PRINT October 1983


Pre-imagining is the imagining of things that are to be.
Post-imagining is the imagining of things that are past.


Despite the many published volumes on Leonardo and the universal recognition of his contribution to human knowledge, a full realization of how his interdisciplinary research was integrated into his art, though assumed, still eludes us. Most of the important contributions in deciphering Leonardo’s work have been made almost departmentally—discipline by discipline. For example, in the late 1500s, the sculptor and collector Pompeo Leoni carefully cut out from Leonardo’s drawings many images that he believed were artistic and therefore did not belong on the same sheets with Leonardo’s scientific images and writings; he then rewove the paper so that the absence of the images would not be noticed. We can forgive Leoni as he did not have sufficient knowledge to identify and assimilate the various subjects, but even today the distinction between art and science as mutually exclusive categories remains a detrimental prejudice. What has not been recognized is that Leonardo created his art with hidden images and moving pictures which enabled him to integrate the results of all his studies.

Sometimes thousands of hidden images and moving pictures give the paintings additional and/or entirely new meanings. For the purposes of this article I have picked four of Leonardo’s most often discussed and widely viewed works: the cartoon The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John, begun ca.1500–08; the painting The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Lamb, ca. 1508; Mona Lisa, begun ca. 1503; and St. John the Baptist, begun in 1513. Leonardo probably kept all three paintings with him when he left Italy in 1516 for Amboise, France, where he spent the final years of his life. I believe he never stopped integrating and layering them.

To unlock the silent language that Leonardo inherited, brilliantly expanded upon, and passed on to future generations, we should begin by asking not whether hidden images are really there, but where they are and what they mean. One of the most famous guides he wrote in his notebooks points this out:

I will not refrain from setting among these precepts a new device for consideration which, although it may appear trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless of great utility in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is . . . [to] look at certain walls dirtied with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones. If you have to invent some scenes you will be able to see in them a resemblance to various landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills. You will also be able to see various battles and figures in quick movements, and strange expressions on faces, and costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate, well-conceived forms. With such walls and mixtures of different stones the same thing happens as it does with the sound of bells, in whose pealing you may discover every name and word that you can imagine.

Leonardo did not execute a stroke or line without considering that it had to serve several images at one time or the same image in a changing motion. (It was this complex deliberation, and not—as Freud suggested—an inability to finish what he started, that accounts for the painstaking execution of the Last Supper, 1495–97.) Important clues for us on how to look at Leonardo’s art can be found in the ten elements he proposed as essential for painting: darkness, light, solidity, color, form, position, distance, propinquity, motion, and rest. “Position” applies to both the pose of, say, Mona Lisa in front of the landscape and also to our position in front of the painting, while in the same way “propinquity” and “distance” refer both to the relationship of objects in the painting and to how near or far we view it from. “Darkness” and “light” refer as much to the source, direction, and intensity of the illumination by which we look at a work as to the highlights, shadows, and tones within it. Perceptions of solidity, color, form, motion, and rest change or entirely dissolve according to the nature of the light source and the viewing distance, but also according to whether we are in motion or in a fixed position when we view them. This is demonstrated by the way each photographic reproduction reveals different images according to such facts of the camera as the light and distance from which the photograph was taken.

Placing a piece of paper with a hole in it on top of a reproduction and slowly moving it across the surface isolates individual images, but does not provide the same flexibility or subtle changes in images as a hand loop, similar to a telescope-without-lens. To form such a loop simply make a fist with the thumb outside the fingers. Then, by placing it in front of either eye, scan the picture from different distances and with various size openings. While focusing the hand loop, it is natural to close the other eye; the picture now appears to be three-dimensional. “Why the picture seen with two eyes will not be an example of such relief as the relief seen with two eyes; this is because the picture seen with one eye will place itself in relief like the actual relief, having the same qualities of light and shade.”

Although there were many related works and studies for the subject matter of the painting of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Lamb, the most complete to survive is the deceptively serene cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John in the National Gallery in London. Anyone prepared to look for hidden images will find it easy to see that in this cartoon John is comfortably resting his chin on the protruding head of a large circumcised phallus which also functions as the left hand of the Christ child. It is more difficult to identify the many images that compose the head of this phallus, such as the face of a lizard, which is also the face of a snake and of many other creatures. “In painting an imaginary animal, obviously it will be impossible to invent one without the usual parts of animals, and these, individually, should resemble those of known animals. If you wish, therefore, to draw a natural-looking chimera or other imaginary beast, let us say a mythological serpent, you might take the head of a mastiff, the eyes of a cat, the ears of a porcupine, the mouth of a hare, the brows of a lion, the temples of an old rooster, the neck of a sea-tortoise, and put them all together.”

