Cross-eyed Leonardo

LeonardoNot long ago, I wrote a post about the diagnoses of poor Mona Lisa, Feed Lisa Some Stake, whom the researchers could not leave alone and saddled Gioconda with multitude of health problems. Recently, scientists turned their attention to the master himself, Leonardo da Vinci.Leonardo1

Professor Christopher W. Tyler, PhD, DSc of City University of London, published an article Evidence That Leonardo da Vinci Had Strabismus in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology.

Key Points

Question  Did Leonardo da Vinci, the preeminent artist-scientist of the Italian Renaissance, have a form of strabismus that could have facilitated his artistic work?

Findings  Examination of 6 likely portraits and self-portraits of da Vinci in which the direction of gaze of each eye is identifiable shows that most paintings exhibit a consistent exotropic strabismus angle of −10.3°, supported by a similar Hirschberg angle in the recently identified da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi.

Meaning  The presence of exotropia, particularly if it was intermittent, may have contributed to da Vinci’s exceptional ability to capture space on the flat canvas.


Importance  Strabismus is a binocular vision disorder characterized by the partial or complete inability to maintain eye alignment on the object that is the target of fixation, usually accompanied by suppression of the deviating eye and consequent 2-dimensional monocular vision. This cue has been used to infer the presence of strabismus in a substantial number of famous artists.

Objective  To provide evidence that Leonardo da Vinci had strabismus.

The researcher analysed eyes in six pieces of art thought to be based on da Vinci: David (Andrea del Verrocchio); Young Warrior (Andrea del Verrocchio); Salvator Mundi (da Vinci); Young John the Baptist (da Vinci); Vitruvian Man (da Vinci).

Professor Tyler fitted circles and ellipses to the pupils, irises, and eyelid apertures on the artwork and then measured the relative positions of these features.

He found that there was evidence of strabismus in all six pieces of work.Leonardo


In this diagram, the degrees of optical axial angles of the left and right eyes of all the studied characters of paintings and sculptures are shown, and the difference between them just shows a slightly stronger deviation of the left in almost all cases. And this, according to Tyler, can serve as evidence of the divergent squint of da Vinci. Well, maybe…

Indeed, such an eye position significantly improves stereoscopic vision and the ability to see spatial depth. “The first thing to consider is whether the objects have the necessary contrasts corresponding to their [three-dimensional] position,” Leonardo wrote in his Treatise on Painting.  Leonardo was one of the first artists to incorporate three-dimensionality into his work. It seems very likely, is it not, that the cause of this brilliant innovation is physiological.


Feed Lisa Some Stake

mona lisa.jpgHere are the latest “believe-it-or not” from the world of art and medicine.

Dr. Mandeep Mehra of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, for fun if no other reason, spent a year examining Leonardo’s masterpiece searching for a… diagnosis. In his opinion,  Lisa Gherardini, aka Mona Lisa, aka Gioconda, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, was not in the best of health when she sat for the portrait in 1503. Her mysterious grin, the smile that mystifies and charms people for over five centuries, might as well be caused by her health problems, Dr. Mehra believes.

Dr. Mehra points to many features in Da Vinci’s painting that he says are critical to his diagnosis.

The doctor says she had no eyebrows, a receding hair line, a lesion near her left eye, a puffy neck and swollen hands. These all suggest to the doctor a systemic physical ailment. (So much for timeless beauty so admired!)

“The diagnosis that I believe is operative here is an underactive thyroid gland or hypothyroidism,” Dr. Mehra said.

Dr. Mehra suggests that the disease might have been provoked by an early pregnancy, as well as a lack of meat, dairy products and seafood in the diet.

“That is the thing about the Mona Lisa is that Leonardo da Vinci was an uncanny artist who depicted accuracy like no one else. He was an anatomist,” Dr. Mehra said.ML.PNG
Doctor believes Mona Lisa was suffering from thyroid condition.

This isn’t the first time lovely Lisa was posthumously diagnosed. In 2017, British art critic Jonathan Jones published a study in which he explained Gioconda’s smile as a symptom of syphilis. Jones pointed out that in the books of the Florentine monastery a record of certain purchase was preserved for posterity: Lisa Gherardini once bought acqua di chiocciole, the water of the snails, at the local pharmacy. At the time, this remedy was widely used to treat syphilis.

Poor Lisa.

The Art Of Passover

The eight-day festival of Passover is celebrated in the early spring, from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan, April 10–18, 2017 (Hebrew year 5777).
Happy Passover to those who celebrate. !חג פסח שמח
For Jews around the world, the Pesach Seder is an excellent occasion to gather at a large table, eat, drink and recall the exodus from Egypt.

