The Face of Mona Lisa

Published by: Jacob Fraden, Ph.D. | 18-Mar-2016
Comparison of the Leonardo da Vinci paintings reveals a striking similarity between Mona Lisa and St.Anne. By analyzing Leonardo's life events, a hypothesis is suggested about the true identity of a person who was shown on both pictures. In addition, a painting by Leonardo of Virgin. Mary appears as his unknown self-portrait. #MonaLisa #LeonardodaVinci

The Face of Mona Lisa

For over 500 years the most celebrated painting has been the Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Mona Lisa. Beginning from publication in 1550 of the book "Le Vite" by Giorgio Vasari, it is a common knowledge that lady on the portrait was a 24-year old wife of a silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Yet, many suspect this is not true and Leonardo in fact painted somebody else, perhaps even his own face or his mother, although these speculations were not supported by any compelling evidence. Below is a theory that I believe is more convincing. But first, lets consider several interesting points:

1. Leonardo started painting "La Gioconda" as a commissioned work in 1503 when he badly needed money. Since he often was too liberal with his promises, he didn't deliver the painting on time and obviously was not paid for it. Strangely, even though he was not paid, instead of abandoning the commissioned portrait, he kept working on it for at least 4 more years and possibly over a decade.

2. People talk about the "Mona Lisa" mysterious smile. I personally see nothing puzzling in it. Just a simple smile like any other smile. According to Vasari, during the sitting sessions Leonardo kept Lisa Gioconda in a cheerful mood by hiring musicians, dancers and other entertainers for her amusement. She was sitting for a long time not being bored and even smiling. No mystery here at all.

3. For some peculiar reason, Leonardo never wanted to part with that painting "“ a rather unusual behavior with respect to a commissioned work. During all his travels, he always kept the painting with him, like an icon. In spite of a poor health (he was partially paralyzed), in 1516 he took it with him on his last and very difficult journey to France on a mule over the mountains. Further, he refused to sell it to his most kind benefactor King Francis I (just promised that the King may have it only after Leonardo's death). Some paranoid attachment to his own work!

4. The French researcher Pascal Cotte studied the "Mona Lisa" in Louvre for more than ten years and found underneath of the multiple layers of paint another image of a woman who looks different from what we used to see. Cotte claims this underlying portrait is the real-life "Mona Lisa", while the famous face with a "mysterious" smile is not Mona Lisa Gioconda, but another woman (see picture). Who? Perhaps the Leonardo's paranoid attraction was not to the painting, but to the face on it?

5. In about 1503 he took on another painting project "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne" (now in Louvre) for the altar in a Florentine church. While many consider "Mona Lisa" as an enigmatic painting, "St. Anne" appears by far stranger. The odd thing about it is a composition. It shows Virgin Mary, a grown woman (probably around 18 years of age), sitting, like a child, on the lap of her mother St. Anne, while baby Jesus is trying to run away for playing with a lamb.

6. The painting "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne" in large part is based on an earlier monochromatic sketch (cartoon) that now is in The National Gallery in London. Unlike the painting in Louvre, the cartoon in place of a lamb shows another child "“ Jesus' cousin St. John The Baptist. Yet, the composition is similarly odd "“ Mary is sitting on her mother's lap.

7. Caterina, the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, was a peasant girl not married to Leonardo's father Piero da Vinci. That was all we knew about her. However recently few new facts of her life started emerging. It was discovered that she was a slave girl of an Arab descent, baptized and given name Caterina. Her mistress was a widow and Piero da Vinci, arranged for Caterina to be freed. About 3 months after Leonardo was born she was married to a local peasant.

8. Leonardo was living with his mother till age of 4 and then was separated from her when the father took him for living with him and a barren step"“mother who had no children of her own. For the rest of his life Leonardo retained a strong emotional attachment to his natural mother. When she was in her sixties, he brought her from Vinci to Milan for an extended visit and stay with him. She died in 1495. Perhaps she was the only woman with whom he had a close emotional connection. I am far from suspecting an Oedipus Complex in Leonardo, but he definitely loved and cherished his mother.

Now here is a hypothesis. It's just that "“ only a theory for which an undisputed proof unlikely ever will be found.

After his mother died in 1495, da Vinci began working on a cartoon for a painting depicting baby Jesus, his cousin St. John, the Virgin mother and grandmother St. Anne. For the image of grandma St. Anne, Leonardo decided to use the face of his own late mother Caterina. In his mind, any mother should be holding her baby on the lap, so he put the daughter Mary on the Anne's lap, even though Mary already was an adult. He also put the baby Jesus on the Mary's lap. The cartoon was drafted on 8 sheets of paper glued together, yet it never was translated into a real painting, since, as usual, Leonardo was destructed by many other projects. Besides, in 1499 the French captured Milan and Lodovoco Sforza, the Leonardo's benefactor and Milan ruler, had to flee. Leonardo left as well and after some travels settled once again in Florence.

When in 1503 in Florence he began painting Lisa Gioconda, he noticed a slight resemblance between her and his own mother Caterina as he remembered her in the young age. Perhaps that disturbed him and slowed down his work. Nevertheless, he was painting the face of real-life Mona Lisa. In spite of a promised good pay, as it was typical for him, he didn't finish the picture on time, thus the commission was rescinded by the customer. Leonardo kept the unfinished picture to himself and after some time decided to modify it by repainting on the top of the Lisa's face the face of his own mother as he remembered her in young age. Since Caterina already was dead, he was painting her from memory and that was a very long and emotional process that took him many years. The more he was working on it the more he was emotionally attaching himself to her image on that picture.

At about the same time, he was commissioned to paint the "St. Anne"¦" picture and decided to use his old cartoon that he made in Milan, where the face of St. Anne was that of older Caterina. Once more, he painted his mother from memory, but now of the age of about 40-45. Thus, he produced two portraits of his mother that gives us an opportunity to compare the faces of "Mona Lisa" and St. Anne. If we equally scale them and place next to one another, we clearly see that likely it's the same woman, only St. Anne is older. Our conclusion is that the face on the world most celebrated picture 'La Gioconda "“ Mona Lisa" is not that of real-life Mona Lisa, but of Leonardo's mother Caterina.

We can take this hypothesis one step further. If St. Anne is Caterina, then logically St. Mary, sitting on the lap as her child, is a grown up Leonardo da Vinci. It's possible to contemplate that he mentally identified himself with Virgin Mary and decided to give her his own face. We can imagine few parallels between him and St. Mary: he also was a virgin and never was intimate with any woman, he was very well aware of his divine talents making him unique among common people, delivering to them his type of a savior "“ inventions and sciences, that people didn't appreciate and not accepted.

Unfortunately, only few images of Leonardo exist and all of them with a beard, thus it's rather difficult to compare his face with the face of Virgin Mary that he painted together with St. Anne. Yet, we may try putting together the Virgin Mary face and the portrait of Leonardo (The Lucan Portrait). With some degree of imagination it's possible to see a prominent resemblance, especially shapes of the mouth and nose. If it's indeed so, then the Virgin Mary he painted on that picture is the only existing self-portrait of Leonardo without a beard, thought somewhat feminized.

And finally, it's worth mentioning that all four faces bear a noticeable resemblance to each other.

©Jacob Fraden, March 17, 2016 (

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