The story here is not what it first appears to be; Leonardo has challenged religious dogma. In a picture that outwardly describes the miraculous virgin birth by a mother who, herself, was immaculately conceived, without taint of original sin, he irreverently renders a variety of hidden phallic images. He is presenting nature and human behavior as he observed them, warning us to “avoid the teachings of speculators whose judgements are not confirmed by experience” and “the authors who, by using only their imagination, have tried to set themselves up as interpreters between nature and man.”

Even in the largest, most solid figures, large shapes such as the hands, knees, and legs of St. Anne and Mary, although occupying a major portion of the picture, present certain ambiguities when examined carefully. For example, there are four knees, but to whom do they belong? The usual assumption is that Mary is sitting on Anne’s lap. If this is the case, the first two knees on the left are Mary’s as she sits sidesaddle on the outside of Anne’s right thigh. Now, let us suppose instead that the first and third knees from the left are Mary’s. In this case Mary isn’t sitting on Anne at all, but Anne is sitting on Mary, and her huge right leg is between Mary’s legs. If the second and fourth legs are Mary’s, then Mary once again sits on Anne’s lap, with her legs parted in an even more inappropriate, earthly manner. From a further distance, we see that Mary sits between Anne’s spread legs, as the feet that are wearing shoes continue to change position. “It is not becoming in women and young people to be shown with their legs too far apart, because this has an air of boldness, while legs close together show modesty.”

In John’s legs the turning, spinning, and changing motion of his body is revealed. “A young man, strong and healthy, will always rest upon one leg, never shifting his weight except preparatory to motion; for motion must proceed from inequality.” One of the things that happens in this turning process is that John’s bent inside knee, resting on a shape that could be the reeds of a nest on a ledge, evolves into phalluses in various positions. These phalluses are composed of creatures which shift from human, to amphibian, to aquatic, providing a splendid demonstration of Leonardo’s sfumato technique in which images subtly appear, merge, vanish, and change position or form with the slightest shifting of our eyes, as if they were made of smoke, dust, or mist. The crease of John’s bent knee also forms the mouth of one of the primates that are ever-present in Leonardo’s work; slightly above are two black circular areas that make up its eyes. What must John be thinking about as he attempts to hide or suppress the secret kneeling human figure whose head, resting sideways and facing us, is immediately below John’s left arm and shoulder and in the luminous area above the primate’s eyes? Is the figure a reference to another Biblical personality, such as Mary’s husband Joseph or Christ’s convert Mary Magdalene, or an autobiographical personality, or Leonardo’s alter ego, or a mythological symbol descended from the kneeling figures projected by the ancients onto the constellations Hercules and Taurus?

In The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Lamb, Leonardo paints a lamb where John stands in the cartoon. There appears to be writing on the lamb’s skin. Its folded front leg becomes the nose and head of another lamb (upside down) whose extended leg is the same as the original lamb’s front leg, which crosses over and pushes off Mary’s leg just as Christ’s leg locks over the first lamb. In this machinelike grouping, background, foreground, humans, animals, and landscape become virtually inseparable. An important layering of foreground and background occurs on the Christ child’s head: those locks of hair are not only crawling creatures with many faces, but are animals’ noses and the fingers of great apes which inhabit the shadowy darkness of the forest. (Strong light or an adjustment to the light is required for these figures to be revealed.) The easiest ape to see is one to the right of Christ’s head, starting near the bottom of the tree trunk. The apes’ fingers are Christ’s hair, and they join Anne and Mary in a complex psychological struggle over Christ’s potential fall into the abyss. Their dual roles—protecting him or pushing him over the edge—become really apparent when we view the painting in a mirror. “Paintings are seen more correctly in a mirror than out of it.”

Anne’s shadowy knees, which compose the cavelike area upon which Mary sits, dissolve into a myriad of figures, human and animal. Is the first foot on our left also the tail or paw of a lion, possibly representing Leonardo himself, who, resting in the shadows, “conceal[s] the secrets of his mind so that the enemy may not know his purpose”? Leonardo’s admonition to artists applies to viewers as well: “Any painter who avoids the study of shadows can be accused of avoiding the glory of art itself.” There is the head of a child or primate wrapped in the red swaddling clothes/shroudfolded on Mary’s back.

