Like the assembly-line Marilyns, Leonardo duplicated the face of the Mona Lisa every time he drew a woman. The heavy lidded eyes, the shadowy smile. She is his Virgin, his St. Anne, his St. Elizabeth. As the Mona Lisa yellowed with age, she acquired something the freshly painted portrait might have lacked, a patina of strangeness. A curious sort of strangeness for this painting seems removed from us by something more than time. Statues of Roman goddesses do not seem half so remote.
Might this not be the final fate of the Marilyns? Imagine seeing the painting 500 years from now. The actress herself has been lost to time. No longer a part of the popular imagination, she will no longer seem banal. Banality, perhaps was Warhol’s original intent when he chose an indifferent studio shot of the actress. But even that is obscured. The celebrity of the woman, her raison d’être as a Pop Art object are known only to historians specializing in the 20th century. Now imagine walking in on rows and rows of her for the first time. A 1950s blonde with cement hair and clenched teeth. Warhol’s Marilyn may indeed appear finally as alien as Leonardo’s Dark Lady.
Let us recall that the Mona Lisa’s august status as a pillar of Western civilization — at one with Beethoven’s nine symphonies and the Parthenon at dawn — is an estimate of recent vintage. Most of her life was spent quietly working on her patina at the end of long hall in the Palace of Versailles, obscure until she was swept up in the French Revolution and placed on public display in the Louvre, only to be “requisitioned” by Napoleon for his bedroom. On her return to the public, again at the end of a long hall in the Louvre, she was rediscovered — more importantly, repurposed — by the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites, who saw in her strangeness a sort of divine feminine, as well as a morbidly beautiful “vampire,” (a fixation of the late 19th Century.)
Though she began her life as “Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo”, the Mona Lisa is now so fused with the zeitgeist of the Fin de Siecle that our contemporary eyes see her not as 15th Century Italians might — a fashionable woman without eyebrows, no odder perhaps than a calculated Vogue model is to us — but through the trappings of a decadent, death-loving phase of Romanticism.
Consider: In a strange and barren wilderness, her hands folded contentedly over her stomach, the Mona Lisa sits before us with her great saturnine moon face, a sallow, sickly Madonna.
She is rendered in the smoky style known as sfumatto, her features created more by shadow than definite lines. She looks out at us engagingly; yet something is kept in reserve. Her smile that prompts so many questions in the famous Nat King Cole song is simply the Renaissance smile of sapience, the understanding mind. It is a a smile that is not so much amused at what it sees, though there is that, as it is benevolent and generous toward it.
Even the most levelheaded among us can not escape the musty whiff of 19th Century theosophy that clings to her. One of the eerie qualities of this painting is she looks on in silence. All painting are, of course, “silent”, but here the silence is palpable. There is an air of suspense about the Mona Lisa. We realize with a start that she is looking not only at us but serenely inward, holding the two views in mind, weighing our soul, we are almost certain, against the impossible lightness of her own.
The real patina she has acquired is a mystic, archetypal one. In New Age terms, the Mona Lisa is the Priestess card in the Tarot deck, who sits on the moon, often with a finger to her lips. Jung believed the Tarot depicted universal psychic types that arose out of humanity’s tribal past. In the Tarot the priestess archetype sits beneath the Veil, a richly embroidered drape that separates the visible and invisible worlds. She has placed herself squarely between two pillars, the entrance to the Temple, granting or refusing access to the inner sanctum of what is commonly called, “spiritual enlightenment” — that is, a beatific vision of God. This is the strange landscape the Mona Lisa seems to guard. Leonardo’s painting draws deeply from the same universal wells, yet she is particular to us. For over a century now, the Mona Lisa has been the silent femme fatale stalking the Western imagination.