The Zen in their Eyes: Queering the Mona
Lisa (again)


#art, #queer, #history,
#trans, #mythology

This is by no means a new claim, but rather the celebration of an old one. As has been explored in many articles in Becoming magazine now, part of the hegemony of dominant ideologies involves rewriting history, stylising history, and ultimately gaslighting the public. One form of action, then, could be to queer history, to reveal it as having always been queer, always containing queer resistance to forces of normativity, orthodoxy and conformism.
           My last article Zen in the eyes of the Femboy¹ eluded to a kind of attitude that was supposed to inspire awe and philosophy, a vitalistic energy found within the eyes of the trans cat girl. If Mona Lisa is trans, no wonder it has inspired so much thought and philosophy, everyone goes to the Louvre to stare into her eyes.

To cut a long story short, not many people who have looked into the matter still believe that hero of the West Leonardo Da Vinci was a good, Christian heterosexual man. The hegemony of Christ is over, Capitalism usurped the throne, and there is simply no reason to protect any of these images anymore — it is extremely likely that Da Vinci was not cisgender or straight, there is a lot of evidence that they lived a queer lifestyle and had many queer relations. If we peel off the surface, there is no reason to even push back the proposal, history is full of aristocratic homosexuality and transsexuality.
           In an exhibition at CSU Zagreb, I saw an exhibit, titled le vice italien by Viviane Sassen², that explored how royal affiliations created cults of transsexuality and queerness. The piece used the example of Versailles, where supposedly a son of King Louis XIII was raised as a woman due to a conspiracy against the son (in regard to the throne). Another interpretation is that the son was never a man or a woman, because such categories are forced upon us, and that the only thing different in their upbringing was an absence of a determined drive to install masculinity in the child. By not wishing the child to make the throne, the child was not forced to develop certain characteristics or adorned with certain symbols, and so they escaped the binaries and were able to grow up as a queer person.
           What the piece ends up discussing, is that due to the royal blood of the transgender princess, they experienced immense freedoms in these areas, being the child of the Sovereign made them an exception to all rules and free to do as they please, to dress as they feel, to have sex with who they feel — and all those lovers could be protected under the label of concubines, protected royal sexual partners. Around the princess formed a cult of homosexual, queer and transexual love, as those living outside the palace, in a domain of absolute, violentlypoliced heteronormativity, could escape this hell and become a consort of the princess — only in their royal protection could the Theys frolic.
           It is not so difficult to imagine how Da Vinci, being from a wealthy background experienced much the same freedoms, to engage in love and sex and attire as they please, as they feel, and their private estates afforded protection to would-be lovers. We need not look further than roman de la rose³ to see this image with clarity: behind walled gardens, away from the eyes of the poor, the gentry, who are controlled by both discipline and technologies of Imagery (such as hiding things from sight), there are luscious gardens of pleasure — the rich living lives that the poor would be hanged for. It is a tragic image, but it is fascinating to think about what seems to naturally emerge when allowed — many queer things happen when the power of money, status or sovereignty protect people from the consequences of ideologies of purity like Orthodoxy and Capitalism.
           If people did not have to fear violence as a consequence, who knows how queer the world might be. Roman de la rose was scripted and illustrated alongside Da Vinci and Hieronymous Bosch⁴ — and here we see the garden of earthly delights as the Christianisation of that observation. If left alone, the world would become what the Church fears the most, and that fear and that anxiety manifests through Bosch’s brush as he paints his own version of roman de la rose, a version injected with and immense obsession with violence and sin.
           We dug up an old article from a Trans magazine called Fanfare in 1987, which contained within it an article called “Leonardo Da Vinci was a Transvestite”⁵. The piece reads:

“Recent research, done by experts in America, on works of the great master, leave little doubt that his most famous and best known painting, the Mona Lisa, is in fact a self portrait of the artist posing as a woman. Using advanced and highly sophisticated methods, a comparison was made between the famous portrait, which hangs in the Louvre in Paris, and a self portrait of Leonardo.
           The self-portrait, a drawing in red chalk, depicts Leonardo’s head at a similar angle to the head of the Mona Lisa. Highly accurate measurements, calculated by using the latest computer techniques, were made. Using these as a basis for comparison, it was found that the bone structure and certain anatomical features of both heads were identical. Using these as a basis for comparison, it was found that the bone structure and certain anatomical features of both heads were identical. The facial and underlying bone structures that were compared, checked and rechecked, are as unique to each and every individual as are fingerprints. So closely do the calculated measurements compare that there is little doubt that the two portraits are that of the same person.
           Unlikely many of the master’s works, Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa in his personal possession for many years. It accompanied him on his journeys between Florence, Rome, Venice and Sienna and later to France, where it was found among his belongings after his death. The enigmatic smile on the face of the portrait has intrigued us for centuries. It now appears likely that the secret to Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile is that, like so many men of genius and fame, he was a transvestite, and it has taken all this time and the wonders of science for him to be read.” — Thelma