Anne is a central character in both works. We can observe her as a serene participant in a religious drama, as a virtuous mother, as an enlightened instructor in evolution and upon even closer observation, as the personification of jealousy. In the cartoon her expression changes if we notice that her right eye is disfigured and that her smile might in fact be a confident sneer. It seems that we are facing “Envy,” who, according to Leonardo, “survives death” and is here “wounded in the eye,” wearing “a mask upon her face of fair appearance” while “making a contemptuous motion towards heaven.” Is she plotting with Mary who at first seems to be turning away, but upon closer examination slyly smiles, tilts her head, and listens attentively? In the painting, the Christ child simultaneously smiles knowingly at Anne and looks questioningly at Mary. Leonardo again transports us from the appearance of sublime peace and harmony, “for if we are doubtful about the certainty of things that pass through the senses how much more should we question the many things against which the senses rebel, such as the nature of God and the soul and the like, about which there are endless disputes and controversies.”

Leonardo is escorting us on a Homeric journey the the purpose of which is to extract insights and meaning from the juxtapositions and comparisons of an extraordinary range of historical events, myths, mystical beliefs, personal experiences, and scientific facts and theories. In this epic, Leonardo, exploring self-analysis, appears both as himself and in many other roles. Many of the important symbols discussed by Carl Jung in Psychology and Alchemy appear in Leonardo’s art. For example, the streaks of illumination emanating from the tip of the large phallus in the cartoon could be related to the prima materia or transforming substances of the alchemists, such as lapis or Mercurius, or to the universal life force of the Hindus which Leonardo associates here with the Super-Shiva and the primary symbol of the lingam, or phallus. (In my opinion Leonardo was aware of the precepts and symbols of Hinduism.) It could also be a lightning bolt, which could make it unsafe for those participants whose feet are in the water. An understanding of Leonardo’s scope will lead us to challenge Jung’s assumption that alchemists lacked an understanding of the psychological implications of their explorations.

In identifying one side of Anne’s personality as Envy, we are provided with an important clue to the autobiographical content of Leonardo’s work. He associates envy with a bird—the kite. “We read of the kite that, when it sees its young ones growing too big in the nest, out of envy it pecks their sides, and keeps them without food.” Leonardo also refers to the kite with a story about himself. “To write thus clearly of the kite would seem to be my destiny, because in the earliest recollections of my infancy it seemed to me when I was in the cradle that a kite came and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me within upon the lips with its tail many times.” It is not surprising that Leonardo would continuously encounter envy; from this note it appears he felt its presence at an early age, and from other notes and his letters it is apparent that he was sensitive to it his entire life. He once asked his brother why he was so “pleased” at the birth of an “heir” since he had “created an enemy intent on his liberty which he will not have before your death.” It is possible that Anne represents Leonardo’s paternal grandmother, Monna Lucia, and Mary his mother Caterina or his first stepmother, Donna Albiera. “Nature seems in many or for many animals to have been rather a cruel stepmother than a mother, and for some not a stepmother but a compassionate mother.”

In reduced light, viewed from a distance of at least three or four times the height of the reproduction, the highlights of the cartoon glow, and more information appears. For example, the confessional fingers of Christ’s right hand point to a unicorn whose head is shaped by Anne’s raised hand, with the large pointing finger forming the horn. Christ’s fingers enter the mouth of another, more easily identified unicorn located between the inside of Anne’s pointing hand and the outside of her shoulder and arm. “The unicorn through its lack of temperance, and because it does not know how to control itself for the delight that it has for young maidens, forgets its ferocity and wildness, and laying aside all fear it goes up to the seated maiden and goes to sleep in her lap, and in this way the hunters take it.” By using a hand loop, one may also recognize the smaller, more traditional-looking unicorn on Mary’s chest, immediately above the top of her dress to our right. This small unicorn might also be a horse, the Renaissance symbol of lust and the ancient symbol of the sun, while a bull, the ancient symbol of the moon, resides next to the robe on Anne’s upper chest. The sun and moon are two of the ten symbols of the Virgin. Remaining at a distance of three times the height of the picture we notice that Anne’s pointing hand and arm are also the trunk of one of Leonardo’s beloved elephants, “who do not fight over their females.” Perhaps the elephant is Ganesha the Hindu God, or Buddha, who before he was conceived came to hismother, Queen Maya, in a dream where as an elephant he appeared to enter her womb. To understand Leonardo’s messages, just a few of which have been identified here, we are faced with a magnificent puzzle which becomes more challenging and rewarding the more we attempt to solve it.

