The Mindful Mona Lisa: Bridges of Technology and Understanding

By Max Herman


OF all the images and ideas in this blog series, the bridge at the sitter’s left shoulder is by far the most important.

Everything else I may say is either derived from the bridge and its meaning or meant to shed light on them.  A closer look at this week’s Mona Lisa detail may help to demonstrate this importance. 

Imagine an approximate sine wave from right to left, flowing down then back up.  The bridge connects the background (of nature, planetary time, rivers, water, geology, and earth) to the foreground (of the human and its garment).  All bridges are conduits or vessels of transit, channels for events and information, through which objects or living beings move in space and time. 

The line of the bridge clearly flows smoothly into the line of the shawl.  The shawl is acknowledged by top experts to represent the vortex or spiral form of water which is so central to Leonardo’s notebooks.  The neckline follows clearly from the line of the shawl, changing direction slightly upward and creating even further subtlety of geometry, color, involution, and reference.  That the organic curls of the sitter’s hair echo the shawl and neckline is well-established interpretation, adding both a visual layer and a new level of comparison to the human form.

Setting my own personal hypothesis aside, what could the purpose of the bridge plausibly be in this context of the painting pure and simple, existing scholarship, and Leonardo’s notebooks?  Is it plausible to you, in your present-moment experience, that the bridge means -- as is held by virtually all Leonardo scholarship to date -- and furthermore does, nothing at all?  Is there truly nothing whatsoever happening with this unmistakable element?  

After looking at the bridge as I have been, for now almost a year, I sometimes see its image in my mind as a subtle matrix of form and meaning, interfusing its very bricks, arches, and stones, within an even wider array of imagery and concepts in the painting.  The bridge connects even beyond the painting into Leonardo’s notebooks, and further still into the life of his age and our own.  (A similar bridge in the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, the spindle in sameand the yarn-machine Leonardo designed are also evocative in this connective sense.)

To understand the painting as an interwoven fabric of this sort is, in my view, to perceive Leonardo’s work and vision in its full scope and depth.  Not to do so is not to see.  This kind of sight requires the skills of poetry and art as well as science: metaphor, analogy, and the special sort of imaginative understanding they liberate and make dynamically visible.  Analogy and equivalency, like metamorphosis, inform all phenomena that flow in time. 

Leonardo’s highest value, human experience -- that which perceives, discovers, and creates -- is the subject of this portrait but crucially is not the painting itself.  Like a complex mirror the portrait includes us directly, because we too can experience, and balances humanity at the dynamic center of the evolving interconnections among nature, art, science, and the world we create. 


Next week:  visual meditation