La Joconde

“…the mysterium is experienced…as something that bestows upon man a beatitude beyond compare…one whose real nature he can neither proclaim in speech nor conceive in thought, but may know only by a direct and living experience.”
— Rudolf Otto, in
The Idea of the Holy (1923)

Then somebody says, “Hey, there’s no line.”

So I turn, and sure enough, there is a clear line of sight to the Mona Lisa, framed within the frame of a door. To say there is no line is not entirely accurate. Indeed, there is no scrum of cranky tourists heaving its way down the length of la Grande Galerie, through the Trecento and back towards ancient Egypt. Rather, there is about fifty yards of open pine floor, ending in a gently pulsing mass of people. Fifteen minutes ago, I met the Nike of Samothrace, and the force of her arrival resonates still in my body, my bones. In this heightened state accentuated by a summer cold’s fever, by the anxiety of shepherding my sister and the Sprite through the busiest museum in the world on its busiest day of the week, I believe I can hear currents of air swirling up towards the glass barrelled ceiling, stirred by hurrying feet. Around us, in me, everything is in motion. Every sense I have is extended; my highest level of artistic battle readiness is engaged.

If I was alone, I would have stayed at the feet of the Nike for a long time. Some thoughtful curator caused rough steps to be carved into the walls surrounding her: a place to collapse when trembling knees finally give way. I would have braced my back against that cool stone, looked up, and continued to trace the folds of her chiton, moulded to her body from sea-spray and rippling with her breath.  My mind would have pursued the mystery of our encounter far, far down: a stone dropped into deep water.

But I have a flock, who have taken to calling me Tour Guide Barbie, and they are looking to me for our next move. Because we had made a plan, about Miss Mona; we were going to give her a miss. She’s tiny, we said, so you have to get close, and closer in will be crowded, uncomfortably so, and the promise of opportunistic pickpocketry has been drummed into our heads from every available news outlet. We’ll see nothing beyond a forest of arms crowned with iPads and cell phones, and right now we are standing in front of four perfectly serviceable Leonardos, hung at eye level, with no overly vigilant guard looming nearby to disturb our reflections. What more could we possibly want to see?

“Oh, hell,” I hear myself say. “We’re here, I’m going.”


When trying to describe in words an experience which by its nature rebels against such strictures, I fall back on my training as a historian, and start with the simplest of facts. So: the Mona Lisa hangs on a wall in the middle of an enormous room. As we enter this space, we are immediately confronted by a vast painting hanging just to the left of the door. Relying on its own set of facts, the Louvre’s Web site quaintly describes this experience as: Turn around to admire ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ by Veronese.”  At twenty-two by thirty-three feet, the height of a modest two-story house, we really don’t have much choice. Perhaps that’s why it’s placed here, I think: not as a rival to its most famous neighbour, but as the only thing the Louvre owns that’s large enough to be seen clearly at any point in the room, over any number of heads.

The wedding is a mirage of brilliant pastels and twisting figures, stage-set before an aperture of celestine sky. As we move across that first fifty yards of floor, the Sprite passes the time by walking backwards and zooming her camera in and out of focus on the Veronese, looking for cats. She quickly finds the famous one just at the front of the picture, rolling on its back and doing something rude to a very expensive urn. On the walls around us blaze the bright jewels and generous flesh of sixteenth century Venice. My sister and I turn in little self-contained orbits, mouths open but trying not to point. From all sides now, disparate groups of people are converging, collecting in ranks like silt at the mouth of a river. We drift with them.

And so it is that, almost imperceptibly, we wash up in the tidal eddy of pilgrims in front of the Mona Lisa.


Somewhere I had read that she glows as if lit from within. In this expectation I’m disappointed. There is too much glass in the way, of the same type that fills the windows of armoured limousines, and the mustardy yellow of the walls leeches the colour from her skin. It’s hot and noisy, I’m conscious of losing track of the Sprite, I grow restless. But I’m stuck here now. So I wait, and concentrate on my breath. Amid the susurrus of voices, the click and whirr of devices, I hear the voice of my beloved art history professor. Look at the fall of her hair, he says: how it flows like water, and how that flow echoes throughout the landscape around it. This landscape, at once both real and dreamlike; the patterning found in the movement of water; the easy interplay between the quotidian and the divine…each of these themes will recur in every one of Leonardo’s paintings, Dr. Radan says in his soft burled voice, if we just learn how to look. In that place where the Nike has taken up residence, raising her beautiful arms and calling to me, there is a shuddering, a sudden movement in the air. I lean forward over the head of the re-appeared Sprite, and look.

And despite myself I am taken aback. How calm this woman is. How still. I see now that what Mona Lisa radiates is not light, but rather a bemused serenity in the face of what’s before her. We are a diverse congregation, travellers and strangers mostly, arrived in this secular cathedral for any number of reasons. Yet we are all willing to endure discomfort and a certain amount of bad behaviour in order to participate in a communal, creative act. The two small boys intent on their handhelds, chivvied up through the crowd by their flustered parents; the hipster flashing a peace sign as his girlfriend holds up her cell phone; my failing attempts to remain aloof. These rituals are part of what Mona Lisa is, and she is graciously accepting of all of it.

It’s impossible not to yield to such a benediction, given so freely across time and experience. So I do, and with my acquiescence comes a rush of unexpected peace. Everything else falls away, the smell of bodies in too tight a space, the bumping and jostling, until there is just myself and a woman’s face emerging from darkness. I realise for the first time that she is wearing a veil. Escaping from that veil, just above her right breast, are finely drawn tendrils of hair. I look past her shoulder, into the landscape, and am rewarded by the same tender curves echoed in a road winding through a narrow defile. Further down that path is a lake and a shadowed wood, and around its circumference a route to the bridge on the other side. Later, when poring over one of the glossy reproductions of Mona Lisa that I surprised myself by buying in the gift shop, I’ll surprise myself further by playing an old childhood game.  I’ll turn the first two fingers of my right hand into legs, and wander down that road to see where it leads, what adventures I might find.

For now, it is enough to stand quietly in her famous regard, and look back.

— amrh / Summer 2013, Paris and Mougins

At the Louvre, 15 June 13

Trust me to fall in love with the moodiest guy in the joint.
With Titian’s “Portrait of a Man” (1520), at the Louvre, 15 June 2013.

** For a thorough introduction to the Nike of Samothrace, see (in English)

** One of my favourite rainy day reads is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects: nuggets of Italian Renaissance history and gossip, richly described by a fellow artist of the period. I found a beautifully curated Web site which weaves together selected quotes from the Lives with contextualised images. Here is the Leonardo page:

** The sheer size of Veronese’s Wedding at Cana made a lot more sense to me after Peter Greenaway got ahold of it:

One thought on “La Joconde

  1. Murph says:

    You’re looking beautiful yourself. “If I were a painter …,” as Gabriel Conroy might say.Here in Galway, it’s been a South of France sort of summer, even splashes in the scrotum tightening sea. Keep posting.

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