No eye glasses to conceal, jewels to adorn, cloth to cover, crown to exalt. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece Mona Lisa offers just a woman’s simple, direct eye-contact. Her eyes face the viewer unprotected, with no need to disguise or hide, scandalously vulnerable  to what may face her. Her neck and chest lie exposed too, yet guarded by the eyes that irradiate fiercely above them.

It is not only Leonardo da Vinci’s triangular composition that draws us to Mona Lisa’s eyes, or the ethereal, vague landscape behind her. Nor is it only the contrast between her dark, almost featureless clothes and closed hands and her brightly lit face. There is something to her look, something deep and compelling and enigmatic that looks directly into our own eyes and forges an immediate connection. A bond, one could say, both gentle and robust, the type of bond one can escape only intently, only by looking way.

But it is not a bond we want to escape. For her gaze exudes a calm, inviting presence, the type of gaze that does not compel with threat or seduce with play but which woos us with the aura of hidden wisdom. It seems that a world of serenity hides beyond her eyes, that the eye-contact she forges somehow will set us free. It is a gaze that reminds of the power of the eye-contact we so frequently avoid: vulnerability is scary, and we much prefer to objectify or instrumentalize or domesticate others, we prefer to look away from the pulsing life of a person’s eyes. And we avoid, most of all, to be looked into, to reveal the texture of our souls through our eyes and the fragile hearts we so long to conceal or adorn or cover or exalt, and therefore protect.

Open, generous eye-contact like Mona Lisa’s disables our defense mechanisms and personalizes the way we relate to others. To interact with the machine is easier; to talk down to the animal or to talk away the enemy is simpler. But to relate to someone as equals, and to lay our face and our eyes bare to the raw existence exposed in someone’s eyes is personal. Eye-contact is frightening but it also humanizes us; it diffuses peace and quiet on our conflicted inner landscape.

Leonardo da Vinci displayed  his genius for the human eye in his other masterpiece, The Last Supper. But here there is no serene gaze. Instead, the disciples ruffle among themselves, startled by Jesus’ announcement that one of them will betray him that very evening. They turn to each other or to Jesus to process the bombastic news; their hands question and point and fly in the air, and their bodies incline toward each other.

It is a convoluted scene, heightened by two major movements. The first is Judas’, the disciple in green and blue, who is the only one to repose his elbow  on the table. Judas faces away from the viewer, but his hands reveal this thoughts: one hand clutches a bag, probably the bag with silver coins, and the other hand tips over the salt shaker, a possible reference to a Palestinian saying that to betray the salt is to betray one’s master.

The second movement is Jesus’ own: a posture of gentle command, of serenity, with the palm of his hand open to grab the bread that signifies his body and to bless. Jesus’ face in this painting, according to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, exhibits “majesty and love — these are the words that would describe it — joined to an absence of all guile that expresses the divine nature more visibly than I ever saw it in any other picture.”[1] Jesus is like an anchor to the turbulent scene, the point of reference to which the lines of perspective and the both sides of roused faces converge.

Jesus does not, however, face the viewer like Mona Lisa does. Instead, he seems to look down to the hand that will soon be pierced by a nail and to the bread that will soon be broken “in remembrance of me.” His feet, too, touch one another similarly to the way they would on the cross. Jesus does not look ahead but looks down, and invites us those of as caught in the turmoil of our own lives to look down with him and contemplate that piece of bread and that open hand, a palm as visible as Mona Lisa’s was hidden, and from these pregnant symbols of sacrifice and blessing be able to look up again, to see others and to let others see us, for that hand blesses  us and that bread feeds our souls, and we have a rich and serene gaze to offer.

René Breuel

[1] Marry Shelley, Travel Writing (London: Pickering, 1996, ) 131–132.


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