This Magic Mona

The medieval appeal of a modern icon.


When Mona Lisa came to Washington's National Gallery in 1963, the lines of people wanting to see her were so long that each art lover was allowed less than 30 seconds to commune in front of her. The event became notorious for its apparent absurdity; everyone had a good laugh at the spectacle. A decade later, Mona Lisa went to Japan, where viewing time was reduced to an estimated two seconds per visitor.

Why bother? Why, for that matter, do the Louvre's hordes snatch their floorplans and rush to the X that marks the painting's spot? Is "La Giocanda"'s smile any more mysterious than any other painted Renaissance smile? The 500-year-old canvas has become so grimy that the image is actually hard to see, yet no one dares clean the thing. Why is it so famous now, when for some 200 years—from the 17th to the 19th centuries—it was ignored?

"It's a snowball effect," Donald Sassoon recently told The Washington Post. Sassoon, for years a historian of the left, has now taken up the study of taste, and how elite opinion influences popular reception. He calls his subject the "social canon," and his most recent project is Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon (Harcourt Brace).

Sassoon focuses on the process of fame, especially how a little fame can lead to a lot more fame. "It's a very special painting," he told the Post, "so Raphael and other people copied it. And it was by Leonardo. And it was in Paris. And intellectuals wrote about it. And it got stolen [in 1911]. And [artist Marcel] Duchamp made fun of it. And it visited the United States. And each is due to the thing before. It gets stolen because it was pretty well known; then Duchamp puts a mustache on it, because he needs something that everybody knows; it gets sent to New York and Washington, because it is a popular painting; it is used in advertising because it was sent all over."

Sassoon's right, of course. The painting entered the modern era's newly constructed publicity machinery without anyone intending to put it there, and has long since emerged as much more than a painting with a spectacular aura; "Mona Lisa" has become an aura that has left its physical canvas behind. It doesn't matter how little time you are given to look at it; it doesn't matter how dark the encrusted canvas is. Anyway, everyone knows exactly what it looks like. The point of "seeing" the Mona Lisa is not even to stand in its aura; the point is to have stood there.

Mona is a woman of power, and that power emerges from "mystery"; Sassoon describes how French author Theophile Gautier established her as a modern femme fatale. Yet, for all the modernity of the painting's fame—constructed of endless press coverage, an infinity of cheap reproductions, the praise of a popularizing critical establishment (notably the "decadent" critic Walter Pater), the growth of art museums as uplifters of "mass" taste, etc.—the experience of the Mona Lisa isn't modern at all. In fact, the painting's popular reception is actually a link to the time before art.

For centuries prior to the Renaissance, there was neither art nor artist; there was only the image. Most imagery was religious; some of it was created to be didactic, some to exert spiritual power. So important were the functions of such images, especially those portraying or symbolizing spiritual glory, that in the West their forms were often dictated down to the most minute detail. To deviate from an established form of an image was to risk debilitating its power and therefore its spiritual function. Creative artisans who experimented with these forms were accused of undermining faith and doing harm to the faithful; they could be punished as if they were criminals.

One rarely if ever looked at a "painting"; one was in the presence of an image. One didn't contemplate the meaning of imagery; rather, imagery had innate power. It's not at all unlike the experience of Louvre patrons and others hurrying past the Mona Lisa. It is not so much a painting that they are given an opportunity to see, but rather a powerful likeness in whose presence they are allowed to pause. Though they attend a palace of Enlightenment bourgeois uplift to see a Renaissance portrait, the experience they have is a medieval one. It comes from a time before art, and suggests a time after it.