We take our eyes for granted. How often do we try to imagine what life would be like if we lost our sight? But one aspect of our eyesight we often overlook (sorry) is our peripheral vision. In case you’re wondering what peripheral vision is, try keeping your head completely still with your eyes to the front, and see how many objects you can see left and right. That is your peripheral vision, and without it, you would be living in a permanent tunnel.
The ancients believed in the existence of a third eye. We still believe in our third eye, our intuitive perception – the one that convinces us we have seen a ghost, an aura or perhaps more frequently, someone taking the last biscuit from the tin. The third eye can be found on the tombs of Egyptians as the eye of Horus, on Pink Floyd album covers (or is it Alan Parsons?) and I do believe Prince wore one on his forehead at some point.
So how can we develop our third eye? Interestingly enough, the third eye becomes most active during instances of peripheral vision, which brings me to wonder whether Leonardo da Vinci also made the connection between the third eye and peripheral vision. He may well have done, since he discovered it in the first place.
By the time he painted the portrait of Mona Lisa, Leonardo had understood how the eye works, and peripheral vision in particular. He also understood that the brain receives the images we see upside down, and that it corrects these images. In short, he sensed that what we see is not exactly the whole picture. Sight must be processed; the old rules on perspective, which had marked the art of Renaissance Italy so strongly, were not categorically correct. The three dimensional picture is recreated essentially in the brain, not in the eye.
Such fundamental questions would make their mark on Western thinking in many ways. They would provoke discussion, questions about reality and the nature of reality that would inspire philosophers and scientists for years to come. Isaac Newton took up the subject and caused such a stir with it that many people could hardly bear to read his work because it challenged everything they thought they knew before. What was the effect on Leonardo when the full force of these realisations struck him?
I pictured the moment during the writing of Gioconda, and I can feel it still. Other realisations must have followed, such as how the brain completes the picture for us when our focus is elsewhere. How likely would it have been that Leonardo brought all his discoveries to bear in one painting, and that the painting in question was Lisa’s portrait? Quite likely, I think. Picture, if you can, the face of the portrait. The eyes, it is said, appear to move, to look in all directions at one time. The smile, it is said, is either a smile or it is not a smile. Or is it just half a smile? As it is with the eyes in the portrait, it would seem to depend on who is looking and where they are looking at any one time.
The power of peripheral vision always strikes me when I think about a juggling act. The juggler can only keep going if he uses peripheral vision. The moment he focuses on one ball, instead of all the balls at once, the spell is broken, the balls fall. Apply this to Leonardo’s portrait, and we sense the same process at work. We focus on the smile and it vanishes. We focus on the face and it reappears. We focus on the eyes, and the smile vanishes again. We step back and focus on nothing at all, and the smile is there.
When Leonardo painted Lisa, was he giving us peripheral vision in a portrait? Is he forcing us to make a spiritual connection when we look into his painting? Many people say that when they look at Mona Lisa’s face they feel her wisdom. Perhaps in the end, they are only connecting with the wisdom they already possess, deep within the unplumbed depths of their own third eye.
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