For the great painters of the Renaissance, the ritual served as an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Here is how Leonardo da Vinci painted the Seder of 13 Nisan 3793 on the wall of the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The painting dates from 1495-1498:
Below is the engraving of Albrecht Dürer, created in 1523, from collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum. St John is easily recognized here not only by the absence of a beard, but also by his place at the festive table. It is unclear, though, where the Jesus’s favorite pupil hid his legs. Judas is conspicuously absent, perhaps not to spoil the festive mood.Still below, is the amusing painting of Paolo Veronese “The Feast in the House of Levi”. Originally it was also called “The Last Supper”, but it had to be renamed after the intervention of the Inquisition, accusing the artist of an unfaithful depiction of the event. Veronese’s Last Supper is different from the canonical description by the evangelists. The Seder begins after the stars come out, however Veronese’s Seder feast takes place in the light of the day. The main objection, though, was the “composition” of the participants  — too many people that shouldn’t have been in the presence of Jesus at His Last Supper. The problem went away when the feast has been moved to the “house of Levi”. The canvas of epic proportions (one and a half times larger than Leonardo’s fresco) occupies the entire wall of the Venetian Academy:
The famous canvas of Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), created in Venice almost 100 years after the masterpiece of Leonardo. The painting is exhibited in the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore on the island of the same name. In the best baroque traditions, it depicts Jesus and his disciples at the festive table in the 16th century Venetian trattoria. Curiously, the mighty Inquisition had no problem with Tintoretto who placed a number of extraneous persons onto the canvas. Perhaps, it was because the supper takes place with the stars out?
“The Last Supper” by the Russian artist Nikolai Ge below was presented to the public in the fall of 1863 in the Academy of Arts of St. Petersburg. Church censorship tried to ban it and demanded its removal from the exhibition. The day was saved by Tsar Alexander II intervention. The royal mecenat bought the painting from the artist. Grudgingly, the clerics had to forget about their claims for a while (although the synodal ban on the publication of reproductions in Russia persisted until the February Revolution of 1917).It should be noted that of the five masterpieces above, only Nikolai Ge’s correctly reflected the ritual of the Last Supper: Passover, the exodus of Jews from Egyptian bondage should be celebrated reclining (מסובין) rather than sitting on the chairs around the table. Accordingly, Jesus’s beloved disciple shouldn’t be depicted sitting on the Teacher’s lap as portrayed by Durer, but rather reclined beside Him.

Many other great masters painted the Last Supper, among them Daniele Crespi, Hans Holbein (Hans the Younger), Juan de Juanes, Ugolino da Siena, Duccio di Buoninsegna

Leonardo The Anatomist

leonardo0Leonardo’s anatomical sketchbooks are scientific masterpieces full of lucid insights into the functioning of the human body.

“There were lots of investigative anatomists around at the time, and there were lots of artists who were interested in anatomy. But Leonardo pushed these two things further than anybody else. He was the supreme example of an anatomist who could also draw, or of an artist who was also a very skilled dissector. It was the union of these two skills in a single figure that made Leonardo unique.” (Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings in the Royal Collection.)leonardo6Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519) The muscles of the shoulder, torso and leg  c.1504-6. Pen and ink, and red chalk | RCIN 912640leonardo1Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519) Recto: The foetus in the womb. Verso: Notes on reproduction, with sketches of a foetus in utero, etc.  c.1511. Recto: Pen and ink over red chalk. Verso: Pen and ink, with some offset red chalk | RCIN 919102Recto: A skull sectioned. Verso: A cranium sectionedLeonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519) Recto: The skull sectioned. Verso: The cranium  1489. Pen and ink over black chalk | RCIN 919057

Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519) The major organs and vessels c.1485-90 Pen and ink with brown and greenish wash, over black chalk | RCIN 912597

Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519) The major organs and vessels c.1485-90 Pen and ink with brown and greenish wash, over black chalk | RCIN 912597

Leonardo da Vinci actively studied human anatomy and was going to publish these works in a special treatise. There  is an opinion that if Leonardo da Vinci’s uncannily accurate studies of the human body had been published in his lifetime, they would have changed the course of science.

However, for over 400 years after his death, an impressive collection of his anatomical drawings hasn’t been seen by general public.  Recently a great number of them has been digitized by Royal Collection Trust.

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View all of Leonardo’s drawings in the Royal Collection here.

The Last Supper

Juan de Juanes 1523 – 1579 The Last Supper (1560)

Juan de Juanes 1523 – 1579 The Last Supper (1560)

The Last Supper. This dramatic gathering has been a source of inspiration for the visual arts. A great number of paintings depicting this Biblical meal were created by different artists at different times over the last thousand years. In various styles, these paintings depict Jesus with his disciples gathered around the table for their last meal.

Ugolino da Siena (Ugolino di Nerio) (Italian, Siena) ca. 1325–30

Ugolino da Siena (Ugolino di Nerio) (Italian, Siena) ca. 1325–30

Needles to say, these paintings were examined, analysed and studied in the smallest details. Nothing, it seems, escaped the attention of myriads of art critics. However…


Duccio di Buoninsegna. The Last Supper (1311)


Duccio di Buoninsegna. The Last Supper (1311)

Scientists, brothers Brian Wansink from Cornell University and Craig Wansink from Virginia Wesleyan College, teamed up to analyze something else entirely. The subject of their studies was the amount of food depicted in 52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper of the last millennium.
The paintings were scrutinized for content of the meals and coded to determine changes in kinds of food and size of portions over time as depicted in paintings by great masters of the past. The sizes of the loaves of bread, main dishes, and plates were compared to the average size of the heads shown in the paintings. A CAD-CAM program was used to allow sections of the paintings to be scanned, rotated, and calculated with more precision.
As was expected, the size of food in these paintings linearly increased with time. The largest Last Supper was the most recent, according to Wansink’s analysis.

