Mona Lisa every year in the Louvre in Paris. Many mysteries, including her identity, have gone unresolved and has caused many theories. Let me list some of those mysteries out for you:
• She has an unexplained smile. The word enigmatic has been coined in describing that smile. I will explain the smile so that it will no longer be mysterious.
• The horizon line does line up from one side of the painting to the other
• Nobody has proof as to who she really is (except for me which I will reveal to you in a bit)
• The strongest belief is that she is Lisa Gherardini (currently the best guess, but still incorrect)
• The landscape location is a mystery (except to me – also will be explained in a bit)
• Leonardo never mentions her in any of his 7,000+ notes (he actually does and I will show that also. Please, be patient)
• Some think it’s a portrait of a man, possibly even Leonardo himself. (Once again, incorrect)
(As part of a Liu Bolin project, the image above of Mona Lisa has been temporarily replaced.)
One day while doing research on Renaissance art for one of my paintings, I noticed something odd about the Mona Lisa painting. I was viewing a copy of it upside down, something I regularly do with my own paintings to check balance and composition. What stuck out to me was as obvious as day – a question mark. Literally. If you look at the Mona Lisa this way (upside down) and follow the highlights of her portrait, it forms a question mark. How did no one notice this before? Believing that anything Leonardo did was not accidental, I knew it had to mean something. So I looked further.
Turning the painting around I looking at everything, eventually spotting what turned out to be a lion’s head, an ape head and a buffalo head. I knew I had stumbled upon something, and so I turned to a published book of Leonardo’s writings. I had first Googled this, but could not find anything on it. How could something like this have gone unnoticed for five hundred years?
Eventually, I came to a passage that talked about Man, Horse, Lion and Buffalo. I also came across another passage from Leonardo about observing a painting. There were a few passages that seemed to fit together like puzzle pieces. I eventually put them together to figure out Leonardo’s secret vantage point, which I now refer to as the d-point. This perspective was the key to viewing the optical illusions that were never discovered before.
In order to see the hidden optical illusions, your viewing point must be at such an acute angle to the art. This is the d-point. According to Leonardo’s notes, your eye should be in line with the painted horizon, if there is one in the painting (as in the case of the Mona Lisa). For me, it helps to only use one eye and should be extremely close to the left edge of the painting. The other must be closed. This is how you will get the best view of the image.
I remember looking first at one of his studies of drapery. My vision had been blurry from lack of sleep, and because of my lack of focus I could make out what seemed like a hidden picture of a horse head.
I knew about Leonardo’s fascination with horses but was still astounded at what I saw. The horse head was only visible from a certain vantage point – looking straight at the painting, the horse head was unnoticeable. This couldn’t have been a coincidence. As I looked at his other paintings and sketches, I started to spot horse heads from that same vantage point, in many of his works. These images sometime took up the whole size of the art piece. How had these gone unnoticed for all these years? Then it was the Mona Lisa’s turn. Looking at it from the d-point, time seemed to slow down as these images came to life.
From the d-point, everything seemed to come together. All the mysteries I had ever read or heard about throughout my life slowly made sense – the unaligned horizon; the wide structure of a not so womanly model; the large hands; the smile. Why would a genius and perfectionist such as Leonardo distort something such as the horizon line?
I could see why they had been questioned all these years – everything seemed “off.” To me, her right hand always seemed a little awkward. I mean, it was beautifully painted, but the position was off. How can a craftsman such as him screw that up? I always felt that she should be bending at the knuckles – wouldn’t that be a more comfortable position for a model? And maybe there was a reason for it. It had to be “off” in order for the illusion to work. I couldn’t process the information fast enough to comprehend what I was actually discovering. It was inconceivable, but then it all made perfect sense.
From the d-point I was able to see horse heads in other paintings, cleverly hidden within a painted illusion that could never be seen from standing directly in front of the work. I could only describe it as standing in front of an oval line drawing (drawn horizontally). It is obviously an oval, the way a painting is obviously about its subjects, and so why would you question it? But as you walk to the left side (towards the d-point) the oval starts to shorten into a circle, due to the perspective view. This is the case, obviously more complex, with the paintings. They are of one composition of art from the front, but as you view it from the d-point, hidden image(s) start to appear, although still improbable to be seen unless you know to look for it.
So as I looked at the Mona Lisa from the d-point, everything made sense. Leonardo had cleverly painted the portrait in perspective. All of a sudden the horizon seemed to line up. Her left hand, bent at the wrist, now seemed to bend at the knuckles. Her haggardness turned to a healthier state of being. And best of all, her enigmatic smile turned into a smirk – as if to congratulate me on finding what had forever been hidden – an illusion that tells a different story.
It was this illusion that led me to the next discovery, a passage by Leonardo from his notebooks that speaks directly about the Mona Lisa painting. It was believed that Leonardo never mentioned the Mona Lisa painting in his writings. But I knew once I read the passage and made some comparisons that it was definitely about her.
