The Mindful Mona Lisa: a Five-Minute Meditation

By Max Herman
Leonardo da Vinci - Map of Imola, Wikimedia Commons


[This is the third of a series of blogs on "The Mindful Mona Lisa." ]

THE key to understanding the Mona Lisa -- one of the most famous, mysterious, and important works in the history of art -- may well be the humble and unobtrusive stone arch bridge almost hidden in the background.

To understand why, try looking at the painting mindfully for five minutes. 

Set a timer so that you are not distracted.  Start with your eyes closed for a few breaths, just being aware of your breathing and finding a calm, relaxed posture.  Then open your eyes, and look at the painting.  Notice everything you see, and all your sense perceptions in the present moment.  If your mind goes off on a tangent, just note that, and gently return your attention to your breath and to what you are seeing in the painting.  (A link to the painting is here.)

When you are done, write down anything that particularly interested you.  What was the experience like?  Was there anything about it you didn't expect?

It was while doing exactly what you just did, a five-minute mindful viewing of this five centuries old portrait from Italy, that I got an idea about the bridge. 

What I noticed first of course was the eye contact and facial expression, which captured my attention without communicating any particular message.  After looking to the background for clues I noticed the bridge.  It was the only sign of human life in the entire landscape. 

I had been reading one of Leonardo’s notebooks called the Codex Leicester, which has many drawings of flowing water in it.  I noticed the river on the left (a shallow, wide one like in Leonardo's map of Imola) and the river on the right; were they related?  While looking at the bridge, I noticed that it seemed to flow in a smooth line connected to the sitter’s shawl, that also flowed like a spiral of water from the Codex.  Then I thought: “Isn’t a bridge like a river too?  Things and people flow across it.”

What might it mean that the bridge carries the eye, flowing and transforming into a garment?  Well, it pairs two things that are fabricated and made: one we travel over, the other we wear.  Two types of technology, yet parallel somehow.  Of course this was just a daydream, a free visual association while meditating, not founded in any scholarship. 

Finally I noticed the person within the garment again – the eyes, face, heart, and hands, the human.  I realized I was back to sitting there with her, back from the landscape, sharing eye contact and observation as if with a peer.  Was this observing yet another process in time, a fourth river? 

This felt approximate enough somehow so I wrote it down and it became a new hypothesis.  :)

Till next time: “Leonardo lived by the Arno, I the Mississippi!”