From 1000AD to the present, the ratio of the main course entrée, size of the bread, and size of the plate have increased by 69.2%, 23.1%, and 65.5%, respectively.


Hans Holbein (Junior). The Last Supper (1524)


Daniel Crespi. The Last Supper (1624)

Crespi’s Last Supper is a real feast with abundance of food on humongous serving platters. Psychologists believe that this increase is associated with the development of agriculture, expansion of the range of products and their increasing availability. In all likelihood, the artist  was trying to portray the ideal feast according to the standards of the time. Today, though, we have surpassed them all. Our festive dinners  would be the envy of any king of the Middle Ages.

The Last Supper, ca. 1520, Andrea di Bartoli Solario, after Leonardo da Vinci, oil on canvas, currently in the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Tongerlo Abbey.

The Last Supper, ca. 1520, Andrea di Bartoli Solario, after Leonardo da Vinci, oil on canvas, currently in the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Tongerlo Abbey.

On the most famous version of the Last Supper, Leonardo’s (1494-1498) scientists have noticed eel, served with slices of orange on the menu. This is fundamentally different from earlier works with a rather modest offering of food on the table — like in the work of Duccio di Buoninsegna.

The Last Supper Restored, Leonardo Da Vinic

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper

Paper: (available by clicking Wansink, B. and C. S. Wansink. (2010). The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium. International Journal of Obesity 34, 943–944.

Topsy-Turvy Purple Drunk

A picture is worth a thousand words, said Napoleon. A thousand and a few, I would say, if there is an awesome story in there somewhere…

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo or L'Ultima Cena)

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo or L’Ultima Cena)

When Leonardo da Vinci worked on  The Last Supper, a mural painting on the refectory wall of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, he run into a difficulty finding models for Jesus and Judas. One day, at last, Leonardo spotted a young church singer to be his Jesus.

For the next three years Leonardo was on a lookout for a suitable Judas until, by chance, he came across the drunkard, lying in the gutter. The drunk was a young man still, but excessive libations aged him beyond his years. Leonardo invited a man to model for him, and immediately started working on Judas.

After a few sessions, nearly sober, the man admitted that he posed for Leonardo once before. A few years back it was, when he sang in the church chorus, and Leonardo painted Jesus. “Christ,” Leonardo might’ve said…

Ilya Repin.  Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581

Ilya Repin. Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581

Ilya Repin (1844 –1930) was a leading Russian painter and sculptor.  Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581 is one of his many masterpieces.

Ilia Repin. Ivan the Terrible (Detail)

Ilya Repin. Ivan the Terrible (Detail)

In 1913, the insane painter-iconographer slashed the picture with a knife. Repaired by skillful restorers, it was about to go on display again. Repin himself arrived to Moscow to inspect the restoration, and decided to re-paint the head of Ivan the Terrible, which he did.

Incongruously, he has done it in a disagreeable purple tones, which greatly conflicted with the palette of the original. When Repin left, the restorers stubbornly removed his patches and returned the painting to its exact pre-damage state. The artist had seen the restored picture later… and did not notice the “correction of the correction”. Perhaps, his “purple period” has passed, much to the delight of his numerous admirers.

Tivadar  Csontvary Kosztka    The Old Fisherman (1902)

Csontvary Kosztka The Old Fisherman (1902)

The painting above is The Old Fisherman by a famous Hungarian painter Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry. Although it was painted in 1902, its not-too-deeply-buried secret was discovered only recently… reflected in the mirror.

Put the mirror exactly in the middle, on the left, you will see a man — wise-looking and sad — resting with his back to the serene mountains and the calm sea. He is God.

Put the mirror exactly in the middle, on the right, you will see a man — evil-looking and menacing — with his back to the  erupting volcano and the stormy sea. He is Devil.

The Old Fisherman. Mirror, Mirror.

The Old Fisherman. Mirror, Mirror.

In 1961, in the New York Museum of Modern Art was exhibited Henri Matisse’s The Boat. Only after 47 days, someone noticed that the painting is hanging upside down. The canvas depicts 10 purple lines and two blue sails on a white background. The second sail is a reflection of the first in the water. The larger sail has to be at the top of the picture, and the peak of the sail should be directed to the upper right corner. Go and figure… Paraphrasing Samuel Butler, any fool can paint a picture, but it takes a genius to hang it upside down…

Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse. The Boat

Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse. The Boat

Ambrose Bierce, the incomparable author of a satirical lexicon The Devil’s Dictionary, gave this definition of painting:  Painting, n.: The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather, and exposing them to the critic.