20 Mind-blowing Secrets Hidden in Famous Works of Art
One great thing about art is that it is open to interpretation. Every painting has more to offer and there’s more to it than what meets the eye. Some works of art have cryptic clues hidden by artist and some even have sparked popular conspiracy theories. Even though most paintings are instantly recognizable, many contain secret meanings and unsolved riddles.
Some of the most famous artists in the world intentionally put secret messages in their paintings, whether to subvert authority, challenge audiences, or reveal something about themselves. Hundreds of years later, thanks to advanced technology, many of these secret messages were discovered.
So read on to learn and see 20 works of art and the secrets hidden in them.
1. ”The Last Supper”
If you’ve ever read Dan Brown’s ”The Da Vinci Code”, you’ve probably heard that this 15th-century mural by Leonardo da Vinci has been the subject of lots of speculation. Some say that the disciple to the right of Jesus is actually Mary Magdalene disguised as John the Apostle. He also suggests that the “V” shape that forms between Jesus and “John” represents a female womb, which implies that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child together.
However, art historians weren’t so sure of this speculation. Many suggest that John’s appearance is feminine simply because that’s often how he was depicted.
But one far less heavier theory has been discovered by the Italian musician Giovanni Maria Pala. He suggested that it could be a little musical melody written into the painting. If you draw the five lines of the staff across the painting, the apostles’ hands and the bread on the table are in the positions of music notes. Read from right to left the way da Vinci wrote, these music notes form a mini 40-second hymn-like melody.
2. ”Mona Lisa”
This 15th-century masterpiece made by the one and only Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the more popular works of art of all times and most visited painting from the Louvre’s museum. There’s more to see about this painting than her infamous half-smile.
Firstly, there’s some speculation that she’s pregnant, resulting from the way she holds her arms over her belly. The dark-colored veil around her shoulders was often worn by pregnant women during the Italian Renaissance period.
But the latest discovers are painted in her eyes. In 2011, Silvano Vinceti, an Italian researcher claimed that he found letters and numbers microscopically painted onto her eyes. The “L” letter was painted over her right eye, and it probably stands for the artist’s name. In her left eye he found the letter ”S” and the number ”72” under the arched bridge in the backdrop. Vinceti suspects that the “S” might refer to a woman in the Sforza dynasty that ruled Milan at that time. This means that the woman in the painting may not be Lisa Gherardini, as it’s been believed for so long. As for the ”72” he claims that could be due to the numbers’ significance in both Christianity and in Judaism. For example, number ”7” refers to the creation of the world, and the number ”2” could refer to the duality of men and women.
Even more recent, in 2015, a French scientist claimed that another’s woman portrait was underneath this one. He came to this conclusion after using reflective light technology. He thinks that this was da Vinci’s “first draft,” and that he painted over it to create his masterpiece.
3. ”The Arnolfini Portrait”
At first glance at the 1434 oil painting made by Jan van Ecyk’s, it seems to simply be a family portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife.
But if you take a closer look at the mirror in the center of the room, you’ll see that there are two figures that are entering the room. One of them is believed to be Van Eyck himself. There’s also a Latin inscription in very elaborate writing on the wall above the mirror, which translates to ”Jan van Eyck was here. 1434.”
4. ”The Prophet Zechariah”
Some of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel might have hidden some secrets. “The Prophet Zechariah,” may seem like a normal mural of the prophet while reading a book with two cherubs who watch over his shoulder.
But, on a closer look, it seems like one of the angels is ”flipping the fig,” which is the act when someone puts their thumb between their middle and index fingers. Basically, it’s the back in the day version of a middle finger.
The Pope who commissioned the work, Pope Julius II, was disliked by many people, including by Michelangelo. Some say that this is Michelangelo’s way of expressing his true feelings about the Pope, things he could not say or paint, so he thought it was better to hide these type of messages that might’ve been offensive.
