Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Awaken the Amnesiacs 6: Mona Lisa's Trump Card

The famous Mona Lisa or La Gioconda (1503-1506), 'lady of light' or 'light-heartedness'; Lisa sits between two columns, with only their bases barely visible. Image Source: Wiki.

In an earlier post, I argued that scientists and technologists ironically inspire the primal and anti-rational because they are transforming life, breaching boundaries, and not always weighing long term consequences of their innovations. To understand that process, one must analyze it with ideas from the arts and humanities. With regard to the impact of the Internet, part of the answer comes from visual artists, who are preoccupied with how we see the world and how the world sees us. In my previous post in this series, I discussed Gerhard Richter's mirror paintings and their resemblance to computers as mirrors.

Perhaps the most famous symbolic depiction of the mirror looking at us is Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (1503-1506). Mona Lisa is smiling so mysteriously because the painting may not be about its enigmatic subject, Lisa del Giocondo (née Gheradini), at all. The symbolism in the Mona Lisa indicates that the portrait represents an archetypal mirror, which is actively watching you. Understand the Mona Lisa, and one starts to understand our present circumstances on the Internet. The next few posts in this series describe how the symbolism of the Mona Lisa provides clues to our Millennial mentality. Given the uproar over Donald Trump's presidential candidacy, it is fitting that today's post also explains the meaning of the word 'trump' in Renaissance card games, and it discusses why the Mona Lisa depicts a trump card and concept.

For a taste of medieval walled town life from Leonardo da Vinci's time, this is Pérouges, France, built in the 14th and 15th centuries around wine and weaving industries in the Ain River Valley, near Geneva; it is a seven hour drive by car to Florence, Italy. Video Source: Youtube.

The medieval town of Gradara is known for a castle which was finished in the 15th century, and would have been new in Leonardo da Vinci's youth. The castle features in the fifth canto of Dante's Divine Comedy, at the climax of the adulterous love story between Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. Video Source: Youtube.

Florence in da Vinci's time, in a 1493 woodcut from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle. Image Source: Wiki.

Interiors of Palazzo Davanzati, a restored medieval-Renaissance Florentine palace, built in the late 14th century. The palace reveals a claustrophobic, walls-within-walls mentality, with everything being enclosed: towns, compounds, houses, inner houses, locked rooms, hidden chambers, and secret passages. Inhabitants sought ever greater security from outside conflicts, which became more elaborate and complex. Images Source: Walks Inside Italy and Sailko/Wiki and Museums in Florence. 

Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa at the turn of the 15th-to-16th centuries during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The Mona Lisa contains triumphal allegorical symbolism which was very popular at the time. These allegories were everywhere. They were a cultural shorthand for a whole range of accepted ideas about the way the world worked. At this time, noble families and guilds presided over life inside walled towns. Constantly in conflict to amass power and consolidate control, they revived the old Roman tradition of triumphal processions to celebrate victories in battles. The Renaissance, according to Joseph Manca, was "the age of the trionfo." Parades took on symbolic qualities to enable noble families to assert their historical continuity with the greatness of imperial Rome.

Triumphal Victory Parades

Thus, 'triumphs' were parades, which became associated in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance with spiritual allegories. This transition from a real military victory march to a symbolic parade to celebrate certain social values is evident in Francesco Petrarch's poem, I Trionfi (1356-1374), written mainly at the Visconti Court in Milan. Petrarch's love poems describe his unrequited love for Laura de Noves (1310-1348). In I Trionfi, Petrarch (1304-1374) claims his love for Laura made him face ever more demanding physical, emotional, philosophical, and spiritual challenges. At each stage, a higher virtue or stronger allegorical figure triumphed and held a victory march. Peter Sadlon:
"In the first triumph, Love as Cupid conquers the gods and men (including Petrarch). In the second triumph, Chastity defeats Love, reflecting Laura's ladylike rejection of Petrarch's advances. In the third triumph, Death defeats Chastity (Laura was a victim of the Black Death). In the fourth, Fame defeats Death (her reputation lives after her). In the fifth triumph, Time defeats Fame, and finally (sixth), Eternity conquers Time (with the promise that Petrarch and the object of his love will be united at last in the afterlife)."
The poem, in Italian and English, is here. The victories of ever-higher allegorical figures are depicted in the illustrations below.

