The Reason Behind Mona Lisa's Smile Could Just Be A Medical Condition

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But what does it MEAN?

For centuries, the Mona Lisa smile meaning has baffled people. Is she or is she not smiling? How on earth did Leonardo da Vinci paint the enigmatic expression?

The mystery of the Mona Lisa smile meaning could simply be a medical condition. According to two American doctors, the subject of the painting Lisa Gherardini could have had hypothyroidism, a thyroid disorder

"The enigma of the 'Mona Lisa' can be resolved by a simple medical diagnosis of a hypothyroidism-related illness," wrote cardiologist Dr. Mandeep Mehra and his co-author Hilary Campbell in a Letter to the Editor in the September 2018 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings. "In many ways, it is the allure of the imperfections of disease that give this masterpiece its mysterious reality and charm."

mona lisa smile meaning

First, take note of these notable features in the portrait of Gherardini:

  • A high forehead
  • Thinned and coarse hair
  • Lack of eyebrows
  • Xanthalesma (growths) in the inner corner of the left eye
  • Swelling on the back of the right hand
  • Yellowish skin
  • Possible goiter near the thyroid region

In 2004, a group of doctors proposed that these abnormalities could point to hyperlipidemia, and that the smile could be attributed to Bell's palsy.

However, Gherardini didn't die young — she lived to be 63 years old. And at that time, it would have been highly unusual for her to reach that age with those conditions.

Mona Lisa Smile Meaning: The Final(?) Diagnosis

This is why Mehra and Campbell think that hypothyroidism is more likely the cause of all these conditions. This also could the Mona Lisa smile meaning —hypothyroidism could have weakend Gherardini's muscles and reduced her movement, "leading to a less than fully blossomed smile".

Of course, this is just a theory. Until someone invents time travel, it's impossible for us to learn if Gherardini really had hypothyroidism.

Her high forehead could be intentional, or she could have just had a naturally high forehead. Her yellowish skin could be due to the age of the painting. And the smile could be due to sfumato, a technique da Vinci used that lets "tones and colours fade into each other without discrete lines."

It's Not Her, It's You.

What's so captivating about the Mona Lisa smile is its seeming ability to appear and disappear, depending on how we look at the painting. According to neuroscientist Dr. Margaret Livingstone, the reason why the smile does this lies in our visual system.

We don't see the Mona Lisa smile when we look directly at it, but when we look around her face. This is because when we're not focused on the mouth, we see the shadows around Mona Lisa's prominent cheekbones, so even if she's not really smiling, she appears to be.

''I do not mean to take away the mystery of Leonardo,'' Dr. Livingstone told The New York Times. ''He was a genius who captured something from real life that rarely gets noticed in real life. It took the rest of us 500 years to figure it out.''

This could also be the reason why this smile hasn't been replicated very often. To execute this effect, the artist would have to paint the mouth without looking directly at it!