The Mindful Mona Lisa: Cycles of Change and Healing

By Max Herman
Studies of Water Passing Obstacles and Falling


[This is the fourth in a series of blogs about "the Mindful Mona Lisa."]

As a white middle-class American male, I have been struggling to figure out how a blog about the Mona Lisa can possibly address the horrific killing of George Floyd, and the justifiable rage and protest which has ensued, much less the centuries of oppression which people of European descent have inflicted on non-Europeans.   

I have no degree in art history, just two in English, and am not nearly qualified as an “expert” on Leonardo.  Yet I appreciate that he wrote the following (an alternate version of the similar text I quoted in my first blog of this series): “Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy: on experience, the mistress of their Masters.  Why go about puffed up and pompous, dressed decorated with [the fruits], not of their labors, but of those of others.  And they will not allow me my own.”

It’s not my place to judge whether Leonardo can be a force for justice in our day and amidst our many converging crises, but I do think it is possible. 

The evidence, in my view, supports the interpretation of the Mona Lisa as a portrait of change in both the natural and human worlds and how we can most humanly and humanely navigate that change.  It seeks to blend together the scale of geologic time and the immediacy of present-moment human experience in the context of what we build, create, and choose.  It asks us to examine our own consciences regarding how we live in the world, how we respect nature and other people, and what we value -- objects or people, the material or the human.  It urges us to communicate as equal peers.

Leonardo was suppressed in his day to a great extent, with many of his ideas being banned from public expression, and as a child born out of wedlock he had to contend with discrimination.  He probably had some understanding of injustice, perhaps additionally so if his sexuality was also criminalized.  Is reference to his achievements as somehow justifying oppressive systems he did not himself endorse at all logical?  His spirit may indeed be crying out for change if only we can learn to listen.  If the Mona Lisa ceases to be a living work of art and is reduced to a meme or a logo for trinkets that spirit could well be lost.

Leonardo condemned “Men who desire nothing but material riches and are absolutely devoid of that wisdom which is the food and the only true riches of the mind.”  He also said that “No man has a capacity for virtue who sacrifices honor for gain.”  How well those who claim Leonardo as a great genius of their culture live up to these strictures is direct proof of the hypocrisy or integrity of that claim.

As Leonardo also wrote: “One’s thoughts turn toward Hope.”