The triumph of Love.

The victory of Chastity.

The march of Death.

The parade of Fame.

The procession of Time.

The victory march of Eternity. Images Source: Peter Sadlon. ("The images shown here are from Bernard Quaritch's edition of Works of The Italian Engravers of the Fifteenth Century, with introduction by G. W. Reid. Reid denies the credit for the Petrarch prints to Nicoletto da Modena and supports the authorship of Fra Filippo Lippi.")

Tarot Card Trumps

Triumphant allegorical figures, or 'trumps,' were then included in the invention of the tarot deck, a kind of Game of Thrones card game for nobles. The earliest tarot cards look a lot like medieval illuminated manuscripts, but were adapted to woodblock printing, introduced in the 15th century. The Visconti di Modrone deck of tarot cards, which is officially dated around 1466, but may date from the 1440s, is one of the most prized possessions of Yale University's library.

The first established tarot card decks were created in the 1400s through the early 16th century. The Florentine Minchiate deck of 97 cards, developed in the early 1500s when Leonardo da Vinci lived in the city, was used to play a game with a catalogue of hermetic archetypes. 'Minchiate' means 'nonsense' or 'bullshit'; so this was a 'fool's game,' a bit like chess, and a bit like early poker, with some allegorical lessons, astronomical archetypes, and fabulistic morals thrown in for good measure. The World of Playing Cards:
"The game, like other Tarot games, is a trick taking game in which points are scored by capturing certain cards and sets of cards. However, the deck has also been popular with card readers who see it as a variant of the esoteric tarot because of the allegorical and symbolical content. The Cavaliers [knights or jacks] are man/beast creatures. The Valets (or Pages) are male for clubs and swords, and female for cups and coins. Further features include the replacement of the Papess, Empress and Pope by the Western Emperor, the Eastern Emperor and the addition of the Grand Duke. Some scholars believe that these cards may have served as teaching aids, because several trump allegories (Virtues, Elements, Zodiac signs) belong to categories upon which classical learning was based at that time."

This is a 1995 Lo Scarabeo limited 'Etruria' edition reproduction of a 1725 version of the Florentine Minchiate tarot deck. There was also a 1996 mass-produced deck and a 2011 reprint. According to Tarot Heritage, the first mention of a 'tarot' deck, comes from a 1440 Florentine diary. Video Source: Youtube.

The Mona Lisa is a Tarot Trump Card

Leonardo's 'earlier version' of Lisa, the Isleworth Mona Lisa, painted when she was approximately 11 years younger than as depicted in the Louvre painting. The Mona Lisa Foundation assumes the 16th-17th century copy in the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway is a copy of this earlier version. Announcements on this earlier version in 2012 attracted much media attention and expert interest: "The use of these columns in the structure of this painting is fundamental to the composition. As an element in portraiture, Leonardo had never before utilized this idea." Image Source: Mona Lisa Foundation.

The Isleworth Mona Lisa (early 16th century), claimed to be (the claim is both disputed and confirmed) Leonardo da Vinci's earlier version of the Mona Lisa, shows Lisa del Giocondo seated between two pillars, one dark, one light. Image Source: Wiki.

A tangent is required to explain what the Mona Lisa means today. The meaning of the painting depends on whether it contains columns. Contemporary and early copies of the painting show that the Mona Lisa may have been cut down on the sides for framing, to reveal that Lisa was originally shown seated between two columns. Experts who examined the Louvre painting in 2004 and 2005 concluded that the painting had not been trimmed. In another version, the Isleworth Mona Lisa, a Leonardo 'first draft' from 1503 which surfaced in 2008 and again in 2012, Lisa is flanked by two columns, one light and one dark. These columns appear in many Mona Lisa copies, but the Isleworth version is supposed to be by the Master.

The Prado Mona Lisa in Madrid is the earliest copy, a workshop replica likely produced contemporaneously by one of Leonardo's apprentices, and prior to the original's sale to the French king Francis I. Note the presence of dark and light pillars. While the Prado version is contemporaneous and its true imagery was revealed during restoration in 2012, the Mona Lisa Foundation greets Prado staff statements about this version with muted skepticism. Image Source: Wiki.