One of the reasons Mona Lisa is smiling is that she, like Leonardo, knows so much, including what she doesn’t know and can never be sure she will know. The largest hidden image to be found here is that of a huge baboon resting in the darkness against her bodice and posed in a manner amusingly analogous to her own. I saw this image clearly during a recent visit to the Louvre where I viewed the painting at a distance much greater than that prescribed by the glass tomb in which she is currently enshrined, This dark primate, a complex symbol for the unconscious, goes undetected in most reproductions, but you can certainly see other medium-size creatures in the same dark areas. It is helpful to employ the hand loop to scan the picture and become familiar with the smaller images in order to fully enjoy their transformations as Leonardo leads us through his carefully constructed universe. The small, hidden images that compose the faces of his figures are particularly remarkable.

For example, place the hand loop with a very small aperture approximately two or three inches above Mona Lisa’s right eye and slowly move your hand to the right. The rim of her top eyelid becomes long and slender and curves wormlike into the shadowy, decayed hole in the eye corner. Leonardo is showing the process of decay, predicting it, working with it.

The entire background of the painting is alive with reptilian and amphibian movement. The light under the arches of the bridge becomes the teeth of a large crocodile. On the other side of Mona Lisa, the luminous road becomes the bottom lip of a large toadlike creature with an open mouth. The body and head of the toad, which we see in profile and staring to our left, are formed by the mountains above the road. Leonardo is providing us with a significant insight into human nature and possibly identifies one of the reasons why it may be necessary, particularly during periods of spreading inquisitions, to use a silent language. Perhaps we are looking at “the toad [that] flies from the light of the sun and if it is held there by force it puffs itself out so much as to hide its head below and shield itself from the rays. Thus does the foe of clear and radiant virtue, who can only be constrainedly brought to face it with puffed-up courage.” An ecological warning, the toad “feeds on earth and always remains lean because it never satisfies itself, so great is its fear lest the supply of earth should fail.” As we move nearer to the picture, the line of the road changes into a snake or a lizard, and the toad is transformed into a hawk with a smaller mouth. An ancient reclining figure emerges resting horizontally along the top of the mountains.

The background and foreground in Mona Lisa clash as the sky spills over the mountains on our left. The surface of the sky is covered with transparent, almost invisible images, while the surface of the mountains is formed with thicker, rougher brush strokes that are more noticeably sculpted images in themselves. The mountains on our right are huge waves being moved by a powerful flow of water that materializes from the clouds and evolves into a rough river which becomes navigable. When these waves are viewed as solid matter, they resemble mountain formations, creatures, and plants from other epochs, probably reconstructed and reinvented from the fossils and shells Leonardo collected. He did not believe in the one great deluge described in the Bible, but anticipated the conclusions of later geologists that the earth is composed of layers formed in stages. Leonardo is showing us how “clouds form and dissolve, how water vapor rises from the earth into the air, how mists form and air thickens, and why one wave seems more blue than another”; he describes “the aerial regions and the causes of snow and hail, how water condenses and hardens into ice, and how new figures form in the air, and new leaves on the trees, and icicles on the stones of cold places.”2 This may be one of the reasons the water seems to be flowing upward as well as down.

The texture, perspective, and images in the paintings change dramatically when Leonardo portrays “the deep”—the vast space of the clear night sky. In the painting, this phenomenon can only be seen when we are close to the surface. Come very, very close to the surface and enter the vast space where layers of transparency contain dots of sparkling color which form images that float at one depth or stretch through several layers. The proper mixing and use of colors is essential for mastery of this layering technique. “In short, colors seem to be what they are not, according to the surroundings.” As we penetrate deeper, smaller and smaller creatures become visible; we have embarked on a three-dimensional telescopic/microscopic voyage with Leonardo. This is a fantasy celestial world with no boundaries. If something looks fearful, you can navigate elsewhere, including to such large floating masses as her hands, chest, and face. Their edges resemble the rims of planets or spaceships to which creatures cling, or from which they float off into space. It is possible that Leonardo actually tore back into the layers—in an enlarged reproduction of Mona’s left hand what appears to be a comic-strip couple pops up from a hole in its surface.

