Most Mysterious Secrets Found in Famous Artwork
Let's investigate the most intriguing mysteries hidden in famous paintings!Mysteries
Fine art can be mysterious and even those who’ve spent their whole lives trying to figure it out often miss secret codes and meanings hidden by the artist. From hidden handshakes to mathematical riddles, let’s explore the most intriguing art mysteries.
Secrets Of The Sistine Chapel
Religion has provided us with some truly inspiring art. Nothing comes close, however, to the Sistine Chapel. Between 1508 and 1512, Pope Julius II commissioned the esteemed Italian artist Michelangelo to paint the Chapel ceiling. But Michelangelo and Julius didn’t exactly see eye to eye.
Maybe that’s why the painter hid some suspicious symbols in the finished product. Take the famous The Creation of Adam, for instance. Some observant onlookers spotted that the pink mantle God is floating on looks somewhat like a human brain.
And it might not be merely coincidental. In another painting on the chapel’s ceiling, Separation of Light from Darkness, the center of God’s chest up towards his chin looks just like a spinal cord and brain stem. In fact, the ceiling painting includes references to everything from kidneys to lady parts. As well as being a talented artist, Michelangelo was also a master of anatomy.
As a young man, he had a job in a church graveyard, which meant he probably knew more than most about what our insides look like. It might have been a gross nine-to-five, but Michelangelo gained impeccable knowledge about how the human body looked.
It is thought that Michelangelo might’ve been showing his favoritism towards science over religion and hiding it right below or above the Pope’s nose! And that’s not all. In 1536, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the altar wall of the chapel too.
But as the artist got to work, one of the cardinals, Biagio Martinelli, criticized the depictions of naked bodies Michelangelo was painting on the holy building. He even said they were more suited to a public bath than the papal chapel. So, Michelangelo set about painting Biagio onto the altar wall, as Minos, judge of the underworld!
He gave the cardinal big donkey ears and covered his modesty with a snake biting his little Biagio. When Biagio went to complain to Pope Paul III, Julius had died in 1513, His Holiness joked that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, and there was nothing he could do! So, remember, never insult an artist’s work to their face.
Mysteries Of The Mona Lisa
You’ve definitely heard of the Mona Lisa and you might’ve even seen her at the Louvre in Paris, France. But what if you were told that the image you know isn’t what she looks like? Rather, she looks like the second one in the image below:
The image on the left is the Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the early 1500s. However, the painting on the right is also the Mona Lisa, painted by one of da Vinci’s students at the same time as the original, in the very same workshop!
Da Vinci’s painting has layers of old cracked varnish built up on the surface making our girl, Mona, look much older than she actually is. The student’s version was spruced up in 2012 though, restoring it to its 16th-century glory. So, now we’ve got two Monas! But can we really be sure that either of them is the real Mona? Engineer, Pascal Cotte, seems to think otherwise.
He ran tests using his Layer Amplification Method, where bright lights are shone onto a painting’s surface whilst a camera takes measurements of the lights’ reflections. This allows him to reconstruct what’s happened between the layers of paint, digitally peeling off each layer like an onion to reveal what’s beneath each one.
Turns out old Mona’s been hiding another Mona! Artists repainting over their canvases is relatively common, as they’re rarely perfect the first time. And if they’re doing a commission, the buyer might want a few changes here and there.
Silvano Vinceti, an Italian researcher, claims Cotte’s scans revealed new secrets previously invisible to the naked eye. Vinceti says he’s found the letter “S” in her left eye and the letter “L” in her right eye, which he believes might lead to a new identity for the model.
The inspiration for Mona Lisa is commonly thought to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a prominent fabric merchant. However, Vinceti says this “S” could reference a powerful woman in the Sforza dynasty who ruled Milan, where Leonardo spent time. As for the “L”, that’s for Leonardo himself. However, Vinceti has never actually studied the painting in person, only the scans.
Hidden Image Revealed Behind "Girl Reading A Letter At An Open Window"
Artists painted over their canvases all the time and sometimes other people paint over them and we’ve got no idea! Take, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, by Dutch master artist Johannes Vermeer.