The passage reads as follows…
“Envy must be represented with a contemptuous motion of the hand towards heaven, because if she could she would use her strength against God; make her with her face covered by a mask of fair seeming; show her as wounded in the eye by a palm branch and by an olive-branch, and wounded in the ear by laurel and myrtle, to signify that victory and truth are odious to her. Many thunderbolts should proceed from her to signify her evil speaking. Let her be lean and haggard because she is in perpetual torment. Make her heart gnawed by a swelling serpent, and make her with a quiver with tongues serving as arrows, because she often offends with it. Give her a leopard’s skin, because this creature kills the lion out of envy and by deceit. Give her too a vase in her hand full of flowers and scorpions and toads and other venomous creatures; make her ride upon death, because Envy, never dying, never tires of ruling. Make her bridle, and load her with divers kinds of arms because all her weapons are deadly.”
No one had ever realized that this passage was about the Mona Lisa. You would never know unless you were able to make the connections with the images viewed from the d-point. Let me break down each sentence as it refers to the painting:
“Envy must be represented with a contemptuous motion of the hand towards heaven, because if she could she would use her strength against God;”
Mona Lisa’s right hand is bent awkwardly at the wrist. It is my opinion that the natural position would be a bend at the knuckles. To me it seems more natural that she is raising her hand towards God than if she were to rest it on her right arm. From the illusion point though, her hand seems to break at the knuckles, not the wrist.
“Many thunderbolts should proceed from her to signify her evil speaking.”
Could the wrinkles on her sleeves signify lightning?
“Let her be lean and haggard because she is in perpetual torment.”
Her eyes look exhausted to me. She seems to be raising her brows in a frowning position, as if too worn to speak, and with only enough energy to create an expression of haggardness. When viewing from the d-point though, as Leonardo described, she looks thinner, younger and womanlier.
“Make her heart gnawed by a swelling serpent,”
This is my favorite sentence in the passage because it translates so clearly in the painting. From the d-point, one can clearly see the head of a reptile – perhaps a serpent or crocodile – behind her. Its open mouth lines up perfectly with Mona Lisa’s heart, which can be seen subtly by following the shape of the highlights in the center of her chest.
I could only guess that in the actual painting, the illusion would be even more obvious; highlights such as white are usually painted last and thicker than the other colors, which means they would be slightly raised above all the other colors. I could only guess that in the actual painting, this means that you would see more white from the illusion perspective and a more obvious heart shape.
I also see that the landscaping seems to turn into a swamp from the illusion perspective – perfect for a reptile to be floating in. Also, it seems as if the swamp water is bloody in front of the crocodile, as if it was gnawing on a bloody item, such as her heart.
“and make her with a quiver with tongues serving as arrows, because she often offends with it.”
I don’t get the connection with the tongue, but could the pattern on her blouse represent the shapes of arrows?
“Give her a leopard’s skin, because this creature kills the lion out of envy and by deceit.”
The Black Panther is a kind of leopard, obviously with black fur. The Mona Lisa seems to be wearing all black, thus corresponding to the leopard reference. In the landscaping, there is also the lion’s head facing upward – is it meant to be shown to drown in the swamp illusion?
“make her ride upon death, because Envy, never dying, never tires of ruling.”
The position of her ring finger (left hand) bothers me. It seems awkward that it stands out further than the pinky finger. This is about the position of a hand that would be grasping a saddle rope, as if riding a horse (“ride upon death”). Could Leonardo be representing her as riding in the sidesaddle position – a normal position for women to ride horses in because of their dresses. Leonardo painted her in the three-quarter profile, which is a perfect angle for representing a female riding a horse. This is definitely arguable since she may be sitting in a chair. Is it possible that Leonardo is secretly representing her as riding sidesaddle on a mule that he hid in the picture?
Also, the cloth looping around her left shoulder seems to be braided/coiled like that of a rope/lasso. Not sure if that’s how horse riders carried their ropes, but it would make sense for Leonardo to show her as riding.
“Make her bridle, and load her with divers kinds of arms because all her weapons are deadly.”
Her veil makes her bridal. I do not spot any weapons though. I still need to look further into this one…
So to answer the previous mysteries that I bulleted at the beginning of this blog, here are the actual answers:
The horizon line may not line up from the frontal view, but from the d-point it lines up perfectly, due to the illusion’s perspective.
As far as the landscape goes, people have been trying to figure out the location of the background. Some have referred to the bridge in the background on the right as possibly being from a certain location. I believe he created the landscape in this fashion so that he could ‘work in’ the serpent/crocodile, lion and ape and what I see as a swamp. He simply made it up, unless you could find me a mountain range with a lion’s head and some landscaping with an ape face and crocodile head shaped into it.
The smile. Ah yes, the famous enigmatic smile. This one is big. I can see theorists’ jaws dropping as they read this one. The smile was also painted in a way meant to be revealed in the illusion. Simply look at it from the d-point and you will see that she reveals her true smile – a clever painting technique he used on the right of the mouth seems more distinct when viewed from the d-point, which shows her smirking. Yes, smirking, as if to say, “Congratulations. You figured it out.”
The Envy passage is a great piece of evidence that describes who
the Mona Lisa is. And that description comes straight from Leonardo himself. There’s not much to argue with there.