If we view a reproduction of Mona Lisa outdoors just before sunset, with the last rays of the sun in our eyes, her face fades and then disappears. A darkness, like a blind spot in the the eye or a black hole in space, comes over her face. In contrast, when the sun is behind us and she faces the sunset directly or at an angle, her bright highlights suggest new images as we move further away and view her from each side. In doing so we thus observe Mona Lisa in the three positions in which Leonardo says the eye sees shadow and light: when the eye and light are on “the same side of the object seen,” when “the eye is in front of the object and the light is behind it,” and when “the eye is in front of the object and the light is on one side, in such a way that a line drawn from the objects to the eye and one from the object to the light . . . form a right angle where they meet.” If after a long period of viewing “the deep” in this (or artificial) light we look at the sky after the sun has set (or enter a totally dark room), it becomes filled with sparkling and exploding lights. Leonardo uses retinal absorption and release in more astonishing ways: after a period of concentrated viewing in search of small hidden images, I have been surprised by light pink figures that seem to float up through the layers of her chest and rise above the surface of the painting. Without our knowledge, our eyes record slightly luminous images of this kind which are hidden throughout the painting between the brush strokes on the surface or buried among several transparent layers.

When we look into Mona Lisa’s eyes, we can also enter “the deep.” It appears that her entire face is more layered than the rest of the painting and becomes a convex projection out from the plane of the picture, just as an eye has beneath its surface the lens, the transparent layers of the cornea, and the anterior chamber. Leonardo observed that “the movements of the eye of the ray of the sun and of the mind are the swiftest that can be: The sun so soon as ever it appears in the east instantly proceeds with its rays to the west; and these are made up of three incorporeal forces, namely radiance, heat, and the image of the shape which produces these. The eye so soon as ever it is opened beholds all the stars of our hemisphere. The mind passes in an instant from the east to the west; and all the great incorporeal things resemble these very closely in their speed.” He discovered improved methods for making mirrors, and he continually studied the eye, both anatomically and physiologically. He tells us that he has included the study of both the eye and optics in his discussion on the principles of painting because those of a “speculative nature” might find them useful. While painting Mona Lisa, he certainly continued his experimentation with mirrors, perhaps painting parts of the picture from a reflection in her eye and/or rotating around her in a room full of mirrors while he painted, like the earth revolving around the sun. Experimenting with parabolic mirrors, Leonardo must have discovered how Mona Lisa could float in space like a ghost. It is useful to recognize that a picture also appears rounded when we view its reflection in a concave or convex mirror with both eyes, from an appropriate distance.

If images and their meanings can change in response to light source, distance, reflections, and eye movement, why not by tilting our heads or the reproductions themselves? Leonardo demonstrated that an artist has many options and need not render everything right side up or in a fixed position. Using inverted images like those of the camera obscura and human eye, he shows that there is not just one position, but several, from which to get our bearings as we spin in the universe. When we turn the picture upside down and place one hand over Mona Lisa’s forehead and eyes, a strange eye appears in her nostril which suggests several haunting profiles looking in different directions. Move your hand so that it uncovers Mona Lisa’s forehead and eyes and covers her nose and mouth instead. We now see yet another primate’s head, this one large and developed, with Mona Lisa’s hair net/diadem/mourning veil/dissection line as its mouth. In this reversed position, the sky becomes a body of water reflecting a landscape with beasts down for a twilight drink. An ape is reflected in the water. Could it be the large baboon on Mona Lisa’s lap, only seen in a different light and appearing more human? As our eyes move up, the inverted toad pops out at us in new forms, and when we reach Mona Lisa’s large hands, draped over the arm of her chair or a closed book, faces peer out from the surrounding darkness.

To speculate further it is necessary to “superimpose” images “one upon the other,” as Leonardo himself urged. We normally perceive the separate and slightly different images received by each eye as one image. But we can also focus each eye on a totally distinct image and transpose the two into one. The transposed images are projected stereoptically toward or away from us depending on how they are placed in perspective. When we apply this clue to the way Leonardo executed his paintings they become animated in a new way, and different relationships among the images, or entirely new images, are created. If we focus one eye on Mona Lisa’s chest and one eye over the landscape on our right, we can transpose the landscape onto her chest which thus becomes a screen for moving pictures. The chest becomes more luminous as terrifying creatures appear across the screen. When we do the same thing with the landscape on our left, the toad/hawk flashes menacingly on the screen while Mona Lisa’s hair merges with the mountains. It is difficult to focus in this way for long, and these beautiful and often quite subtle images sometimes flicker only briefly. As the images float back across the screen to their original positions we can watch the pictures moving backward.

