(December, 1999)

By Noel Huntley, Ph.D.

Is there any basis to the speculative descriptions associated with the Mona Lisa painting regarding the enigmatic smile and other mysterious observations? Or are they the product of mass imagination, propaganda and delusion? It is a fact that for centuries the painting, probably the most famous in the world, has attracted inordinate attention and has baffled critics. Millions of people have visited the Louvre specially to gaze at this particular portrait, which has become renowned for its so-called 'enigmatic smile'. Are there any tangible, identifiable elements that we can evaluate for a resolution of this mystery, and uncover the secret which has remained hidden for so long?

The extraordinary accomplishments and genius of Leonardo da Vinci are widely known and unreservedly acknowledged in both his works of art and scientific invention. If anyone was capable of engineering such a feat, or wile, and applying it to a portrait it would be one with a mind so ideally endowed as Leonardo's. The obscure elements of Mona Lisa's countenance have stirred up notions of mysticism, or at least have suggested connotations of something irrational and mechanistically inexplicable.

Attention has been drawn to several puzzling elements: 1) the enigmatic smile, 2) why did da Vinci paint the horizon on different levels on each side of the head? 3) the alive eyes, and 4) the unidentified model. Are they all part of a single mystery? Regarding the unidentified model, some sources of art literature claim that the identity of the model is known; others disagree. This information could in fact support a conclusion that Leonardo did in fact use a model but was not painting the model. It is generally understood that artists will use a model whether or not the specific model is the subject of the work of art.

Let us take the four enumerated mysteries one at a time. As we gaze at the face of the Mona Lisa, there is the effect of movement of light and shade around the mouth, giving rise to a slight smile, which is quite elusive--one moment she appears to be smiling, and the next, not smiling. This feature is the one which has been particularly focussed on and given recognition, and no doubt has played a dominant role in elevating the portrait's reputation to being the most famous in history.

Leonard da Vinci was a pioneer in the study of light, and he is credited with various insights about its nature. In particular, he investigated optical illusions, and his explanations for them are still acknowledged today. Did he knowingly apply this knowledge of optical illusions to this painting? We can show that the mysterious smile is definitely the product of the application of a common optical illusion, as though taken directly from the pages of the experimental psychologist's text book of today. Let us now describe the mechanics of this illusion.

The illusion in question is demonstrated by drawing a wheel (a circle) with a suitable number of spokes or radials (about eight for application to the painting) and then blackening every other segment so that black and white regions alternate around the wheel. When we look at this figure and pass our attention over it, we will notice the wheel has a tendency to spin, or at least rotate slightly back and forth--the spokes appear to shift positions slightly. Note that if one attempts to observe this directly, with a steady focus, the effect will not occur. This applies to all optical illusions; it is necessary to continue to sweep one's attention over the figure in a natural manner.*

Now we can understand the cause of the enigmatic smile by imagining the wheel figure placed over the mouth with the centre of the wheel coinciding with a point midway between the lips. One can now rotate the wheel with its alternate black and white sections so that its overlay of dark and light coincides with similar dark and light regions around the mouth. That is, Leonardo da Vinci has shaded the lower part of the face in such a manner that the line of the mouth forms the horizontal spokes of the wheel. Consequently by sweeping one's attention over the area, a flickering effect occurs similar to that with the wheel illusion, causing the corners of the mouth to move slightly up and down and, in fact, the shading around the mouth to come alive.** (Note that a good reproduction is necessary to see consciously these slight effects, and one preferably with good contrast.)

Leonardo clearly used this optical illusion in other paintings, particular those of a spiritual nature. Also one must realise that there are optical illusions in every perception; it is a matter of whether they are directed in any way, enabling them to be recognised.

We shall see that the enigmatic smile is part of a larger, whole face effect. Let us take the second puzzle, (2) above. Why did he paint the horizon on two different levels on each side of the head? If one's attention is more towards the left side, where the horizon is lower (which means our perspective viewpoint is lower), the eyes, which are in three-quarter view, are in correct approximate perspective, though the viewer's eye level, is approximately at her eye level making the line between the eyes almost horizontal. But if the viewer is gazing more towards the right side, with the higher horizon, the line connecting the eyes should slope a little the other way--the left eye should be higher than the right.

This slight influence on the stability of the line connecting the eyes alone may not be sufficient to create any illusion, though it will tend to cause the line of perspective between the eyes to present a full-face view, or even a more alive effect as the level of the two eyes flickers (rocks). This will tend to make the upper part of the face around the eyes to appear to turn towards the viewer--giving a full face if the perspective line is horizontal--aided by the particular positioning of the bridge of the nose, which in fact is another 'clever' distortion and is slightly nearer to the right eye (from the observer's view) rather than, for correct perspective, the left.

