Archive for November, 2011

Solving the Mona Lisa Mysteries


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.

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)

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.

lion, ape, and buffalo head


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.

Drapery study with d-point

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.

Mona Lisa from d-point

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.

Mona Lisa's smile


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.

lightning arms

“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.

The Mona Lisa as viewed from Leonardo's vantage point (d-point). The image on right has been highlighted to show outline of crocodile head.

The Mona Lisa as viewed from Leonardo’s secret vantage point (d-point). The image on right has been highlighted to show outline of crocodile head.

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.

chest of arrows

“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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Discovering the Renaissance Illusions

So how did I make these discoveries?

It’s been 500 years and many theories and books and “facts” have been written – some make sense and some were a little, for lack of a better word, preposterous. Many have come up with different theories of why Mona Lisa’s smile exists as it does. And then joe-schmo-me comes along and discovers everything. How was I able to come up with answers to such puzzling questions that went unanswered for so many years? Well, let me tell you. In short it was accidental. In a case of knowing enough to be dangerous, mixed with a little bit of curiosity and being at the right place at the right time, I was the Columbus of this event; I was looking for one thing and discovered another.

I’m both an artist and a fan of fine art. I’ve studied art ever since I could hold a pencil. My dream as a kid was to become a comic book illustrator. I wanted to be the next
Todd McFarlane.
For years I would copy the covers of old super hero comics, a way of learning super hero anatomy from the time I was able to hold a pencil. I dreamt of illustrating and inking in covers for The Amazing Spider-Man and maybe even Captain America (And yeah,
I was a fan way before the movie.) But, I was a kid when I had those goals and eventually my goals became a little more realistic. But the dream of being an artist would never change. I would never settle for anything less than that. Knowing that reaching Comic Illustrator status would be difficult, I focused my studies on Commercial Illustration. But even then (pre-iPod existence), seeing that computers were taking over everything at the time, I decided to change my focus to graphic design.

My first job as an artist was to create advertisements on hanging chalkboards for our local supermarket, Wegmans. It was a job I received when my art skills (which I didn’t think were all that great back then) were presented to our store manager. I guess my art skills were developed enough to condition people to get that gallon of milk before they left the store.

My first real art job came as a graphic designer for a small screen printing shop in which I created many shirt designs. I referred to them as walking billboards for obvious reasons. It was a job I loved and had a lot of fun with. I had only planned on being there about a year or so, but growth and opportunity came into play and that plan stretched out to thirteen-plus years. I decided during that time to update myself with some web classes at the Rochester Institute of Technology. It had been a while since I went to school and I wanted to update my skills.

I never recognized my skills as good enough (the reason for my other blog’s name – Shortly after, I was offered a job at a large local agency. For four years, my main client at the agency was a local casino. An unfortunate set of layoffs resulted from a bad economy and I was left without work.

I saw this time off as an opportunity to concentrate on my oil paintings until I could find another job. I had painted my first canvas about a year previous to that and fell in love with it. Before that I had never been interested in painting. I was always an illustrator (all I needed was a number 2 pencil) turned graphic designer. I often joked that I didn’t have any use for color. But now my new goal was to get my paintings into a gallery in the future and maybe have my own studio so that I could live off of my painting commissions.

I got rid of my television and started to really live the artist life; I attended exhibits and watched documentaries on the Internet. I really fell in love with painting, developing a style akin to Impressionism. My favorite artist of that time was Van Gogh.

One day I decided to hit the bookstore in search of some inspiration from the Renaissance. I had just finished watching a documentary on Leonardo da Vinci and so my first visit was to a book of his art. I opened it up to the Mona Lisa. I wanted to know what made this so famous. I remember an old art teacher saying that this was so famous because he used a technique called sfumato on it. But I knew it was because of the many mysteries of the painting. The thing is, I didn’t care about the mysteries. Never did. That would never help my painting skills. What I wanted to know was why the painting itself was so well received.

So I did something with the painting I regularly do with my own paintings. I viewed it upside down. Somewhere in art class years ago I was taught to view my artwork in the mirror in order to get a sense of balance and composition, color, etc. The problem with working on a project for a long time is that you lose your sense of balance. But viewing it in a mirror gives you a fresh look at that. Instead, I like to turn my painting upside down and leave it for a few days. I then walk into the room days later at a distance, so that I don’t focus on the details. Details don’t matter to me until the balance is perfected. So turning the Mona Lisa upside down was a great way for me to view it in a new light.

I also stood back from it, for the same reason of ignoring details. So there I am, standing a few feet back with this book that I had placed upside down on the floor. And what stuck out to me was something I had never noticed before. How could I not have noticed this? I must have seen this painting thousands of times since about third grade when we first learned about it.

Mona Lisa Question Mark

What I saw was a question mark, formed from the highlights in the main part of the portrait. I knew enough about Leonardo to know that this could not have been created accidentally. Leonardo was a genius to say the least. I can see him as planning every stroke on this painting. Nothing was accidental with him. And so my curiosity started to peak. Aware of the mysteries of the painting, I wanted to look a little further into it, so I brought the book home. It was a book of Leonardo’s works so I felt I should have owned it anyways. I got home that night and looked a little closer to the painting. I remember telling my friend, who I carpooled with, about what I had found. I also remember him laughing at it as he brushed it off as coincidence. And maybe that’s what many others did if they had seen it also. I laughed with him, but I knew there was more to it. And I didn’t expect to find much. For me it was all about inspiration. Maybe I would learn something that I could apply to my paintings.

While looking at the painting that night, I figured that since Leonardo had hid this question mark upside down, maybe he hid something that could be viewed from the other sides. It only made sense, right? It didn’t take me long to find what looked to me like a lion’s head, roaring towards the sky.