Something about the painting always felt so secretive, like the girl is hiding something. Well, it turns out, she was. After undergoing restoration in 2021, this was revealed. Vermeer had originally painted a large, framed painting of Cupid, the Roman God of Love, behind the letter-reading girl.
But tests revealed that someone had covered it, decades after Vermeer’s death. And we’ve no idea why, or who! But the Love God would suggest she’s reading a love letter. So that’s why she’s being so shady! Vermeer’s work has been fully restored to his intended vision, but the lingering questions remain.
The Ambassadors And The Hidden Skull
That’s enough about covering up famous paintings. How about when the mystery is hidden in plain sight? Take The Ambassadors, by 16th-century German-Swiss painter Hans Holbein the Younger, as an example.
In it, two diplomats are standing in front of a table covered in trinkets, books, and other valuable items. But it’s not either of these men or their luxurious wares who draw our focus. Instead, a strange, distorted shape across the bottom does.
What is that? Creepily, it’s actually a skull. Holbein painted it using a technique called anamorphosis. When you look at a painting, you normally stand directly in front of it, so everything is presented on a flat 2D surface. But anamorphosis creates images intended to be viewed from other perspectives.
If you view The Ambassadors from either side of the painting, the skull becomes visible. And some think this painting was meant to hang in a stairwell, or beside a doorway, so any passing glance would see the spooky skull in its full glory.
Others think Holbein was simply flexing his brush skills. Whatever the truth, it’s seriously strange. Why a skull instead of something nice, like a kitten? Well, in the Early Renaissance, skulls were commonly used as a memento mori, a reminder that death was inevitable for all.
The Cheese That Inspired Dali
Most artists are weirdos and few are as eccentric as Salvador Dali. This 20th-century Spanish Surrealist was known for his iconic pointy mustache and for antics such as taking his pet anteater on the Parisian underground.
So, it won’t surprise you that his paintings were just as strange as he was. In fact, you might have seen his most famous one, The Persistence of Memory. It features Dali’s signature image of clocks melting.
Critics have often deliberated why Dali chose to paint clocks like this. Is it a metaphor for time? An unconscious symbol of our relative experiences moving through life against a fixed cosmic order? Nope; Dali had the idea after eating a particularly good Camembert cheese.
One of the most recognizable images in the history of modern art is just someone’s lunch. That must have been a really good cheese! Despite all the haughty interpretations of the surreal imagery, Dali doubled down on the dairy, calling it nothing more than “the tender, extravagant and solitary paranoiac-critical Camembert of time and space”.
Pieter Bruegel's Hidden Poopers
The best thing about art is you can make it about anything you want. The only limit is your imagination, something Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the most significant artist of the Dutch Renaissance, took quite literally.
He’s best remembered for painting beautiful landscapes and scenes of peasant life known as genre paintings. But some eagle-eyed analysts have noticed an unconventional subject creeping into many of his paintings. Here’s one of his most famous works, Tower of Babel. See if you can spot it.
What is that man doing? Is he going potty on the beach? Gross! And this happens again and again in Bruegel’s work. You can see it in The Magpie on the Gallows and Netherlandish Proverbs. You’re probably wondering what inspired Pieter’s fecal period. Bruegel saw his art as a reflection of Dutch peasant life, it might be vulgar and crass, but it was honest.
Sadly, poopers weren't so popular with the upper echelons of Dutch society who paid for Bruegel’s paintings. They were trying to shift towards a more sophisticated society, and toilet time conversations were a no-no. So, Bruegel had to get creative with hiding the Heinies!
Hieronymus Bosch's Butt Music
Alright, that’s enough booty talk for one article. Let’s move on to the real high-brow stuff. Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch painter remembered for fantastical and nightmarish paintings of religious subjects.
His most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1490 and 1510, is littered with strange references to life and the afterlife. The left panel shows God giving Eve to Adam, the central panel displays the carnal sins of humanity, and the right panel details those humans being punished in hell.
Did you see another butt in the right panel? Hieronymus’ tush belongs to a facedown figure trapped beneath a giant musical instrument called a lute. And on his nether regions, someone has printed musical notation. Spending eternal damnation as the devil’s music stand doesn’t cut it for me. Wanna hear what it sounds like? Check this out.
