I've received confirmation that the hypothesis that the Mona Lisa is pointing to her left sleeve is new to Leonardo scholarship.
I have to study a lot more to understand this, but it's fun to ask about the role of pointing and hand gesture in Renaissance art and other works by Leonardo. My working concept is that the main function is not so much to provide an "answer," or even a clue,
about the painting's meaning, but to prompt a question that might not otherwise be asked (somewhat like a zen koan). The question will only make sense after a
certain amount of engagement with the work has been made.
In other words, everyone can see that the angel in the Madonna of the Rocks is pointing, but why that might be is anyone's guess.
That the Mona Lisa may be pointing at all has not been considered for the 500-year life of the work. Thus we may say fairly that if she is pointing, it is very subtle and probably intentionally so; indeed, perhaps the gesture is meant to reside exactly at
the tipping-point between a gesture and a non-gesture. It must be interpretable as either or both, akin to sfumato. This in itself is rich with meaning, even
if the pointing is to nothing at all.
The "who" of the pointing is fairly standard, i.e. the Mona Lisa and/or Leonardo, the figure and/or the artist by way of the figure. What they are pointing at must be understood from that perspective. Why would the Mona Lisa point at anything? Would it be
due to her own wish to communicate, that is to say "in character," or are we witnessing an unreliable narrator? Who is the agent, and what is their context?
After asking whether there is pointing at all, and then asking who is pointing (questions which could both potentially have multiple simultaneous and even contradictory answers), we get into the strangely hybrid combination of clarity and vagueness that comes
with the question "what are they pointing to?"
Visually it is fairly basic to track a line from the pointing hand to the most likely visible object. I think even non-human animals point, and there are some basic mechanics to how it works. The goal is to direct the eye from point A to point B. (This is
an instrinsically communicative act between the person pointing and the viewer.) Sometimes the communication is simple and straightforward: "look, there is a bird." Yet sometimes the pointing is more mysterious, and this may be the case in the ML.
In some Leonardo paintings it is clear what is being pointed to. In the Mona Lisa, it appears to be the left sleeve. Why point to that? Some Leonardo scholarship (such as that of Martin Kemp at Oxford) placed great importance on the ML's garment as a metaphor
and symbol for water dynamics. In this case, the pointing could be a guidance to pay attention to the garment, a heightening of its importance. My own hypothesis is that the garment represents a great deal of Leonardo's work in terms of technology (like
yarnmaking) as well as engineering, self-presentation, shelter, academia, and social identity.
Another of my own hypotheses is that the ML is concerned with showing how one flowing process can be interwoven with and transform into others. This is the case in how the bridge "flows" into the vortex shape of the shawl, the vortex of the hair flows into
the vortices of the garment, and how the rivers both erode geology and flow into the sea. The right hand, I believe, is meant to echo the shape of the folds of the left sleeve creating a similar braid or hybrid vortex (as is the left, but more compressed
due to perspective). The tip of the right finger could represent the precise point at which one flow transforms and weaves into another. This is a great expansion upon the philosophies of Ovid and Lucretius, both of whom Leonardo read, and how the world
is a flow of metamorphoses of atomic matter moving in space and time. Since Leonardo knew that life requires water, the ML becomes a "portrait" so to speak of life on earth. And, we see something like Michelangelo's spark of touch at the center of the Sistine
Chapel, occurring here between the artist's hand and the fabric of all that is created. (It may be relevant that the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa were created at the same time, and Leonardo and Michelangelo were fierce rivals.)
Then again, the pointing could be a trick, just as a guilty party will point excitedly at someone else when confronted with an ill deed (then scoot quickly away.) Maybe the sleeve is a goose chase, and the ML is actually pointing at nothing (itself a profound
statement). Or, it could be a case of pointing at one's self, creating another kind of contemplative loop. To sort all of these out I'll just have to keep reading Leonardo's Notebooks and looking at the paintings. (I prefer not to read too many critics
and scholars at this point because that can so easily get in the way of enjoying the work in its own right and seeing it afresh.)
At this point I definitely do not know for sure what is going on with regard to this hypothetical pointing. I'm not sure if I believe there is substance to this idea. I do know that if I place my own right hand on my left forearm, it feels much different
to extend my index finger a bit than it does not to. I think I would have to say that the ML is both pointing and not pointing, but this feeling is as yet hypothetical.
One quote from Leonardo leaps to mind at this very moment: "How with a small dam one can divert a river by aiding and abetting the line along which it shows that it wishes to turn by itself. How with a few stones a river can be diverted, if one understands
the line of its current" (Codex Leicester, 27v.).
All very best wishes and regards,
From: Max Herman <email@example.com>
Sent: Tuesday, July 14, 2020 11:42 AM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: question about pointing in renaissance art
Does anyone know of a good resource on the symbolism of pointing in renaissance painting, such as Leonardo's
Madonna of the Rocks?
Several of Leonardo's paintings include a figure pointing to something and I'm curious if there is any rhyme or reason to it, in the sense of conventions or standard meanings. I've found a few references about pointing to heaven or earth (up/down) or to a
person (level) but not much.
I'm curious just in case there is a subtle use of this in the Mona Lisa, where there could be a slight direction of the viewer to the left sleeve as geometry/topology, symbol of the technological present, wovenness of phenomena, allegory for accrued
knowledge, self-representation in costume, textile technology, and the like. It may even be directing us to some kind of "key" or "theme" around which to center the painting conceptually, one which is of course unmistakably hidden and understated. Some of
Leonardo's other paintings include figures pointing to intersections (for example the
Madonna of the Yarnwinder and St. John the Baptist) and this could perhaps be applied to the sleeve/hand intersection in ML.
On a different topic, some of you may have seen or heard about the recent NYT piece by the previous mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges. She points out how long-term economic inequality, actively supported by white liberals, is a primary cause of ongoing segregation
and police brutality like the killing of George Floyd. It's a confusing piece in some ways but does point out systemic injustices that have been ongoing since the first Europeans arrived on the continent, injustices which have been festering even more badly
since the 80's when social programs and reforms were largely abandoned (with bipartisan support) in favor of growth-oriented policies across US society. Until true equality is achieved we may be cursed to repeat the cycle of oppression, injustice, and violence
which is endemic wherever shared humanity is not accorded sufficient value.
All best wishes,