Friday, July 17, 2009

Two Faces of Mystery

Time has not been kind to Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece The Last Supper (below). The work was originally painted in tempera on the wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory in Milan, but within twenty years of its completion in 1498 the surface of the paint had begun to flake away. Continued deterioration of the painting prompted various ill-advised restorations during the subsequent centuries, until its major contemporary restoration undertaken between 1978 to 1999.

Recent attention has been given to the disciple seated to the right of Jesus. The portrait is of.. who, exactly? Tradition tells us that it is the disciple John, but the restoration (below) reveals a face that, when seen divorced from its context, could readily be described as female. Some sources assign the identity to Mary Magdalene, the woman with the alabaster jar. Is this a shocking heresy? Not necessarily. After all, even if this face is female, Leonardo was painting an image that reflected his own idiosyncratic personal beliefs. So what we are looking at is the artist’s version of events; the truth as he saw it. Exactly why Leonardo should have chosen to portray Mary as a disciple sitting at Jesus' right hand (surely a place not without its significance) is another issue altogether, and addressing it is not my purpose here. What fascinates is the serenity which this face radiates.

For if ever there was a face in art that is touched by the spirit, then surely it is this face. When viewed together with the vigorously masculine figures of the other disciples in the painting, which variously recoil in shock, gesture animatedly to each other, and reveal very human reactions to the news of the betrayal that will come from one of their own, this most feminine face uniquely remains aloof, resigned, above and beyond the turbulence of the emotions which storm around it. It is a face whose silent poise already knows how events will unfold, so has no need for shocked reaction. Leonardo’s genius has created a face whose profound serenity reflects the true mystery of the spirit.

But this is about two faces of mystery. To visit the second face we need to do some travelling; an extra forty nine million miles further out from the sun than our own Earth, in fact. On the dusty plains of the planet Mars a vast face seems to be regarding us (below). This is not the more famous and supposed artificially constructed ‘face’ in the Martian Cydonia region, but a face of pure and near-perfect pareidolia - a construction of chance. Hills, cliffs and gullies conspire together to mold from the Martian landscape a human face so compelling that, even though we know that it is contrived by chance, our brains go on insisting to us that we truly are gazing at a ‘real’ face. Try looking at it through half-closed eyes: it becomes even more real. We might even find this face with its crown of Martian cliffs rather disturbing, although it’s features are hardly hideous, or even ugly. Why should this be so?

Perhaps the unnerving quality which this Martian face seems to possess is exactly because it is so real, and yet is the result of chance. The more radically convincing an example of pareidolia is, the more it seems to have a life-force of its own: a something which has invaded our reality, and is trying to make its presence known to us. After all, if a face this real appeared in wet sand in our driveway – or even on a slice of toasted cheese – we’d be auctioning it on eBay.

Here are two faces. One is sublime, the mysterious product of an artist’s genius. The other is a counterfeit, created naturally, yet unnatural: a deception which is dependent upon interaction with the human mind for its existence, as perhaps are many such mysteries.

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Work: The Last Supper, 1498 (completed)
Medium: Tempera
Location: Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory, Milan

'Leonardo' , by Bruno Santi. Constable. 1978
'The Templar Revelation' , by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. Bantam Press. 1997

Mars Global Surveyor orbiter image from NASA

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