Thursday, March 14, 2019


Leonardo’s La Gioconda

So much ink has been spilled about this wondrous and mysterious painting (thankfully not on it) that anything I say will be argued, critiqued, debated, perhaps even agreed upon,  and then we are still nowhere.
There has been much discussion about whether Leonardo painted himself in the Mona Lisa and not the historical subject who has been shown to be Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, whence the title “Mona Lisa” (Mona = Madonna = Madam Lisa) and the sobriquet “La Gioconda,” the wife of the wealthy merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, who commissioned Leonardo to paint his spouse.
(Gherardini was Lisa’s maiden name).
“Gioconda”also means, in a sense “quella che sia gioiosa” ”she who is happy.”
I use the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) in my lectures on art and perception in re looking versus seeing versus knowing. If you look right at her, look right at La Gioconda, you can’t tell about her mouth. Is she smiling or smirking?
If you look away from her face (look at her forehead or chest), she is definitely smiling.
Why?  Because with our central ( foveal) vision we don’t see the muscles of facial expression (orbicularis oris, buccinator, zygomaticus major, inter alios).
When we look away, our peripheral (coarser) vision picks up these facial details and the smile is evident.
The question of whether Leonardo painted himself in his painting of her is the Ancient question of subconscious or conscious self-reference in Art and literature. It is a concept that has been accepted by many art historians and Comp Lit specialists. How often do we read autobiography into a novel? A lot.
For those who want a deeper dive into “ Every Artist Paints Themselves,” see Simon Abraham’s fascinating dicosurse (
Has Leonardo painted a bit of himself here ? Maybe.
Why do so many of Leonardo’s subjects appear androgynous (cf. st John the Baptist) ? What is it about artistic genius that makes it so Ineffably inscrutable, so ambiguous and androgynous (cf. Shakespeare, Michaelangelo and Mozart).
My view is that Genius is the amalgamation of feminine and masculine, of secular and spiritual, of mystical and quotidian, of simple and fractal, thus it is inherently ambiguous and inherently androgynous.

La Gioconda
Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci
? 1513 - we still don’t know when he began and when he finishes- more ambiguity

Friday, February 15, 2019


Style or Substance ?
The Fallacy of the El Greco Fallacy

In your art history courses, you came upon with wonder and amazement the remarkable works of the visionary 16th century master, Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), and noticed his highly elongated figures. 
Was this a result of El Greco possibly having astigmatism? 
Or was it simply his unique and quite modern version of Mannerism?
The “logical” response to explain the elongations would be that it was his style, of course, and not astigmatism.
Well, you respond immediately with the “self-correcting” algorithm, by which someone with astigmatism, even if they perceive a circle as an oval in their mind’s eye, will still depict it as a circle, thus self-correcting it. Any perceptual elongation that El Greco might have experienced as a result of astigmatism would have caused not only his subjects to be elongated but also his canvas. Hence, it should have been unnecessary for him to elongate his paintings to match his perception.
And you correctly propose as examples the masterpiece of St Jerome at the Frick Collection or a similar version at the Met, because how could Jerome’s face be depicted with a vertical elongation while at the same time his fingers are horizontally elongated. Astigmatism elongated in one meridian, not in two meridians orthogonal to each other. 
Then you posit the masterpiece that is “The Burial of Count Orgaz” in Toledo Spain, as your ace in the hole.
Here, El Greco paints the human figures at the bottom more or less naturally, but exaggerates Mary and Jesus and the angels in the Empyrean above.
It would be optically impossible (i.e. physically impossible) for someone with astigmatism to see part of their visual field normally and another part in an elongated way. 
So all is well. Right? 
Style and not a medical condition. 
Style and not Substance. 
Ah, but now 2014 comes around and you find this fascinating article, entitled “The Fallacy of the El Greco Fallacy” see comments for abstract.
So now what do you think? 🙂

(The Burial of Count Orgaz
Domenikos Theotokopoukos  (El Greco)
Iglesias di Santo Tome’

Toledo Spain)

ANCIENT MODERNITY: The Extraordinary Realism of the Fayum Portraits

The Extraordinary Realism of the Fayum Portraits 

Realism. That is the genre we usually associate with Corot and Courbet and Millet in the 19th century. But go back 19 centuries (!), yes 19 centuries, and you will find among  the first examples in history of Realism, in the extraordinary depictions of Roman Egyptians, the Fayum portraits, crafted in the first century CE.
These remarkably well-preserved paintings have survived for almost two millennia in the dry heat of the Fayum, a region southwest of Cairo. 