5. ”The Creation of Adam”
The most famous of all the nine biblical panels that Michelangelo has painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is ”The Creation of Adam” . But did you realized the scene contained a hidden human brain?
It turns out, Michelangelo was an expert in human anatomy. At the age of 17, he had a job dissecting corpses from the church graveyard. Researchers have even been able to recognize certain parts, like the vertebral artery (represented by the angel right beneath God and his green scarf) and the pituitary gland . And if you look at the shroud surrounding God in ”The Creation of Adam,” you’ll find that it creates an anatomical illusion of the human brain.
There are many theories as to why Michelangelo might have done this; one suggests that the brain represents God dividing divine knowledge, others believe Michelangelo intended for the brain to represent the idea that God was endowing Adam not only with life, but also human knowledge. A more popular theory suggests that Michelangelo painted the brain as a sign of protest for the church’s rejection of science.
6. ”The Ambassadors”
”The Ambassadors” painted by Hans Holbeinthe Younger in 1533 features an impressive illusion at its base. If you look at the illusion from right to left, it appears to be a human skull. Scholars believe it’s meant to be a reminder that death is always around the corner.
Some believe that the skull refers to ”memento mori” a Latin phrase which means “remember you shall die.” Memento mori was the motto of the man who commissioned the painting, Jean de Dinteville (the man on the left).
7. “The Old Guitarist”
”The old guitarist” is Pablo Picasso’s early 1900s representation of an elderly man cradling a guitar and it’s one of the most worshiped works of his Blue Period.
However, in 1998, researchers used an infrared camera and discovered that there is another painting underneath this one, which features a woman.
Now that the paint is fading, it’s become easier to see the woman’s face above the old man’s neck.
Primavera/Allegory of Spring, painted by Sandro Botticelli is a celebration of spring and fertility that the season brings. The original title of Sandro Botticelli’s called now ‘Primavera’ is unknown and the painting was not referred to the same name it now carries until over 50 years after it was painted.
Venus is the main character. She is the goddess of love and beauty and the protector of the institution of marriage and the myrtle that surrounds her represents sexual desire within marriage and child-bearing. The Three graces impersonates the female virtues of chastity, beauty and love and the abundance of fruit in the trees symbolizes the gift of fertility that Venus brings.
The painting does have secret delights for horticulture enthusiasts. There are at least 200 different species of plants in the painting, botanists say.
9. ”Netherlandish Proverbs”
This artwork was painted in 1559 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Dutch artist named made this oil painting featuring visualizations of over 100 common proverbs and trying to spot them all is just as entertaining today as it was 450 years ago.
The painting, named Netherlandish Proverbs, presents a busy scene of villagers engaged in unusual activities. Some details are confusing at first glance, but they each reflect a different idiom taken from the Dutch language.
The roof appears to have what looks like pies, and is an interpretation of to have the roof tiled with tarts, which is another way of saying to be very wealthy. The man who looks distraught over a bowl of food represents the proverb he who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again meaning there’s no use crying over spilt milk.
10. ”Café Terrace at Night”
”Café Terrace at Night” is Vincent van Gogh’s oil painting made in 1888. Ar first, it looks like it’s simply what the title describes it: a quaint café terrace in a colorful French city. But, in 2015, Jared Baxter released the theory which says that the painting is actually the artist’s own version of ”The Last Supper.”
If you look closer, one central figure with long hair surrounded by 12 individuals (like the Apostles), one of whom seems to be slipping into the shadows like Judas. There are also small symbols hidden throughout the painting, including one above the central figure.
”Bacchus” was painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s in 1595. Bacchus, also known as Dionysus, is the Greek god of wine.
A small part of Caravaggio can be seen as a reflection in the bottle of wine Bacchus has in his presence. His mini-portrait was first noticed in 1922, more than 300 years after it was finished.
