Mona Lisa theory no. 953

March 11 2014

Image of Mona Lisa theory no. 953

Picture: Booksamillion

AFP reports on yet another theory about the Mona Lisa. This time the headline is 'She's a feminist', but there's also a more religious angle:

It's taken him 12 years, but an amateur art historian from Texas reckons he's solved the mystery of the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile, five centuries after it was immortalized by Leonardo da Vinci. In a just-published book, "The Lady Speaks: Uncovering the Secrets of the Mona Lisa," William Varvel argues that La Gioconda was a 16th-century feminist who favored a greater role for women in the Catholic church.

"La Gioconda was trying to get people to see that the New Jerusalem would be here as soon as you recognize women's theological rights," Varvel, 53, a former mathematics professor, told AFP in a telephone interview. "La Gioconda may be a grand statement for women's rights," he added.

His theory joins many others -- some serious, others fanciful -- surrounding what is perhaps the world's most famous painting, which draws legions of tourists every day to the Louvre museum in Paris. History remembers the Mona Lisa as Lisa del Giocondo, a mother of five born into an aristocratic Florentine family whose husband, a cloth and silk merchant, commissioned the portrait.

Da Vinci, who had already painted The Last Supper for a Dominican convent, toiled on the oil-on-poplar painting from 1503 to 1506 and perhaps several years after. In his 180-page book that's not always an easy read, Varvel explains that, in the course of his career, Da Vinci had painted "each and every verse" of the final chapter of the Old Testament's book of Zechariah, which anticipates the rise of an ideal society within a New Jerusalem.

He did so, Varvel contends, "in order to state that women's rights to the priesthood should be recognized." What's more, the author said, "Leonardo constructed and placed a total of 40 separate symbols taken from chapter 14 into the background, middle ground and foreground of the composition of the Mona Lisa." Religious clues? Thus, Calvary rises from behind the Mona Lisa's right shoulder, while the Mount of Olives is on the other side. And folds on the arms of her robe suggest a yoke -- a reference to Biblical texts and women's oppression. For Da Vinci, the idea of a New Jerusalem "was based upon a universal recognition of both men and women of the laity to have recognized rights of the priesthood of Jesus Christ," Varvel said. He added: "The perception of the New Jerusalem is the secret that her smile reflects." 

Of course we're dealing with Mona Lisa's Law here - the less truth in a Mona Lisa theory, the more news organisations will report it. So naturally this story has already appeared on a vast number of 'news' sites around the world.

Readers interested in the genus of the latest theory are directed to the author's website, which leads on the home page with this quote:

The Lady Speaks compels the Church to critically re-examine biblical texts and religious works of art that recognize Theological Gender Equality to the Preisthood of Jesus Christ.

The website also includes a 'review' section with this emphatic endorsement:

The Lady Speaks presents Leonardo da Vinci’s hidden message within the Mona Lisa, Theological Gender Equality to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. The message broadens the understanding of men and women to the truth that the Priesthood of Jesus Christ is universal to all.”

—Brenda Gordon--Product Manager, Vice President of a large financial institution

So it seems we're dealing here with a religious argument which has been forcefully projected onto the painting. Amazon's website allows to read the preface of the book here, in which the basic argument is laid out. It's the usual case of finding hidden 'symbols' in the book, which supposedly relate to chapter 14 the book of Zechariah in the Old Testament. As you can see they're pretty far out:

Come on everyone, it's just a portrait!

Update - a reader disagrees:

Alas, I must now reveal the "true" meaning of the "Mona Lisa" portrait. Notice that she is looking slightly to her left and that her hand is pointing subtly to her left.  Either she is looking to Venice or Greece or she's a Socialist.

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