We can also transpose images as we rotate the picture. In these discussions I will refer to the following positions:

These diagrams represent various positions in which an entire picture can be placed for viewing. For example, rotate a reproduction of Mona Lisa slowly clockwise, holding it at approximately arm’s distance, to position 3, and watch her rest her chin on her hands, staring impishly at us out of the corners of her eyes. When we reverse the rotation (to position 2), she lowers her hands, which go inside her dress. In approximately the same position, we can notice that a piece of the road, now at the top of the picture, comes down across the ribboned arm and changes into the head of a galloping horse whose body is formed by Mona Lisa’s top hand and whose running feet are her third and fourth fingers. We can tell from its body position that it is racing toward us. In order to avoid being trampled we allow the road/head to recede back to our right and to change from a horse’s head to the head of a bird which nudges its beak under the black cloth of her dress. This is one of the most difficult series of images to see. If we rotate the picture to position 4, Mona Lisa’s hands cross her face, alternately covering it and merging with it to form masks and distortions that reveal a very different, menacing side of her personality. Turn the image a few degrees further, until her hands rest on top of her head, and we can see a double image of her. One head rises above the other and is still visible as it floats out of the picture. “It is possible for the same pupil to see the same object twice, in two places at the same time.” Another image that is particularly interesting to transpose and rotate is the bit of reddish hair on Mona Lisa’s chest to our left. It resembles Leonardo’s drawings of reproductive organs (among many other things), and indicates that we might also be seeing Mona Lisa inside out.

In addition to all the creatures surrounding Mona Lisa, Leonardo has also provided her with human companionship through the overlay of other paintings that can be transposed on top of her. This will be more apparent after pointing out a few details of St. John the Baptist, which Leonardo worked on simultaneously with Mona Lisa and St. Anne. Standing alone and independent like Mona Lisa, John is giving us his message. If he weren’t holding the cross, we would have difficulty relating him to a religious theme. In fact, the intersection of the cross is surrounded by the transparent image of the head of a human or an ape, whose arm turns into a more visible latch or diagonal joint which resembles a compass or a rotor such as a helicopter or submarine propeller. The cross/rotor seems to have a purpose as a propulsion device. Is John holding it and spinning? Has the cross passed out of his hands? In what century does he belong? We witness Leonardo’s contemporary metamorphosis of the legend of the cross, which had already journeyed from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden to Adam’s grave, Solomon’s garden, and the Pool of Bethesda.

John’s two devotional fingers hold the head of an ape. His entire chest is glowing and alive with a sfumato universe of possibilities, and its large expanse enhances his androgynous nature. Transparently etched and sculpted on its surface are a male and female standing next to each other, with their heads above John’s collarbone. The luminous portions of John’s chest, shoulder, arm, and hands form a strange hybrid, possibly Dionysus or a minotaur or centaur, which holds the cross.

When we penetrate the surface of the painting, with or without a hand loop, and journey through the layers of the pictures, we are gliding under water, swimming among strange aquatic creatures “of almost infinite variety.” Little colored dots reflect light just as the stars of Mona Lisa’s night sky do. Could this entire picture have been painted as if from behind John with a mirror, capturing him as he admires his reflection in the water? One of the most frightening hidden images is the expression of panic in the eyes of the fishface which is John’s head upside down (position 5), only the eyes and forehead visible. Does the panic stem from entering or leaving the world, or from having to exist in it? Is he lying in water and drowning? Is John imagining himself falling from the propeller as Leonardo, like Icarus, probably fell from his flying machine? These images are in startling contrast to the smiling face that greets us when we first encounter the painting. With the loop we can see that the side of John’s face on our right, besides containing primates, breaks up into many deformed visages, one of which is the head of a bloodthirsty warrior. John’s transposed pointing right hand crosses his face, and, when it slides back to its original position, an old man knowingly winks and then humorously stares at us with his own hand loop, as his index finger/unicorn horn points upward.