The portraits, about a thousand of which have been discovered, are extraordinary, and extraordinarily real. It is as if we are reaching back via a time machine almost two millennia and the subjects depicted in them are right in our living rooms saying hello. Shortly after these portraits and after Pompeii in central Italy (79 CE), the technique died away,  until Tiziano (Titian) and Rembrandt revived it in the 17th century.
The portraits portray a people who accepted Roman rule, Greek culture and Egyptian religion. ''What form could better exemplify this complex ethnicity than the combination of Greco-Roman clothings, hairstyles and jewelry, with the quintessentially Egyptian funerary practice of mummification?'' asked Roger S. Bagnall, a professor of classics and history at Columbia University. 

The two techniques used in these portraits were brought to Egypt by the Greeks: tempera, in which pigments are mixed with egg white; and encaustic, in which pigments are mixed with beeswax, presaging oil painting.The wood used for the portraits, lime and oak, was imported from Greece. 
The portraits had a religious and funerary function even though they look just as they should look if the sitter had asked for their portrait to be painted. 

Whenever we self-servingly think that we are more advanced than the ancients, that we are more “civilized” than they, that we are in some myopically egosyntonic way superior to them, we need only to look at these astonishing portraits and realize that very little is new under the sun.

“Nihil novi sub sole”

Vita brevis
Ars longa

Vincent DeLuise MD
@ 2019

Saturday, January 26, 2019



Gaze upon any page in the 9th century illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells, and you will be mesmerized and amazed. 
One of the most remarkable of pages is the Chi Rho page, the page that has the letters Chi, Rho and Iota depicted in such a sublime and lyrical manner.
The letters form one of the earliest forms of a christogram, a superimposition of the first three letters—Chi, Rho and Iota (ΧΡI) - of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos). 
What is even more astonishing about the Chi Rho page, is that the letters are not only abstractions, but are at the same time representational. Their size and position, their serifs and flourishes, create a textual understanding of the story they tell. 
There is also a lovely recursion in the letters. The Chi, Rho and Iota are seen not only as separate letters, but withIn the Chi letter itself, the Rho and the Iota can be seen as well.
This self-generating recursion (repetition) is a fractal.
Here is where things become miraculous. Between the letters and the filling of the page is a boundless infinitude of smaller and smaller designs, eventually so small that the eye can no longer discern their form. In this way, they are fractals, like the infinitely morphing ends of snowflakes and clouds, lightning and crystals, blood vessels and neurons. 
Self-regenerating. Fractalic. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019


The Authenticity of His Humanity:
Rembrandt’s Relentless Quest for Self-Understanding

I am in awe of Rembrandt’s lifelong, courageous self-reflection, documented in his 85 self-portraits (40 paintings, and several dozen prints and drawings).
To discuss Rembrandt is a daunting task, to understand him, well nigh impossible, but we can make an attempt through his searching, brutally honest, no-holds-barred, intimate, elusive, yet at once revelatory self-portraits.
Authenticity writ large.
Authenticity captured in portraiture.
Here is the famous Rembrandt Self-Portrait with Two Circles, which hangs in Kenwood House, London, in which the artist reveals his world-weariness, the Weltschmerz of his life, pictorially conveying his stoic acceptance of financial ruin and domestic challenges.
Rembrandt demonstrates his genius here by channeling the Renaissance master Giotto himself. We recall the famous story where Giotto, asked by the Pope to send a sample of his art, draws a perfect circle, freehand.
Rembrandt draws two.
In identifying with Giotto, one of the greatest artists in history, Rembrandt is magnificently self-aware and confident, solidifying his own place in the Pantheon of the History of Art.