An early copy of the Mona Lisa, painted by an unknown French artist (c. 1630-1660), at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, shows black and white pillars painted in on either side of the subject. Image Source: Wiki. (From: Lady Louisa Ashburton, Kent House, Knightsbridge; Ashburton Sale, Christie's, London, July 8, 1905, lot no. 17; Henry Walters, Baltimore, before 1909 [mode of acquisition unknown]; Walters Art Museum, 1931, by bequest.)

Columns were inserted by artists who copied the Louvre painting and wanted to expand Leonardo's implied composition; or they may have copied a preliminary Leonardo painting, possibly the Isleworth version. From the Walters Art Museum:
"Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) began a portrait of Lisa Gherardini about 1503 and then took with him to France, selling it to the French king in 1516. During the centuries that it remained in the royal collection it was copied many times. Some of the early cop[yi]sts wanted to 'complete' Leonardo's composition by introducing columns at the sides of the composition, since in the original, now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, we can see indications of the base of columns along each side. However, extensive technical examinations of the Louvre's panel and the paint along its edges have conclusively demonstrated that the painting was not cut down and therefore there were never columns along the side edges. So later cop[yi]sts were trying to 'improve' on what they saw!"
From Joan Eath Spicer, Journal of the Walters Art Museum, vol. 70-71 (2012-2013), pp. 39-42:
"[A]ll the known early copies appear to reflect the original in the [French] royal collections rather than the [Prado] replica. Technical examinations of the Louvre painting published in 2006 indicate that the minimal indication of columns in the original is not due to the panel having been cut down (as many had thought) but must have been Leonardo’s intention; therefore it is likely that the solidly defined columns introduced by later painters were meant as 'clarifications,' possibly under the mistaken impression that Leonardo’s panel must have been cut down. The result of the introduction of columns is to give a clearer sense of the sitter’s spatial location within a specific architecturally articulated space of a loggia, whereas deemphasizing such specificity (as in Leonardo’s completed composition) places more emphasis on the dreamlike, fantastical character of the famous landscape."
You can see the Mona Lisa Foundation's discussion of the columns in different versions of the painting, here. Regardless, slivers of the sides and the bases of pillars on either side of Lisa are in the Louvre's famous version.

The High Priestess tarot trump card (see another version in an earlier post here), depicts a crowned and robed woman flanked by black and white pillars. The Priestess represents the deeper awareness attainable through intuition; the Priestess, or Popess, is a spiritual manifestation which appears when one finds a third way to neutrality between extremes, a third column between the columns Boaz (darkness) and Jachin (light), first mentioned in this post. The Priestess trump also symbolizes a mirror. This version is from the Bohemian Gothic deck (2007). Image Source: pinterest.

Aside from the huge importance of the painting, it seems an odd thing for controversy. In fact, the likely source of the controversy is not mentioned in reports: the presence of the pillars in the painting indicates that the Mona Lisa contains an esoteric message about mirrors. The differently-coloured columns indicate that the Mona Lisa is actually Leonardo da Vinci's hermetic depiction of the High Priestess tarot card. The removal of the pillars conceals that hermetic correlation. Light and dark pillars symbolize the masculine and feminine columns at the fabled door of Solomon's Temple, previously discussed in this post. At the beginning of the 16th century when da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, the columns were daring humanist alternatives to a religious depiction of the cross. This trump card represents the 'triumph' of intuition, water, the moon, and mirrors, and what we would call virtual reality; subsequent posts will explore those meanings philosophically and symbolically in Millennial terms.

Click here for my posts on the Tarot.
See my posts on Virtual Reality here.
See all my posts in the series, Awaken the Amnesiacs.


  1. Fascinating, and much to chew on. Thank you!

    1. You're welcome, Thom. Yes, IMO the Internet is provoking big philosophical, moral and artistic questions about perception. Because we are living our interaction with technology in the moment, we have little or no broader perspective on what is happening to our behaviour and psychology. This series attempts to dig into that more deeply.