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


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