I’ve heard worse, but I’m not the biggest fan of Lute music. As it turns out, neither was Bosch. This was his idea of a little joke that the worst fate a human could suffer would be trapped listening to that forever.
Conservation Uncovers Hidden Whale
I love beaches, provided Bruegel hasn’t left a little brown sandcastle on them! One of my favorite seaside paintings is Hendrick van Anthonissen’s 1641 painting, Scheveningen Sands.
You can smell the sea air just by looking at it. But why are all these people crowded around absolutely nothing? What are they looking at? When the painting went for restoration in 2014 and conservator Shan Kuang began lifting layers of crusty old varnish, she uncovered a man floating above the ocean.
As Kuang continued gently lifting back the layers, she realized he wasn’t actually floating at all, but stood upon a dead whale washed up on the beach.
So, that’s what caused half the village to turn out! Still, why cover it? Well, back then paintings were treated purely as decorative items. So if the owner didn’t like a part of them, they’d commission another artist to change it, which is likely what happened here. It's possible that thousands of our favorite paintings could’ve been changed without us ever knowing.
When Madame X Scandalized The Art World
It’s hard to think nowadays that a painting could cause a great deal of commotion. However, a little over 100 years ago, American artist John Singer Sargent made a painting so controversial he had to flee the country.
Modern audiences won't find anything wrong with the painting because it's just a lady in a dress! Remember, in our post-WAP world, nothing’s that shocking to us anymore. But it’s not always been that way.
Madame X was it debuted in Paris in 1884. The painting was almost universally disliked. The neckline of the dress showed too much skin for audiences at the time, something that wasn’t helped by the right shoulder strap draping seductively off her arm.
Although Sargent took steps to keep his model’s anonymity, she was immediately recognized as Parisian socialite Virginie Gautreau and her family lost their minds. They demanded Sargent repaint the strap onto her shoulder, which he obliged, but the damage was already done.
Everyone in Paris refused to work with Sargent ever again. So, he fled to London to start a new life. But Paris’ loss was the art world’s gain. Sargent went on to become one of the most influential artists of his era. That’s karma for being a big bunch of prudes.
The Mystery Of The Madonna And The UFO
In 1947, American pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying his plane past Mount Rainier when he spotted nine unidentified flying objects. This is widely regarded as the first time anyone had claimed to see UFOs in the modern era.
But what about before the modern era? Because when looking at the painting Madonna and Child with the Infant St John, by an unknown artist at the end of the 15th century, you can't help but notice something otherworldly looking.
Over Mary’s shoulder is an object which has caught the attention of many a ufologist. It doesn’t look quite like the so-called UFO images, but it's not far off, either. And it piqued the interest of a man and his dog in the painting too.
So, what the heck is it? Does it prove the existence of aliens back in Jesus’ time? Sadly, no. According to St Luke’s gospel, an Angel of the Lord visited the shepherds to tell them about the birth of Jesus.
Sometimes, artists depicted this angel as a cloud of light, which is the case here. Actually, a lot of nativity paintings have weird floating objects in them. Bad news I’m afraid, UFO-brigade, but good news for Kenneth as he’s keeping his title of OG alien spotter!
The Hidden Math In Van Gogh's Starry Night
You probably know of Vincent van Gogh, his ear-cutting antics are almost as famous as his paintings. But in Starry Night, from 1889, the way van Gogh captured the night sky, in a seemingly pulsating flow of starlight, shocked both the art world and the scientific community.
Those brainy whitecoats thought the way van Gogh caught movement within a still image reminded them of something called “turbulent flow”.
If you drop one liquid into another liquid, it all seems to move in the same direction, at least for a few seconds. However, before long it splits off and forms its own patterns seemingly at random. Only, it's not random, this movement is known as turbulent flow.
At its most basic, it happens because the fluid particles begin moving at different rates within the fluid itself, creating eddies that swerve and swirl around in the mixture. Just like the patterns van Gogh painted in the sky!