John is also not without human company. With both paintings in position 1 he and Mona Lisa join each other. The paintings are approximately the same size, and using same-size reproductions they transpose perfectly. When the image of John is placed on the right, he emerges from the shadows of Mona Lisa’s hair, crosses over in front of her, and then with the aid of brilliant color blending appears behind her. His arms wrap around her, cover her dress, and become her bare breasts while her hands wrap around his torso. The nipple shape slightly above the bent elbow of his forward arm now has a more realistic position, and his confessional fingers hold her breast. All the scenes take on a new life. As John’s shoulder and chest are transposed over the inverted image of Mona Lisa, his bright flesh becomes a rainbow which rises above the water and surrounds her head (Mona Lisa in position 5, John in position 1). When John is on our left of Mona Lisa and is rotated at a right angle to her, (John in position 5, Mona Lisa in position 1), he appears to be reclining with his head on her chest while at the bottom of the picture their hands touch, and his pointing finger curves over and touches the spot where her fingers join; it might be construed that his finger is symbolically touching her clitoris. This is only one of the sexual acts they perform together.

John and Mona Lisa are not always so agreeable, however, and their dark natures clash in other rotations and transpositions, such as in one where her fingers pierce his eye. Is she also Envy? They are human—like us. They are also a hermaphroditic, eternal creature, the nature of whose fission/fusion is an important speculation in many religious and philosophical traditions with which Leonardo was familiar. When we return John and Mona Lisa to their upright positions (Mona Lisa in position 1, John between positions 1 and 2), it becomes clear that their faces fit perfectly and that Mona Lisa now has a moustache and goatee formed by John’s upper lip and the shadow under his chin. Duchamp and L.H.O.O.Q.! Duchamp and Leonardo share many secrets, and Duchamp’s protest against the deterioration in the use of the artists’ silent language in art forms almost devoid of intellectual content echoes Leonardo’s plea, “wretched mortals, open your eyes.” Perhaps it was even Duchamp’s intention that his L.H.O.O.Q., 1919, or other works were to be optically transposed onto Leonardo’s oeuvre. Wearing eyeglasses containing one blue and one red lens, on the model of those Duchamp eagerly received right before his death, we can watch Duchamp’s Fluttering Hearts, 1936, flutter and his early paintings take on an eerie glow that might not be accidental.

Even pictures of different sizes can be transposed on each other. “A small object near at hand and a large one at a distance, when seen between equal angles will appear the same size.” For example, when we merge Mona Lisa with the painting of St. Anne, we watch Mary struggle to free Christ from Mona Lisa’s arms. Standing in front of the participants and with her hands resting on the table, Mona Lisa dominates the Last Supper as Christ and his disciples pass across her chest screen and landscape. When Mona Lisa visits the grotto in either version of the Madonna of the Rocks (first version 1483; second version 1506), the infant Christ snuggles against her on our right while the infant St. John the Baptist floats into the mouth of the toad.

If one painting can be wholly or partially transposed rightside up or upside down on another painting, then Leonardo may also have intended to transpose one painting completely onto itself, or partially or totally back onto itself reversed and/or upside down. I believe he achieved this complicated task by using mirrors and “copies” of his work. (Leonardo almost always wrote backward from right to left because it is the way we see ourselves in a mirror. This was easy for him to do and difficult for others to decipher. The Sumerians likewise wrote from right to left in 3600 B.C.) He intentionally prepared his images so that they would change with each transposition that results when mirrors are placed at the sides, top, bottom, or opposite the pictures. This is an example of his attempt to portray nothing/everything. With the dizzying options for transposition and the attendant changing images we can imagine forms of mirrors both in the universe and in our brains.

Instead of placing a mirror at the side, top, or bottom of the picture, place a mirror perpendicular to the center of the picture, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, and slowly move it in either direction. The resulting symmetries combine and expand to present large single images and entire surprising spectacles whose scenarios are remarkable in their fusing of dreams and play. “Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?” Leonardo encourages us to experiment. “Who makes it anew if the maker dies continually?”

Leonardo expands his “silent language” as he merges operational mechanisms and mechanics with content, or ideas. Images from geology, chemistry, electrochemistry, biology, pharmacology, astronomy, meteorology, mathematics, mechanics, engineering, hydraulics, physics, music, acoustics, architecture, geography, logic, etc., are displayed and integrated before us. For example, in the Madonna Litta, ca. 1490, the Madonna’s hair resembles electromagnetic coils, and the color and designs of her garments, and particularly of the scarf wound through her hair, contain an abundance of alchemical/scientific signs and symbols:

The swirling shape found in eddies, galaxies, black holes, and fingerprints is a form found throughout nature as well as in the garments, curls, anatomical parts, screws, and rotating transposed images that become essential components of Leonardo’s pictures. We may discover that in addition to his many chemical experiments, in which I think he may have used such elements as oxygen, hydrogen, and silicon, Leonardo composed music based on natural phenomena, including the stars. He certainly realized that he was opening a Pandora’s box—and entering a Garden of Delights. “There shall come forth out of dark and obscure caves [metals] which will put the whole human race in great anxiety, peril and death.”