There was an opera written by Alex Mills and Brian Mullin which explored the story of Da Vinci and some young lovers. It’s a romance that stars, in particular, Salai (meaning little devil), a “working class boy” who lived with Da Vinci for 25 years.⁶ Salai is considered to the be model for St. John and Bacchus, where they are depicted in a way that embraces both feminine and masculine traits at the time. In terms of contextually relevant symbolism, Bacchus and St. John are depicted in an ambiguous way, where transgendered figures are gestured provocatively upon the canvas. What we see centre stage, is a person without the Patriarchal view, and without the clothing, the roles, and the symbolism that have attempted to reinforce the illusion of a binary. It is radical to behold St. John sitting coyly, as if a woman-of-the-time — it is an act of breaking the hegemony, in a situation where we are fed endless images, endless representations of Orthodoxy, of Patriarchy,  Objective-Ontology, and of Capitalism, these effeminate depictions of male bodies and the androgyny of the Mona Lisa, and of Christ—herself, are Queer⁷.
           Part of the manifesto of Becoming magazine, as far as I interpret it, is found within a particular critique of Guernica by Picasso. It is described as a queer work of art by Manderson⁸ based on an interpretation of Queerness laid out by Judith Butler: “Picasso’s Guernica is essentially “queer”; it works not by how you look at the wall on which it is placed, but how you look at all the other walls on which it is not placed. It queered the Paris World’s Fair, savagely dismembering its aesthetic ideology of national unity.”
           The Queer Image is the image that works not by how you look at it on the wall, but by how you look at all the other walls on which it is not placed, and Da Vinci’s characters often queer the symbolism and mythology they are forced to exist within due to the historical and cultural context of the time. They are depictions of humans as they are, not as they are propagandised to be. They queer the socio-cultural context which is the wall upon which they are placed.
           It doesn’t need to boil down into conspiracy theories either, it doesn’t ultimately matter how Da Vinci would have identified if they were brought into the context of today, not because it is not important, but because there is no need to demand that Da Vinci identify in any fixed way, what is important is that these images, as Queer Images, once seen, invade the Orthodox mind, and haunt those structures. These figures are truly naked, not naked as in without clothes, but without symbolism, without the layering and conditioning; they are free from those constraints. We can use the Mona Lisa as a way of holding that in our minds, that Da Vinci was likely queer, and that this queerness undermines the particular reading of the history of the West that has become mythologised as part of the hegemony of the dominant ideologies of the West.
           If we decide to interpret the Mona Lisa as a crossdressing Da Vinci, we allow ourselves to experience a new interpretation of the infamous smile, one that is highly cathartic. Even today, it is highly popular amongst Queer and Trans people to use AI and Selfie-technology to create new versions of themselves; to use AI to generate a demasculinised (in their case) or degendered variation of their Image, and so on, is no different to what we are suggesting is an interesting interpretation of the Mona Lisa — Da Vinci projects how they experience themselves, and the facial expression reflects how they might imagine themselves to feel in that presentation.
           I see a subversive glare in Mona Lisa’s eye, smiling as if having been victorious. I see a vanquishing pride coupled with lucid control — there is a fire in her eyes, one of empowerment, redemption and retribution, but the fire is under complete control — it is present but contained. It is a kind of zen that Mona Lisa exhibits, ambiguous, ambivalent. Liberation from suffering always comes with liberation from happiness, as one cannot come without the other. If Da Vinci is the Mona Lisa, the victory was escaping the confines of the body as defined by the historical context of the time, of transgressing a sacred threshold and succeeding; she, Da Vinci, is there, forever, depicted as Mona Lisa, seen and accepted by everyone in true form.
           The way her eyes and her energy cause so much debate and so much discussion is because it is so alien; people find it hard to imagine what that expression means and feels like because they have never felt that way before, as they are still in the cage she has broken out of.
           Mona Lisa is the femboy, and there is zen in her eyes, and we the West have been staring into the zen in the eyes of this genius transfem queen, Leonardo — how do they obtain such extremities of talent and vision — because they are queer, honey. That is something that can never be automated, to queer something requires capacities that AI cannot ever reach, because an AI cannot empathise with revolutionary struggles against hegemony.

¹ Akira Palais. 2022. Plato in Sicily: Zen in the Eyes of the Femboy. Becoming Magazine.
           ² Exhibition by Viviane Sassen at CSU (Zagreb).
           ³ Roman de la Rose
           ⁴ Hieronymous Bosch & Christian Anxiety.
           ⁵ Thelma. 1987. Leonardo Da Vinci was a Transvestite. Fanfare.
           ⁶ The Men Who Leonardo Da Vinci Loved. 2019. Hettie Judah. BBC.
           ⁷ Judith Butler. 1993. Bodies that Matter.
           ⁸ Desmond Manderson. 2018. Here and Now: From Aestheticising Politics to
 Politicising Aesthetics.