This is so complex that scientists didn’t begin making any inroads with turbulent flow until a staggering 60 years after this painting was completed! Even today we still don’t fully understand it, it’s one of science’s great mysteries. As for how van Gogh captured one of the most difficult concepts in nature, we don't know. Only he can answer that.
Loads of our historical heroes were part of secret societies. Take a look at this portrait below of a young Mozart, done in 1763 by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni. The hand tucked into the jacket could show allegiance to the Freemasons.
They’re a secretive order that communicates their membership via special hand signals and shakes and they had many high-ranking members across major societal elites. People like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Winston Churchill were all members of the Masonic Lodge.
Mozart was definitely a member of the guild, but he didn’t join until 1784, twenty-one years after the portrait!
Then why did Lorenzoni depict him like this, all that time before? Well, many portraits from the 18th and 19th centuries depicted noblemen with their hands in their jackets. You can think of it as the Enlightenment era’s answer to the duck face. But it still seems a little too coincidental that Mozart would later join the Freemasons.
The Riddle Of Millais' Huguenot
In John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting, A Huguenot, we see two young lovers sharing a tender sweet moment. But what’s she doing with her hands? Is she binding him? What betrayal is going on here?
The cloth she’s trying to place on his arm is actually to save him! Back in 1572, when the painting is set, Paris was a very different place. The Catholics were trapped in religious, bloody warfare with the Protestants, who were also known as Huguenots.
So, when many prominent Huguenots gathered in Paris for a wedding between the King’s Sister, Margaret, to Henry III of Navarre, the Catholics saw an opportunity to get the upper hand violently. To distinguish themselves and avoid the looming attack, any Catholics in the vicinity were instructed to wear a white cloth, just like the one in the painting!
These star-crossed lovers are embracing, while she, a Catholic, is trying to save him, a Huguenot, from the horrors around the corner. Only, he’s tragically rejecting the cloth, honoring his religion over his life.
Last Supper And The Fibonacci
Da Vinci loved Math, so much so, he painted in it. Take The Last Supper as an example. The painting tells the story of Jesus’ last meal with his apostles. The entire painting can be broken down by something known as the Fibonacci sequence. It’s a chain of numbers where the next number in the sequence is found by adding together the last two numbers.
Keeping those numbers in mind while looking at the painting, we can see one table, one central figure, and two groups on either side of Jesus, whose shape resembles a triangle, symbolizing the trinity of father, son, and the holy spirit.
The apostles are all also grouped in threes, which with Jesus makes five groups, eight side panels, thirteen figures and many more examples. If it wasn’t for math, this painting wouldn’t be nearly as harmonious to look at.
And there's something else to sink your teeth into. Do you see this effeminate-looking figure in the frame below? Writer Dan Brown speculated in his 2003 book The Da Vinci Code that this was Mary Magdalene, a close female associate of Jesus.
Because she’s sat right next to Jesus, Brown thinks there may have been more than a friendly relationship between them. Some people have even gone as far as saying the shape highlighted below could be their baby.
Da Vinci often painted men with feminine features. In fact, both this painting in the image below, and this figure in The Last Supper are St John the Baptist, not Mary Magdalene. According to scripture, Mary wasn’t even sitting at the table
Van Gogh's Religious Zeal
Van Gogh's Café Terrace at Night is up there with the most famous paintings of all time. On the eponymous terrace, a waiter dressed in white is surrounded by twelve diners. One distinctive figure surrounded by twelve others, just like the Last Supper!
One of the diners is even trying to make his getaway into the shadows, which some researchers believe is meant to be Judas on his way to betray Jesus. Or in this case, not pay for his cappuccino. What a sneak!
Van Gogh’s later works are littered with subtle religious references like these. Take a look at The Sower in the image below. Do you notice anything about the sun? As it sets, it looks like a halo forming around the central figure.
In his letters to his brother Theo, which are the primary source of information about van Gogh’s life, he claimed to have developed a need for religion in his later life. A need that clearly seeped into his paintings!
If you were amazed at these mysteries hidden in famous paintings, you might want to read our article about secrets in famous paintings. Thanks for reading.