We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Mona Lisa and Mayan Blue: Art History via X-Rays

By Joseph Calamia
Jul 15, 2010 10:34 PMNov 20, 2019 1:48 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Researchers have decided to get personal with Mona Lisa--by irradiating her face. In a study recently published in Angewandte Chemie, researchers trucked around the Louvre to look at nine faces painted by Leonardo Da Vinci with a portable X-ray machine. Their particular technique, as reported by the BBC, is called X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and is a way to uncover the layers of paint without damaging the paintings. By looking at this layering, they learned more about Da Vinci's brush strokes and a technique called sfumato, which he used to hide transitions between dark and light areas and to create realistic shading. The Da Vinci researchers aren't the only X-ray art historians. Another recently published study looked at "Mayan blue"--a long lasting pigment made by the civilization that lived in Central American from 2500 BC to the 1600s. Archeologists were impressed with Mayan blue's resistance to fading, given that most of the other colors used in Mayan artworks lost their vividness long ago. As reported by Technology Review, Catherine Dejoie at the Néel Institute in Grenoble used X-ray diffraction and also examined the blue samples' weight changes during heating (called thermogravimetric analysis) to uncover the pigment's secret. The researchers knew that the Mayans made their blue by heating the pigment with palygorskite (a type of clay); their analysis showed that this heating allowed the pigment to enter tiny channels in the clay which are sealed after the mixture cools, protecting and keeping the pigment true blue for centuries.

Check out DISCOVER's new Web TV show Joe Genius, in which things get blown up for the sake of science.

Related content: Discoblog: Guggenheim & YouTube: The High Art/Low Art Mashup Is Complete Discoblog: Astronomers Identify the Mystery Meteor That Inspired Walt Whitman Discoblog: Did Michelangelo Hide a Brain Drawing in a Sistine Chapel Fresco? Discoblog: Super-Size Me, Jesus: Last Suppers in Paintings Have Gotten Bigger

Image: Wikimedia

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.