Now, I’m not saying that the Mona Lisa is Lisa Gherardini. And I’m not saying she’s not. But I will say that Leonardo refers her to be Envy. The proof is obvious to me. So I guess the real question now is, does Envy represent a certain person, or does she just represent the trait?
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Here’s an interview the Italian American Community Center put into their February newspaper issue. I didn’t know this was going to be Q&A format — I just thought they were gathering the information and were going to write a story based on my answers, but I’m happy with how it turned out. Alessandro asked some interesting questions that definitely brought some of my opinions to the surface. Looking back, I do think some of my answers may have been a little daring…
(Next section of interview continued below)
Is it possible that the Renaissance artists used their ability to create such beautiful paintings as a way to distract the viewer from other meanings of their paintings?
Here is a painting by Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, painted in 1486 – during the Renaissance.
From the d-point (the angled vantage point), two faces emerge – a man’s face on the left and a woman’s face of some sort on the right. You can see how the flesh tones from the two painted character’s legs on the left make up the flesh tones of the man’s face when viewed from the d-point. Our view seems to be from behind, as if the man is looking slightly away and towards the right. His cheekbone and chin line are well defined.
(I have highlighted the faces below.)
The woman’s view also seems to be focused in the same direction as the man’s. Our view is from behind. She seems to be looking away from us and to the left. Unlike the man, she seems to have a greenish skin, almost alien like. Are they both focusing on the goddess Venus?
What was Botticelli attempting to convey with this odd-looking couple?
This was an interview I did with the Rochester Business Journal. I really liked that Sally added a personality to all the previous stories that had made it out into the media world. She did a great job on this.
Here is the actual link to the story –
In an interview the other day I was asked if I think artists normally hide images in their paintings. I’m not sure about “normally,” but we have seen many works that exist with hidden images. Some are obvious and some not so obvious. Up until now we have been discussing Renaissance paintings that contain images that were not intended to be viewed so easily – “double images” in which one is obvious and the other seems to be hidden in plain site. So I wanted to show some works that we have already accepted as “double images.” Enjoy!
Is this painting above of a tribe or is it a face lying on its side? Or is it both?
Did artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo intend to paint a profile of a lady or a bunch of creatures from the sea? Or both? (By the way, this was created during the Renaissance.)
Here is another painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Did he paint another profile here or are these just a collection of animals?
Interestingly enough, is that a lion head, elephant head, horse head, mule head and a monkey in his Renaissance painting? Haven’t we have seen those animals in other Renaissance paintings?
Here is a logo that we are all familiar with. We’ve seen it many times, but how many of us know about the arrow that is hidden in the logo? (It’s the negative space between the “E” and “x.”) I use this FedEx example as a point that it is possible for something so obvious to stay hidden until pointed out.
And here is a portfolio piece that was created for a client by yours truly – me. Is that a face I see there or just an obvious collection of jewelry?
I guess the question I should have been asked is not whether I think artists would normally hide images in their paintings, but why would artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael want to paint images that were not so obvious to see?
The weekend after I had my first on-air interview, I received a text from a friend saying that
my interview made it to the Today Show.
They referred to me as an art historian. Not sure where they received that information –
I’m actually a graphic designer and oil painter.
How do you prepare for something such as your first interview?
You have in mind what you want to say and how you’re going to say it, but as soon as they put that camera on you, all plans go out the window.
My first interview was with Ray Levato from our local news station – WHEC-TV Channel 10. I had heard that he was a little skeptical about this kind of news, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
We all met at the front lobby of the news station and preceded upstairs to the studio while making small talk. I was trying to get a sense of what Ray was thinking and I felt right away that he was going to have a field day with me. I guess I was as prepared as I could be and just wanted to let my findings do the talking.
The interview lasted about an hour. At first I felt that Ray did not agree with my discoveries as some of the stuff was not that easy to see. He even said me at one point, “The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most studied portrait in the last 500 years. …how is it that (I’m) the first person to see this?” I really wasn’t ready for that question, but the camera was rolling.
WHEC TV 10 • Rochester, NY • November 30, 2011 (View online article)
I had expected nothing but the worst that night. I was ready to be embarrassed at work while my coworkers and I watched. Originally Ray had mentioned doing a one and a half minute news spot. A couple hours before airing, Kristine (my PR rep) had texted me and said that they were going to make my interview the lead story and bump up the time to almost 4 minutes!
As skeptical as I felt Ray to be when we first met, I really felt he had warmed up to me by the end of the interview. I never expected that interview to come out that well (for me).
What do you think?
Here’s another painting that appears to have animal heads hidden in it – similar to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. In the Mona Lisa I spotted an ape head, a lion head, a mule head, a buffalo head and from the d-point (vantage point), a crocodile head.
This painting is Titian’s Pastoral Concert. Here I spot an ape head, a lion head, an elephant head and what could be a mule or horse head.
Not sure why he didn’t put a crocodile in this one, although he did paint one in his Venus of Urbino (below).
Is this all a coincidence? Maybe.
Did I happen to mention that I found an elephant in Michelangelo’s
Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden (Sistine Chapel)?