Everything discovered here applies to virtually all of Leonardo’s drawings, including his maps, his extremely small allegorical works, and interdisciplinary sheets such as those for the cartoon and painting of St. Anne. Compositions of geometrical patterns, puzzles, knots, and mandalas provide complex optical displays containing both abstract and representational forms. In addition, drawings with prepared backgrounds have layers of images, and what may have begun as accidental stains on the backs of drawings have often been transformed by Leonardo to make images as surprising as the patterns on the underside of a butterfly’s wings. Images on the front and back of many drawings can also be transposed onto each other. Leonardo speculates about the meaning of these forms as he explores every facet of our being to determine if we exist at all, and if we do, to ask why. “Tell me how these things happened. Tell me if anything was ever done.” He is asking us to ask ourselves the same questions.

Curiously, the heads of Mona Lisa and John, like many of Leonardo’s other figures, do not appear to be strictly attached to the rest of their bodies and instead float freely. When we transpose the picture of John by itself, John skewers his own head with the top of the cross. The resulting image is similar to the common motif of the head of John the Baptist which Salome presents on a charger to her mother Herodias, who requested it because John objected to Herodias’ marriage to Herod, her husband’s half-brother. When John moves slightly to the right of Mona Lisa he pierces her head with his cross. Recognizing Leonardo’s layering of personal, religious, and philosophical traditions, we are able to speculate about the headless bodies and the floating heads. If the “external form appears to thee marvellously constructed, remember that it is nothing as compared with the soul that dwells in that structure . . . ,” he advises; “For we part from the body with extreme reluctance, and I indeed believe that its grief and lamentation are not without cause. . . . ” Elsewhere he noted that “this long-ing is in its quintessence the spirit of the elements, which finding itself imprisoned within the life of the human body desires continually to return to its source.” Leonardo would probably have considered contemporary investigations on unified fields and the discoveries of matter and antimatter, of bodies and antibodies, of cloning, and of the linking, mapping brain substance N-CAM (Neural Cell Adhesion Molecule) as reasons to continue to explore questions of mortality and immortality, as well as of existence and nonexistence.

Leonardo, an indefatigable researcher (“death rather than weariness,” he wrote), understood that the mind, with the intelligent use of science—“the knowledge of the things that are possible present and past”—is capable of prescience, the “knowledge of the things which may come to pass.”

Many aspects of his silent language remain elusive. Are all the hand positions in his works, in addition to forming new images when transposed, a sign language used to transmit messages that continue as the hands interact? When rotating and moving, do the positions of various parts of the paintings coincide with the positions and movements of the planets, sun, or moon? Are the paintings astrological clocks? How many of the pictures’ components are anatomical parts, or machines and inventions that actually function and move? How many additional optical phenomena and instruments, like the perspectograph, were used by Leonardo and would be helpful for us to know about in viewing his images?

We continue to decipher and use Leonardo’s art in our lives because his portrayal of human beings and “the content of [their] minds” still inspires and challenges us. We join him in exploring the cosmos, in recognizing that in this second, when our thoughts may be of past, present, and future seconds, we are in all seconds. He has succeeded in creating “works of fame by which I could show to those who are to come that I have been.” He is bringing the invisible to the edge of visibility—though it may remain invisible.

The survival of his art and diaries is a fortunate circumstance; because his intentions and working methods are still being explored it would be prudent to immediately halt restoration of the Last Supper. The removal and repainting of its layers will probably result in an irrevocable loss. Artists as diverse as Goya and Duchamp have based important portions of their work on the details of this painting. The most that should be accomplished now is preservation of the work in its current state. Conceivably, Leonardo would advise us to allow the disintegration and regeneration of the painting, as a wall “dirtied with various stains.”

This article is a condensed version of the text for a projected book on Leonardo.

Ronald Feldman is the codirector of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc., a contemporary arts gallery in New York.



1. Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are taken from the works of Leonardo da Vinci as published in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, trans. by Jean Paul Richter, London: Phaidon Press, 1970; and The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, trans. by Edward MacCurdy, New York: George Braziller, 1954.

2. Ladislao Reti, ed., The Unknown Leonardo. New York: McGraw Hill, 1974, p. 297.