(Rembrandt Self-Portrait with Two Circles
Kenwood House London, c.1668)



When we gaze upon any of Johannes Vermeer’s thirty-six attested paintings, we are astounded by the crystalline detail he presents, but as we look closer, slowly, thoughtfully, we realize that the  detail is always veiled, hidden, mysterious.
A splendid example of this ambiguity is one of the Vermeer masterpieces  that hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, “Woman holding a Balance.”
It is a luminous work, finely crafted, elegantly polished, and yet painted with that same indescribably ineffable sfumato that characterizes the masterpieces of Leonardo.
The work is filled with references that are oblique, ambiguous.
Is she weighing pearls? That would be a logical inference. But here, the pearls do not sparkle or shine as much as vibrate in their own universe.
The painting behind the woman is an exemplar of another common Vermeerian conceit: the fuzzy wall painting behind the protagonist. We might recognize it as the Final Judgment- we see Christ, angels, the Virgin Mary, and in the lower part, stylized outlines of shadowed humans falling back, stunned and blinded in the moment.
So, maybe instead of weighing pearls, the woman is weighing human souls ? Maybe she is balancing her life experiences on each tray of the scale? If so, What has she come to realize about her life?


The Physiological and Metaphorical Optics of Vermeer’s Allegory

Large but not monumental in size, Vermeer’s great manifesto, The Allegory of Painting, still dominates not only its crowded room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna,  but also our minds,  as we reflect upon its  enduring theme and its many remarkable qualities. 
Vermeer brilliantly places himself at the visual and optical center of the painting,  even though he could not have seen himself in this pose as he was painting.
The painter in the Act of Painting. What better allegory of Painting? It is also a theme called Recursion (repetition), a fundamental principle of symmetry and beauty. 

The woman in the painting is a Muse - is she Clio, the Muse of History, or perhaps Fama, or maybe the goddess Pictura? We think back to Cesare Ripa and his early 1600s treatise, the essential Iconologia where he represents Pictura as a Muse of Art (see other posts I have written on this theme). 
Note the many metaphorical and artistic allusions:
There is a painting within a painting (think Las Meninas by Velazquez, painted around the same time). There is the “fuzzy painting on the back wall”- an iconic Vermeerian conceit - is it a historical map?
Vermeer scholar Walter Liedtke describes this painting “as a virtuoso display of the artist's power of invention and execution, staged in an imaginary version of his studio ..."
According to Albert Blankert "No other painting so flawlessly integrates naturalistic technique, brightly illuminated space, and a complexly integrated composition."

(Johannes Vermeer, The Allegory of Painting, also called The Art of Painting, or The Painter in his Studio
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna c. 1668)



The back of the dollar bill has several famous Virgilian phrases that the founding fathers thought appropriate to memorialize.
The new country, America, with its vast, rich wilderness and its democratic philosophy, was metaphorically a “Novus Ordo  Seclorum” (“ A New Order of the Ages”), the phrase deriving from Virgil’s fourth Eclogue.
Then there is that fine phrase above the pyramid,  another quote from Virgil, “Annuit Coeptis” which translates as “ (God or Providence) has favored New Beginnings.”  The phrase comes from Virgil’s farmer’s manual, the Georgics:
“Da facilem cursum, atque audacibus annue cœptis“
“Give me an easy course and favor my daring new undertakings.”
Annuit Coeptis: Thirteen letters, thirteen colonies.

The obverse of the dollar bill has the most famous phrase  of them all  “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of Many, One”).
Again, Thirteen letters, thirteen colonies.

And here we see Janus, the Roman god of the past and the future, of doors and portals, of births and deaths, of war and peace, of new beginnings.
He was a Roman God- there was no Greek antecedent.
The Etruscans before the Romans had their own  Janus-like deity, the “bifrons” (two-headed) Culsans.
Janus, Janua, Doors: May they all open for you in 2019!
May you have New Beginnings!
Annuit Coeptis !

Janus Bifrons sculpture (Giano Bifronte, 2nd cent BCE, from Vulci, Viterbo,  Italia).


The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632)

One of Rembrandt’s first great masterpieces, this famous painting shows how the young (26 year-old ) Rembrandt already began placing his Art within enduring historic and scientific traditions.
Here we are brought into the anatomy theater, where Dr Nicolaes Tulp is explaining the musculature of the arm to a group of physicians, some of whom paid a commission to be painted in the work.
Of great importance from the standpoint of the thread that links Rembrandt to the Vesalian tradition is the medical text that is open near Dr Tulp. It is the foundational 1543 treatise,  _De Humani Corporis Fabrica_. written by the brilliant Dutch anatomist Andreas Vesalius (Andries van Wesel).
Dr Tulp’s teacher was Professor Pieter Pauw, whose teachers at the University of Padua  were Hieronymus Fabricius and none other than Vesalius himself.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (c.1632)
Mauritshuis. The Hague