I’ve been an artist ever since I could remember. And as an artist you can tell when something doesn’t look right – whether it’s a shadow that’s too dark, or a color that doesn’t seem right, or maybe an anatomical proportion of a figure. The thing is, everything looked perfect on this lion’s head. It was definitely a lion. It was that obvious to me. Even only a year’s worth of painting had taught me to learn my paintings better than anyone else could. You have no choice as you work on it, staring at it for hours on end, sometimes working on it for weeks or months. You end up memorizing every inch or color, composition, and brush stroke.

Now if Leonardo worked on the Mona Lisa for what is thought to be 5 years, I promise you he knew every inch of it; every brush stroke, every layer of ink, and from every angle, including the upside down position. Now in all the classes I’ve taken and all the documentaries I’ve watched on TV, I have heard of artists hiding things in their paintings, but I’ve never heard of Leonardo hiding anything in the Mona Lisa. I never heard about a question mark. And I definitely never heard about a roaring lion’s head. A sort of anticipation began to form. It was more contained than anything, but a seed had definitely been planted. The Mona Lisa mysteries I had never cared about all of a sudden peaked in the foreground of my thoughts. So I continued to look. I wasn’t going to stop now. It was like looking for pictures in the clouds the way I used to as a kid laying in the grass on a warm day.

The lion head was hidden in the mountains. And that’s exactly where I would also find an ape’s head and a third animal that seems to be a buffalo head. I knew it was something though. I was way past the town of coincidences and into the world of evidence.

I couldn’t see anything else and so I went to the fourth side – the left of the painting. I couldn’t find anything at first as I looked closely, but knew there had to be something. It would only make sense since the other three sides contained images. So I stood back the way I did when I spotted the question mark. Now you have to understand the gears spinning in my head. It was like an out of body experience. I was way beyond focused. I was so in tune with trying to find something that Buddha would have taken notes on my ability to focus. But there was no way that what I eventually spotted had never seen before. So why have I never heard of these sightings?

What I saw was sort of unbelievable considering this painting and how many millions of people have looked at this through the years, every year. Could no one have spotted this before? If you can imagine the Mona Lisa on its side, with her head pointing left, imagine her silhouette. What I eventually saw turned out to be a mule’s head. It was hard to figure out but I knew, especially after seeing the other images, that the eye socket was so cleverly painted into her robe’s wrinkles. But he painted it a touch too perfect for me. It was clearly an eye socket – perfect eye socket shape, perfect eyeball proportion. I had illustrated enough faces over the years to know it perfectly. Plus, I knew that Leonardo had a fascination with horses, or so it was said. And in this case a mule will suffice!

Creation of Adam

This was all too clear to me. I needed to know if anyone else had reported this before. Needless to say, I Googled the crap out of this. And yet I found nothing. I have seen many stories on famous art sightings such as the “hidden brain” in the Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel, so what I found would have definitely had to have had a story published somewhere. After all, it’s the most famous painting in the world. Yet I found nothing about it. This is where my belief of a possible discovery started to form. It was just so hard to believe that no one had seen this. Yet it made all the sense in the world.

I remember seeing a copy of the Mona Lisa as a child, around the third grade. We all learned about it at a young age and were conditioned to not think much about it, aside from what we learned. So why would we ever pay much attention to it later on, unless you were some art historian. But even then you would view these paintings like everyone else: very close and right side up.

The next day I purchased a book on a collection of Leonardo’s writings, a translation of his notes on philosophy, drawing, thinking, perspective, human studies, observations, etc. I was hoping to maybe see something there about these animals so I could learn what they meant. As I skimmed the pages, a passage caught my eye. In it, Leonardo mentions a lion, ape, mule and buffalo. Once I came across this, I knew to pay close attention to every word in that book. And so I read it all. There were passages on perspective. There were passages on anatomy. There were passages on philosophy. There were many, many passages. And then there was the following passage with the following diagram – and this one really caught my attention.

Supposing a b to be the picture and d to be the light, I say that if you place yourself between c and e you will not understand the picture well and particularly if it is done in oils, or still more if it is varnished, because it will be lustrous and somewhat of the nature of a mirror. And for this reason the nearer you go towards the point c, the less you will see, because the rays of light falling from the window on the picture are reflected to that point. But if you place yourself between e and d you will get a good view of it, and the more so as you approach the point d, because that spot is least exposed to these reflected rays of light.”

Now why would Leonardo say to view a painting from the d point? This was very odd to me, so I tried it. And this is how I saw an illusion of a horse head for the first time – specifically in one of his drapery studies. And as I mentioned in my first blog, it all started to come together from that d-point. And that’s when I saw her smile as she revealed all her secrets to me – secrets that were hidden for 500 years. I knew I had made a gigantic discovery. And so I had to view the d-point, as I now call it, to his other works.

What other secrets would I find in these five hundred year old paintings?



The Hidden Horse Head is a blog dedicated to finding the hidden images of the Renaissance paintings.

Recently I made a series of discoveries – optical illusions painted into famous masterpieces. This site will take a look at those paintings one by one and show you how to view the illusions and what could be see. I will talk about how I made my discovery – something that went unseen for five hundred years.

Our venture will have us look at these famous works in a whole new light. I will also explain how I came upon the answers to the mysteries of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and how I discovered secrets to The Last Supper and other paintings, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Welcome to the Hidden Horse Head! Enjoy!

“Dedicated to Ginger, who sat by my side through my work and through my discoveries,
but passed on November 1 to an unknown illness. Walking through the front door will
never be the same without you.” ~ Ron Piccirillo