Secrets in Famous Paintings

Lots of famous paintings reveal secrets you should know about. Here are some mysteries hidden in famous artworks.


It may surprise you to learn that some of history’s greatest artists loved hiding secrets in their work. Some of those secrets took centuries to be discovered, while others remain shrouded in mystery to this day. Let’s uncover the most mysterious secrets hidden in famous paintings.

Hans Holbein’s Skull Illusion

This 1533 painting by German artist, Hans Holbein, titled ‘The Ambassadors’, holds a decidedly morbid secret. Notice that strange grey blur at the bottom of the composition? Far from being just a smudge of spilled paint, that ‘blur’ is actually a carefully-distorted human skull.


Viewing the painting from the side, the skull can be seen clearly. Holbein’s skull would’ve been no easy feat to create. He’d have needed to either use a grid to figure out how to stretch it correctly or shine light through a drawing made on translucent paper as a guide.


But why include a massive, warped skull at the bottom of a portrait? The answer lies in the man on the left of the painting. Jean de Dinteville was a French ambassador whose motto was ‘Memento mori’, meaning ‘Remember thou shalt die.’

The intention was for the painting to be placed on a wall next to a door so that the skull would suddenly appear to any who entered the room. That way, the reminder of impending, inescapable death was never far away.

Picasso’s Hidden Woman

Back in 1904, the now-legendary Pablo Picasso was struggling financially, to the extent that he had to reuse old canvases to save money in pursuit of a sale. Surprisingly, though, some of his most acclaimed work is a product of his waste-not-want-not approach!

Take ‘The Old Guitarist’, for example. Looking closely at the painting you can actually see the outline of a woman’s head above the neck of the guitarist. However, a modern infrared camera system used in 1998 revealed much more than just a ghostly floating head.


Infrared light is reflected by the lighter-colored paint layers in artworks but is absorbed by carbon-based materials underneath. This means, using infrared cameras, any earlier or preparatory sketches on the canvas made using graphite or similar materials can be revealed!

In ‘The Old Guitarist’ a ‘hidden’ sketch beneath the paint contained some of these pigments, which absorbed the infrared radiation, revealing a body attached to the floating head.


When another technique involving X-Rays was used, researchers soon realized the full picture had originally shown a young mother and child seated in the center of the painting. While the mother and child may never have earned a canvas of their own, I’d still class ‘The Old Guitarist’ as two paintings for the price of one!


Jan Van Eyck And The Arnolfini Portrait

The 15th-century Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck depicts an Italian merchant named Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. It’s easy to get lost in the generally-impressive realism of the painting, but van Eyck left a few hidden details only the sharpest eyes can spot.


The circular mirror behind the two characters in the painting is not only impressively detailed but also reveals a self-portrait of van Eyck himself! The tiny figure in blue is believed to be van Eyck, captured surprisingly clearly considering the entire painting is only 2.5ft tall.


To top it all off, there’s writing on the wall above the mirror that translates to ‘Jan van Eyck was here, 1434’. That's essentially 600-year-old graffiti!


Caravaggio’s Dark Secret

The biblical tale of David killing Goliath has been brought to life by dozens of artists. What makes Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s 17th-century painting different is that it’s a little more confessional than most. This grisly painting appears to show David holding the severed head of Goliath.


But those who know what Caravaggio looked like have figured out the dark truth: the severed head is Caravaggio’s own. But why would Caravaggio portray himself in such a gruesome way? A widely-held belief is that the dark self-portrait reflects Caravaggio’s guilt about a particular event in his life.

Caravaggio was known for getting into fights and being generally violent and unpleasant. But his worst crime occurred in Rome in 1606, when he killed a man with his sword following a brawl. The Pope issued him a death sentence and Caravaggio fled Rome to stay alive.


A closer look at the sword in the painting shows the inscription, ‘H-AS O.S’. Some art historians believe these letters stand for the Latin phrase humilitas occidit superbiam, which translates to humility kills pride. This, alongside Caravaggio’s portrayal of himself as Goliath may indeed suggest the artist was trying to atone, or even confess, to the things he’d done.


Bruegel Painting And The Hidden Proverbs

At first glance, ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’ by Pieter Bruegel looks like a 450-year-old version of ‘Where’s Wally?’. But in fact, this painting brings to life a whopping 112 proverbs, sayings, and idioms that were popular at the time.


Considering that Bruegel finished this masterpiece in 1559, it’s no surprise that some of these phrases are no longer in use. For example, ‘two fools under one hood’ can be seen in the middle of the painting. This means ‘stupidity loves company’, which still stands true.


Another archaic proverb can be found with a man staring at two bears. This comes from the old idiom ‘to see bears dancing’, which meant, ‘to be starving’.


Perhaps a more familiar proverb can be spotted by the river in the middle of the painting. The man furiously swimming against the current represents the well-known phrase, ‘to swim against the tide’, which means ‘to oppose a popularly held opinion’. The beauty really lies in the detail in this painting, which conceals dozens of secrets.


This painting alongside other Pieter Bruegel works also hide a hilarious secret that we investigated in our article about mysterious secrets in famous artwork. Once you see it you can't unsee it!

Decoding Da Vinci's Lady With An Ermine

Not every piece of artwork is perfect on the first try. Take ‘Lady With an Ermine’ by legendary Italian artist, Leonardo da Vinci. In 2013, scientists used revolutionary Layer Amplification technology to discover that da Vinci painted this portrait in three different stages.


The Layer Amplification Method involves projecting intense light of varying wavelengths onto a painting. By analyzing the reflected light at different layers of paint, earlier, painted-over versions can be unveiled.

In the da Vinci painting, the earliest version was revealed to be solely a portrait of the Lady. In the second instance, da Vinci included a small grey ermine. And finally, the completed painting, which people long believed was the only version of the portrait, featured a larger, white ermine. These revisions tell a fascinating story.


