The Louvre museum in Paris, despite containing some of the greatest masterpieces known to man, still brings only one name to mind - the Mona Lisa.

The first thing one might notice about the painting is how small it is. The image is so ingrained in our minds that we may possibly expect a huge or imposing one. The actual piece, however, is only a half-length portrait (77cm x 53cm), painted by one of the most talked-about Renaissance masters to have ever lived - Leonardo da Vinci.

But what is it that makes the Mona Lisa so unique? Why is it “the best known, most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world?” Why does this 16th-century painting of a woman attract millions every year?

The Mona Lisa has travelled far and wide before finally being sheltered at the Louvre. It was in the hands of one of da Vinci’s students after his death, before being sold off to art curators and exhibitions, museums and palaces. On 21st August 1911, the painting was stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, a Louvre museum employee who had helped construct the painting’s glass case. He carried out the theft by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet, and walking out with the painting hidden under his coat after the museum had closed.

Part of the reason why the Mona Lisa attracts so much intrigue might have to do with a general interest surrounding the artist and his life. Historians and academics study the painting in detail, in the hopes that perhaps they could get a peek into the mysterious life of da Vinci himself. A very wild speculation claims that the Mona Lisa might, in fact, be a self-portrait!

(Original Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait)

Recently, computer programs have drawn similarities between the features of Mona Lisa and some of da Vinci’s true self-portraits. Why he would paint himself as a woman is still a question we have yet to find the answer to, but from what we know of da Vinci, he was a man who loved encoding riddles and puzzles into his work, making people wonder and ask questions.

(Digital comparisons between da Vinci and the Mona Lisa)

Many artists and art commentators have said that the Mona Lisa is “imbued with mystery, enigma and romance” and perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the painting is her expression, explained by many as that of someone who knows something that you don’t. She seems secretive and reserved, and many have thronged towards the painting to find out what lies beyond the surface.

Another interesting feature is the fact that the Mona Lisa’s eyes appear to watch you no matter where you’re standing and looking at it. Although da Vinci was not the first to bring this feature into his work, the painting was a catalyst to the extensive research of this particular artistic technique, giving rise to the name “The Mona Lisa Effect.” Researchers also claim that there are symbols and numbers in the eyes and also perhaps another hidden painting beneath the actual one.

Naturally, the Mona Lisa invited and continues to invite all sorts of depictions, reinterpretations and copies. Artists right from the sixteenth century up until the twenty-first, from Renaissance painters to art students and scholars, cartoonists to digital illustrators - all have tried a hand at recreating the famed painting. Replicating this painting has also been a way for many artists and art students to perfect their own style and technique. The Mona Lisa has also been used in satirical sketches, on coffee mugs, T-shirts, postcards and so much more.

(The many depictions of the Mona Lisa - creative license has allowed artists of all kinds to really experiment with their own recreations and portraits of the original painting.)

The portrait is and will continue to remain too valuable to be priced. It cannot be sold off and is a “property of the public.”

(A Mona Lisa inspired cafeteria)

Needless to say, a mere mention of the name “Mona Lisa” is enough to stir public interest. The enigmatic appeal of the painting intrigues us all, or perhaps it is the complicated and fascinating life of the artist that draws us to it. Maybe it’s the stories behind it, the history, the symbols, the codes or the tales. Whatever the reason, the Mona Lisa continues to remain a timelessly intriguing masterpiece, one that transcends centuries.

Upasana Sasikumar