However, the above effects are accentuated by placing the right eye a fraction higher (and outwards)--a distortion. This creates a certain independence of the eyes (aided also by the pucker of the bottom eye-lid of the left eye being more marked than on the right) and mobility effect of the right eye, causing the face to appear to turn towards the viewer and tilt up. Thus the right eye appears to move up a little (it tilts up because the viewer must compensate for the perspective by bringing up the right eye and higher than the left, which the perspective distortion demands. This is now the basis of effect (3) above, particularly when it combines with the optical illusions, effect (1). Thus she is smiling, turning towards the viewer, and tilting her head.

All this will create the appearance of more life in the face. If the mind can unify two views, a further and higher dimension will sometimes be created. For example, if one takes an x-ray photograph of an object, then repeat this shot at a slightly different angle, after which the two x-ray negatives are placed on a stereographic viewer so that the images superimpose, the eye will not separate the two but unify them to create a vivid 3D view of the inside of the object.

Picasso was attempting something similar when he painted faces with two noses, or with double features. Inwardly he was sensing the greater dimensional perception of the unconscious and he wished to express more than the lifeless, frozen portrait of the third dimension. Unfortunately the conscious mind cannot even remotely accommodate these effects, and they do not succeed (they may have, however, from Picasso's view, who would have an unconscious context of the greater whole, spanning space and time--giving his own prejudiced perception).

In the case of the Mona Lisa, the distortion, or 'Picasso effect'--number (3)--by means of the complementary tricks described, can be interrelated as one whole--one does not see a distortion. But even so this will be an unconscious impulse coming through to the conscious mind intuitively. The conscious mind will tend to flicker from one state of observation to another but will experience unification of the shifts, creating the illusion of fluidity of form and greater expression. Thus the two displaced views of the face (compare the two x-rays) create depth and a more alive effect.

Objections may still remain, however: a) that these effects are accidental, b) Leonardo could not have contrived such an 'impossible' device, and c) a few individuals, however, may still insist that there is something more than a cold scientific analysis can handle.

Regarding (a), this is probably dispelled by the fact that Leonardo must have painted deliberately the incongruous horizons, and that he possessed knowledge of optical illusions. If he didn't intend the appearance of two horizons and that on the right the mountain is truly higher and there is an apparent lake at a high altitude (say, this is the reality), this would constitute a mistake for a professional artist (because of the unreal distraction); hardly the product of a master such as he. That is, a good artist will not paint some arrangement as it is if it looks wrong. Thus this indicates very strongly he was up to something. The second query (b) above, is possibly justified; that he didn't contrive the effect--totally consciously. There is an explanation to this which combines with the answer to query (4) above and also (c). Let's begin with the more conventional view.

Of considerable historical interest has been the question of the model that da Vinci used. A television documentary presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, revealed the research carried out to identify the female of the portrait and unravel the complex information surrounding this further puzzle. It stated, as established fact, that the artist painted a woman (named Lisa), wife of a merchant But what enticed Leonardo to paint some obscure model when he was inundated with requests for portraits from celebrities and royalty---which he rejected? The possibility presented was that da Vinci was made an offer that couldn't be refused, or simply that there was a family business connection with the merchant. The odd discovery, however, was that when more recent interest was generated in the painting, its location did not indicate that it had been in the possession of the merchant; that is, the portrait as we see it now. It then became a common rumour that there were two paintings of Lisa. After eliminating other artists copies or whether Leonardo painted another copy, further research revealed from expert canvass examinations that there was a similar painting underlying the Mona Lisa painting but with significant differences. Further information regarding the dress and hair style of that time showed that Lisa would not have had that hair style or the shoulder garment ('twister'), but that a portrait of a woman with a more idealised appearance was created, even goddess-like. This was the conclusion; that he painted a female from his own imagination and intuition. This is a particularly interesting conclusion since it ties in very well with the channelled information following (for the open-minded or knowledgable in the New-Age field).

This description of the Mona Lisa's identity is not within the belief system of the materialist and is not recommended reading for the atheistic viewpoint. However, since the materialist might appreciate the above, hard scientific and more logical approach, in providing the evidence, it is not necessary for them to read further.

