The Secret Behind Mona Lisa's Smile
The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most widely-recognized, captivating, and enigmatic painting in the world. The artist, Leonardo da Vinci, died over 500 years ago, but his work still commands the world’s attention and is the subject of ongoing speculation surrounding his subject, and especially, her smile.
I’ve long been enthralled by da Vinci and his work, but have a newfound admiration for this masterpiece after recently reading a fascinating passage from Glennon Doyle’s bestselling book, Untamed, that focuses on this renowned face.
Doyle wrote that while visiting the Mona Lisa room at the Louvre Museum, she was approached by a random woman who offered to share a theory. Doyle recounted what she was told:
“Mona Lisa and her husband lost a baby. Sometime later, her husband commissioned this painting from da Vinci to celebrate the birth of another baby. Mona Lisa sat for Leonardo to paint her, but she wouldn’t smile during the sitting. Not all the way. The story goes that da Vinci wanted her to smile wider, but she refused. She did not want the joy she felt for her new baby to erase the pain she felt from losing [one prior]. There in her half smile is her half joy. Or maybe it’s her full joy and her full grief all at the same time. She has the look of a woman who has just realized a dream but still carries the lost dream inside her. She wanted her whole life to be present in her face. She wanted everyone to remember, so she wouldn’t pretend.”
As I read and then reread this passage several times, I found myself alternating between surprise and great intrigue. I had never heard this before! What an epiphany for me to completely rethink a work of art I believed I knew so well. And, how interesting! My professional career focuses on supporting a community of women who have experienced the heartbreaking loss of a pregnancy or the death of a baby, and I am regularly engaged in conversations about the challenges of integrating the experience of loss with life after loss. I couldn’t help but think how aptly this captures exactly what my patients feel and describe. As I pulled up a picture of the Mona Lisa on my laptop to look at her with fresh eyes, I continued reflecting on how her face may just reveal something incredibly human and relatable to millions of bereaved women. No matter how much time passes since a loss, some grief and sadness still linger. And there are some occasions when women may put on a happy face externally when, on the inside, they may feel otherwise.
With curiosity on fire, I needed to know if there was any truth to this theory, so I began to research more about the “real Mona Lisa.”
There are various theories about who the real Mona Lisa was, but the one most widely accepted is that she was Lisa Gherardini, also known as La Gioconda, or wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a successful cloth merchant from Florence. Gioconda translates from Italian to mean “joyful,” but despite bearing this name, many believe the Mona Lisa’s mesmerizing smile also carries sadness.
And I discovered there is some scientific and historical evidence supporting the theory.
In 2006, scientists from the National Research Foundation of Canada (NRC) revealed details about this painting after using lasers and infrared scans on this masterpiece. Under the darkened paint and varnish, they discovered that the Mona Lisa was dressed in a gauze covering, or guaranello, a garment typically worn in the 16th century by women during pregnancy or by those who had recently given birth.
I confirmed records showed Lisa Gherardini had a total of six children—of which two (daughter Piera and son Giocondo) died before their second birthdays.
Independent of da Vinci’s believed timeframe for painting this masterpiece (sometime between the years 1503 and 1519), any range suggested would be consistent with Gherardini’s life timeline, and specifically, her obstetric chronology.
Women have lost pregnancies and infants throughout history—more so then than now due to the conditions of their times—but their stories were rarely documented in history books. However, there’s something very important and fitting about this particular theory: it speaks to millions of bereaved women who will identify and see their own sorrow immortalized in this revered painting.
Doyle further commented:
“Now I understand what the fuss is all about. Mona Lisa is the patron saint of honest, resolute, full human women—women who feel and who know. She is saying for us: Don’t tell me to smile. I will not be pleasant. Even trapped here, inside two dimensions, you will see the truth. You will see my life’s brutal and beautiful right here on my face. The world will not be able to stop staring.”
The Italian Renaissance will always be known for bringing dramatic truth—with all its contrasts between dark and light—to life. Renaissance means “rebirth,” and it defines the period of cultural revival after the Dark Ages where the focus was more realism and humanity. In this portrait, da Vinci deftly captures the bittersweet honesty of a woman following a literal rebirth. I believe this is no small coincidence.
Da Vinci’s masterpiece will forever hold mystery and remain a perfect example of art that is also real life—life that is both brutal and beautiful. Bereaved women who have another living child will continue to hold this duality of life and loss simultaneously—and in so many unique and different ways—sometimes visibly noticeable, and sometimes hidden so deep one may miss it unless one knows to look. There will always exist the potential contrast of how we appear outside versus inside. Women must be supported as they own the full truth of what they feel, and not fear or carry shame when displaying it. And, the world needs to be increasingly aware and sensitive to these potential layers underneath. Thank you, beautiful Mona Lisa. You, with the most famous face of loss I never knew, for being brave enough over 500 years ago to show your whole life, and your whole truth. I will never look at you the same way again.
Joey Miller, MSW, LSCW is a reproductive psychotherapist and the author of Rebirth: The Journey of Pregnancy After a Loss
 Glennon Doyle, Untamed, (ebook), (New York: Dial Press, 2020), 140  IBID, 140-141 References: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/veil-suggests-mona-lisa-model-was-pregnant-417821.html http://monalisa.org/2012/09/05/francesco-del-giocondo-his-wife-lisa-gherardini/