The portrait was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, and the woman in the portrait, Cecilia Gallerani, was the Duke’s favorite mistress. The Duke (nicknamed the white ermine) likely requested da Vinci to alter the painting, inserting himself in animal form as a subtle acknowledgment of their relationship. It’s basically an updated relationship status, around 500 years before Facebook.

Devil's Face Uncovered In Giotto Fresco

The church of St. Francis of Assisi in Umbria, Italy, sports a decked-out ceiling fresco, painted by Giotto di Bondone. It depicts the death and ascension into heaven of the Church’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.


In 1997, an earthquake caused significant damage to the church, resulting in a huge restoration process. During this restoration, a closer examination of the ceiling paintings revealed a sinister detail in di Bondone’s fresco. Among the clouds, an evil-looking, demonic face, thought to be Lucifer’s, can be seen smirking.


Since 1300, the face was hidden in the clouds, virtually impossible to see from the ground. Sergio Fusetti, who first uncovered the face, believes it may have been included as a joke by di Bondone. But whether or not there’s a deeper meaning, the thought of Satan watching over all those churchgoers for centuries is certainly creepy.

The Red Sky In Munch's The Scream

Edvard Munch’s jaw-dropping,1893 classic, ‘The Scream’ depicts a human figure in the throes of some serious torment. Many people assume the painting’s red sky represents the subject’s feelings of terror. However, in a diary entry, Munch revealed the inspiration for the red sky came while on a walk with two friends.


Suddenly, Munch claimed, the sky turned blood red, and he was overcome with anxiety, which eventually passed. Many people have interpreted the blood-red sky Munch described as a moment of sudden internal turmoil, and possibly psychosis, inside Munch’s manic mind.

But a fascinating comparison suggests the blood-red sky may have been more real than many believe. In 1883, the Krakatoa volcano erupted in an almost-cataclysmic fashion. The enormous eruption, and the ash clouds it gave off, were enough for European newspapers to report the sun’s light being filtered into a deep red.

It’s entirely possible that Munch’s painting was a later reflection, a decade after the eruption, on the disturbing experience of witnessing this eerie volcanic effect. But whether ‘The Scream’ came from an eruption or a mental breakdown, each possibility makes the painting even more unsettling than it already is.


The Secret Of The Old Fisherman

Tivadar Koszkta was working as a pharmacist in 1880, when he claimed to receive a message from God, telling him to quit his job and become an artist. 22 years later, Koszkta produced what may at first glance look like a normal painting of a fisherman, albeit with a slightly grotesque, emaciated face.


However, holding a mirror at the center of the painting reveals two completely new portraits. On one side, the mirror creates an image of a pious-looking man, praying on his boat in calm waters.

But on the right side, the mirror image reveals a devilish evil twin. The man’s face turns dark and scornful, and the background becomes a hellscape of stormy seas and smoke-billowing industrial towers.


Koszkta never gave an explanation as to why he chose to use the mirror effect, nor whether it was even intentional. But even without mirroring, the painting’s two halves seem much too different to be accidental. Some art critics suggest the split image represents the bipolarity of human beings, while others see it as a criticism of industrialization as a crime against nature.

Poussin’s Hidden Treasure

Initially, Nicolas Poussin’s "Arcadian Shepherds" seems like a typical 17th-century painting. However, art researchers have recently debated whether the painting may in fact provide clues to hidden treasure.


The Latin words "Et in Arcadia Ego" are written on the tombstone in the middle of the painting, which translates to "And in Arcadia I go". This doesn’t reveal much in itself, but interestingly, ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ is an anagram of another Latin phrase, "I Tego Arcana Dei". This translates to "Begone! I conceal the secrets of God."

The theories of what those secrets may be range from a hoard of treasures, once belonging to a secret occult sect, to revelations about the descendants of Jesus Christ. Most of the theories link in some way to the background landscape of the image, which has been said to precisely match an area of Rennes-le-Chateau in the south of France. There’s even a rectangular tomb in the area, similar to the one in the painting.


Some theorists also suggest there are symbols hidden in the painting which reference secret esoteric societies, rumored to have held lodgings and stashed treasure in the area depicted. Hardcore fans have even attempted to fashion treasure maps based on the geometry of the painting. It’s all very Dan Brown. Though no treasure trove has yet been found, keen treasure hunters continue the search for the potential hoard.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Hidden Music in The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 15th-century painting, ‘The Last Supper’ is recognized all around the world. But the countless mysteries and theories surrounding the painting go deeper than most people know.


Vatican researcher Sabrina Galitzia, for example, believes the painting contains a secret, apocalyptic code, and has devoted decades to trying to decipher it. Her analysis involved using a combination of astrology, numerology, mirroring, and geometry to translate the painting into a sort of calendar.

Using her analyses, Galitzia concluded that Da Vinci hid within the painting a prediction that Armageddon will occur in 4006. Though Galitzia’s specific methods are yet to be made public, on the off-chance her interpretation is accurate, at least there’s no need to panic for a while.

Another slightly more grounded analysis comes from Giovanni Pala, a musician. Pala believes the loaves of bread and the hand positions of Jesus and the apostles translate into a piece of musical notation. Intriguingly, the notes do make a harmonically-consistent melody, but only when read from right to left, which was actually how da Vinci wrote!


What’s more, Da Vinci was a skilled musician and left musical riddles written from right to left in some of his writings. Brought to life, Pala’s interpretation of the melody suits the scene eerily well. Did da Vinci really intentionally hide this haunting melody in his masterpiece? You decide.

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If you were amazed at these secrets found in famous paintings you might want to read our article about the most mysterious secrets found in famous artwork. Thanks for reading!

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