Did Rembrandt have cataracts? Though there is no proof, he lived into his sixties, so it is indeed possible and would explain the progressive defocus and brunescence of his color palette in his later works.
Rembrandt’s depiction of the Story of Tobit is also of interest to physicians and visual scientists because it shows how fascinated was Rembrandt regarding advances in optical science that were taking place, especially in Amsterdam, with his colleagues Christiaan Huygens and Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek.
According to the story in the Book of Tobit, Tobias sleeps outdoors one night and is blinded by bird droppings.
In Rembrandt’s painting, seen here, Tobias applies “fish’s gall,” given to him by the Archangel Raphael, to cure the blindness in his father Tobias’ eye (probably a cataract) as Raphael looks on.

The Book of Tobit is a part of the Apocrypha. It was not accepted by Bishop Irenaeus in the second century CE nor Jerome in 405 CE as part of the canonical Bible. It was termed a “deuterocanonical” text.

Tobias Healing his Father Tobit’s Blindness
Rembrandt van Rijn c.1636
Staatsgalerie  Stuttgart

Friday, January 4, 2019


Young Lady with a Hat
Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 - 1553) and his sons, Hans and Lucas the Younger, ran the most prolific and successful studio in sixteenth century Europe.
Cranach and Co. produced, on commission, hundreds of refined and detailed paintings of, well, of anybody and everybody. They created portraits of royalty (the Electors of Saxony and other assorted aristocracy) and Protestant reformers, especially the elder Cranach’s close friend Martin Luther, dozens of paintings with nude or seminude mythological figures, monumental paintings of Adam and Eve and other biblical figures, as well as other important religious installations.
One of the genres in which Lucas Cranach specialized was portraying women in hats, amazing hats, outsized hats, crazy, vertiginous hats, gravity-defying hats, hats that make you go "wow!"
Ingenues and dowagers, young and old, decked out and depicted in outrageous millinery. Cranach painted scores of these portraits, the most wondrous of which, in my view, is the one we see here. The pompoms alone are worth the view. This remarkable topper looks like a solar system precariously balanced on the woman's head. 
These remarkable women in these remarkable hats were portrayed within a concept called Weibermacht - literally, Women Power. Weibermacht was a Renaissance and medieval German literary and artistic Topos, inverting the male-dominated sexual hierarchy by describing and depicting women in positions of power. 
Remarkable women. Remarkable hats. Remarkable Lucas Cranach and Hat Tricks !


Girl with a Red Hat
Johannes Vermeer, c. 1666
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

One of the most exquisite Vermeers is also one of the smallest: the mesmerizing painting, The Girl with a Red Hat at the National Gallery in Washington DC. Notwithstanding that the attribution to Vermeer is still being debated by art historians, virtually all of us would say, purely on observational grounds, pattern-recognition from a lifetime of thinking and looking and reflecting on Vermeer’s sublime oeuvre, and the je ne sais quoi of the colors and the sfumato finish, that this is indeed a Vermeer. The painting is of a type called a Tronie. Most likely the sitter was not a famous or aristocratic person, but someone who simply represented a certain facial expression or emotion: sadness, joy, or in this case, perhaps surprise. Rembrandt painted dozens of Tronies and then used them as character types in his major paintings.
The Girl with a Red Hat was created around 1666, and is one of only two Vermeers that he painted on wood panel (instead of linen or canvas).
The vermillion base of the red and the ultramarine (an alchemically magical blue from the pulverization of lapis lazuli) are astonishingly beautiful. Pigment analysis reveales a palette consisting of natural ultramarine, lead white, yellow ochre, umber, green earth, vermilion, and madder lake.
I see many pearls in this sublime painting- one on each earlobe and several on her necklace, of course. Then, as I look closer, mirabile dictu, I see yet more pearls, as if they had just appeared: one as the reflection off her nose, one on the tip of her tongue, and three more reflecting off her lips..... it is as if her lips are Nacre, and the pearls, metaphorically, three reflections, three tiny pearls of exquisite beauty.....
Exquisite. And in my view, by Vermeer, as this jewel of a painting could not have been crafted by anyone else...
Girl with a Red Hat
Johannes Vermeer c. 1666 National Gallery of Art, Washington DC