If there is something magical or spiritual about the painting, or any other object within the third dimension, the 'supernatural force' will influence the distribution of molecules in the third dimension, no matter how subtle (and, in principle, this is easily handled by the concepts of current quantum physics). A very interesting channelled source of information, the Unarius Educational Foundation, San Diego, has produced over one-hundred volumes of spiritual material. It was channelled briefly by them that Leonardo da Vinci painted his interpretation of his 'twin soul' in the 'higher worlds'. (Consciousness is not the product of the brain and originally would be neutral prior to dividing into a male and female energy essence with complementary characteristics.)

Twin souls are capable of acting as one whole. It would be an easy matter for Leonardo's twin--in particular, the two combined--to influence his body to create the above effects with some conscious contribution on the part of da Vinci, such as the optical illusions around the mouth and the displaced horizon. Thus he could have 'unconsciously' engineered the other more obscure effects.

It must be remembered that optical illusions do not occur when one is directly observing the elements of the illusion with a fixed focus. Also there is nothing irrational occurring in the third dimension of space, time and matter; the illusion is being created in the mind of the observer.

Now there are additional claimed secrets of the Mona Lisa (a website). Within the folds of the garment can be found a paint formation which depicts a face--possibly that of da Vinci, though obviously not detailed. It is easily lost in the shadings and contours of the material fabric. A good and preferably large reproduction is required to see this.

Another example is one which is quite paranormal (website). Under somewhat meditative conditions--looking at the portrait in a certain manner with a particular focus--it has been claimed that about 14 faces can be seen, superimposed, ranging from young to old, complete with hair bun on top in the oldest image!

Finally an art teacher with expert knowledge of art history, in particular, aware that prior to Leonardo's painting, perspective landscapes were never painted. Thus the secret here, which only da Vinci and his model knew, was that she was merely the foreground for a painting which exhibited a landscape set in perspective--something new in art according to this source of information.

[If the reader wishes to follow through on the last examples, at least two of these can be found on the web by inputting appropriate key words.]

This completes the evaluation of the Mona Lisa mysteries and once thoroughly studied and understood should satisfy the reader that this information is sufficient to resolve the matter.

  * Let us explain briefly why the illusion occurs. The above-described wheel illusion utilises, 1) the typical black/white phenomenon in the subject of illusions, and also 2) the intersection of lines through the centre of the wheel at some angle.

The example illustrating (1) usually given in texts is the one where a black square is compared with a white square of the same size. As we shift our attention from one square to the other of equal size, at the moment of comparison the square appears to change size. For example, if we move our attention from the black square to the white (of equal size), the white square will momentarily appear larger than the black square. And vice versa, in going from the white to the black, the black square appears smaller. This effect can easily be checked out and occurs whether or not the explanation is known. In actual fact, the optical illusions are not well understood but we can speculate that the black/white phenomenon, is due to the fact that our perception registers a higher density of stimulation from the white square than the black (since black reflects little light). In addition, it can be shown from examples, that the brain 'prefers' to register uniformity of stimulation during the comparison. Thus when the density of neuronal activity has actually increased in going from the black to the white square, the brain momentarily, during the rapid transfer of attention, tries to register the same density of stimulation, causing the area to increase momentarily in size to compensate for the actual increase in density, which has been momentarily inhibited. However, all that one has to realise is that the size of the square appears to change slightly during the transfer of attention; as the attention moves from a dark area to a light one, or vice versa, the boundary will appear to shift. But remember that it cannot be observed directly--the main attention will preclude the effect; it occurs in the margin of attention or consciousness.

Returning to the wheel illusion we see that if the black regions--which are actually exactly the same size as the white regions--appear to change size slightly, then the radials or spokes will appear to shift slightly.

Now the second effect (2) is the more common optical illusion and is the one in which if two lines intersect at an acute angle the mind will attempt to shift the lines so that they form a right angle. This is because we do not just look at lines but also the spaces between them, actually 'filling' them up with attention. If two lines intersect at an acute angle, such as two diameters in the wheel, then the other two angles must be obtuse occupying more space. (The attention will, part of the time, focus on only two intersecting diameters creating acute and obtuse angles. Also the angle will change because of the black- and-white effect.) Thus as the attention transfers from the space within one angle to the other different angle there is a momentary attempt to keep the spaces the same--clearly causing the lines to seem to move to form a right angle so that the spaces within the angles are the same. Again we can see how this would contribute to the motion of the spokes in the above example.

 ** The effect need only be very slight to be noticeable in the whole perception of the face. Note that this 'whole perception' is another significant psychological phenomenon that enhances the other illusions described above with which we cannot go into detail here, but it is one in which even an average observer can detect smaller changes in details during observation of the whole than by focussing on the details (this is quite a remarkable phenomenon in itself and is based on the holistic relationship between integration and differentiation).

Return to Home Page