Secrets of the Mona Lisa “Code”

January 19, 2011

Arguably the world’s most celebrated painting, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (which I was once privileged to see) has attracted attention ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Now an Italian theorist claims he has discovered miniscule letters—visible only by high magnification—in the eyes of the famous lady. Where have we heard something like this before?

As early as 1980, a Chicago priest named Francis Filas claimed to have found four tiny Greek letters and a staff design in the area of the right eye of the figure on the Shroud of Turin. (With its image of a seemingly crucified man, many believe the cloth to have been Jesus’ burial linen.) Filas (whom I debated on a radio program) thought he had thus identified the imprint of a “Roman Coin.” He believed this authenticated the controversial cloth which, however, has since been proved a fourteenth-century forgery. Filas’ claims were ridiculed by several scientists, even pro-shroud ones, who observed that the magnified weave patterns and extraneous markings on the cloth functioned rather like a Rorschach test, permitting one to see whatever one wanted to see. Indeed, others have “discovered” on the shroud imprints of flowers and various crucifixion items including hammer and nails, a spear, and many other imagined items as well as ancient Latin and Greek words such as “Jesus” and “Nazareth.” (For more, see my Inquest on the Shroud of Turin , 1998, pp. 38-39, and Relics of the Christ , 2007, p. 142.)

Nevertheless, proponents of another religious icon, Mexico’s Image of Guadalupe, began to make discoveries in the eyes of that revered picture of the Virgin Mary. Proponents believe the Image miraculously appeared on a peasant’s cloak in 1531 although it is actually an artist’s painting. During research, several ophthalmologists and a computer expert discovered a miniature image supposed to be “a bearded Spaniard” in the figure’s right eye. Subsequently they found other such images, although some writers wondered if they might be merely like the pictures seen in clouds, the result of a “pious imagination.” (See my Secrets of the Supernatural , 1988, pp. 114-115, and The Mystery Chronicles , 2004, pp. 51-54.)

Now, I do not know if these examples inspired Italian cultural specialist Silvano Vinceti, but his claims about Leonardi’s Mona Lisa have been likened to notions found in The Da Vinci Code . How seriously we should regard them is indicated by his own equivocal statements: “In the right eye appear to be the letters LV which could well stand for his name, Leonardo da Vinci, while in the left eye there are also symbols but they are not as defined. It is very difficult to make them out clearly but they appear to be the letters CE, or it could be the letter B. In the arch of the bridge in the background the number 72 can be seen or it could be an L and the number 2. You have to remember the picture is almost 500 years old so it is not as sharp and clear as when first painted. From the preliminary investigations we have carried out we are confident they are not a mistake and were put there by the artist.” (See; accessed Dec. 13, 2010.)

Mr. Vinceti seems unaware of the phenomenon of simulacra , images seen by the mind’s tendency (called pareidolia ) to “recognize” common shapes in random patterns—like the man in the moon or the famous image of Jesus produced by skillet burns on a tortilla. (See my Adventures in Paranormal Investigation , 2007, pp. 18-26.) In fact Mr. Vinceti has not examined the actual Leonardo painting, but has only studied high-definition scanned photographs. Still, he opines that the number 7 could refer to the biblical creation and 2 to the male-female duality (according to an AP article in The Buffalo News , January 13, 2011).

Anyway, this is not his only foray into silliness. Vinceti belongs to a group seeking to exhume Leonardo’s remains and use the skull’s features to test a notion that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait of Leonardo! This idea is found in a 1994 book, Turin Shroud: In Whose Image? by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. The duo also argue that the face on the shroud is another Leonardo self-portrait—never mind that the cloth appeared a century before the great artist and inventive genius was even born!