12. ”Madonna with Saint Giovannino”
Domenico Ghirlandaio is an Italian Renaissance painter whose work “Madonna with Saint Giovannino” gets a lot of attention for the strange item flying on the sky, behind Madonna’s shoulder. Some people say the disk-shaped object looks like a UFO and they say it could be an indication of early alien presence since the 15th century.
It is an object which the artist painted in detail, making sure it would stand out in his work of art. To the right of the painting we can see a man who is holding his right arm above his eyes, meaning that this object was extremely bright, like the sun.
13. ”David and Goliath”
Another mural made by Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel shows David defeating the giant Goliath.
Michelangelo added something hidden to this particular scene: David’s pisition is intentionally in the shape of the Hebrew letter ”gimel” which symbolizes “strength” in the mystical Kabbalah tradition. This letter also tends to refer to reward and punishment, which is perfect for the biblical underdog story.
It is believed that Michelangelo picked up his knowledge of Judaism while he was at the court of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, and painted the entire Sistine Chapel, which it was built to the same proportions as the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Michelangelo’s hidden messages were intentionally put there to be decoded.
14. ”Supper at Emmaus”
15. ”The Garden of Earthly Delights”
Hieronymus Bosch painted his famous artwork between 1490 and 1510. The painting impersonates Eden, heaven, and hell on three enormously detailed panel. It is full of symbolism and references on human nature and morality.
Hieronymus Bosch’s panel has many interesting references, but one of the strangest was first discovered by a college student in 2014. On the left, in the lower corner of the work you can see a musical score tattooed across someone’s back parts. The student translated the music into modern notation, and you can find it online so you cand listen it. Spoiler alert: It’s creepy.
16. ”The Birth of Venus”
Finished in 1486, Sandro Botticelli’s „The Birth of Venus” has become one of the most appreciated works of the Renaissance period and a symbol of feminine grace and beauty. Yet there’s much more to this amazing work than you might see at the first glance.
The nudity in this famous painting was pretty brave for the late 15th century and the painting was hidden from public for 50 years. But the hidden symbol is hidden in the shell. The shell she stands on may be put there to represent female genitalia. It creates a birthing scene that reflects Venus’s oceanic origins while impersonating human birth.
17. ”The Persistence of Memory”
Salvador Dali made this surreal painting in 1931. Flexible hours, a symbol of the subjective time and uneven filling the space. Three clocks appear in the picture: past, present and future. Dali consented that he thought about Einstein and his theory of relativity when drawing these watches.
The orange clock at the bottom left of the painting is covered in ants. Dali often painted ants in his artworks as a symbol of decay. Another insect present in the painting is a fly, which sits on the watch that is next to the orange watch. The fly appears to be casting a human shadow as the sun hits it.
18. ”The Starry Night”
Probably the most popular and well-known painting That Vincent Van Gogh has ever painted is ”The Starry Night” finished in 1889. Some science researchers claim that the movements from this painting hinted at an extremely complicated mathematical concept called turbulent flow decades before it was discovered.
19. ”Young Woman Powdering Herself”
Georges Seurat’s painting is about a woman putting on makeup. Yet, there’s more to it than that. It may look innocent enough, but there’s a lot more to explore in this late 19th century work.
Recent x-rays have shown that the flower painting from the top left corner of the wall, was originally a self-portrait of Seurat, but the story tells that „a friend warned him it looked confusing.”
It’s interesting since it was later revealed that the woman in the painting was Seurat’s mistress Madeleine Knoblochand. The self-portrait was the only known one Seurat ever did.
20. ”View of Scheveningen Sands”
If you visited the Fitzwilliam Museum In Cambridge in England and saw Hendrick van Anthonissen’s painting between 1873 and 2014, you wouldn’t have seen that giant beached whale because it wasn’t one on the actual painting. There were a bunch of people staring at nothing.
That’s because it took 140 years for someone to notice that in the artwork, a bunch of people are gathered in a crowd to look at nothing. When someone removed the coat of yellow varnish while restoring the 1641 landscape, it revealed a beached whale and solved the mystery.