Art History

Have You Ever Noticed These Secrets Hidden in Famous Paintings?

Long before movies and video games offered Easter eggs to their audiences, famous painters played games of their own. Many of the world's most famous paintings contain secret symbols and coded messages meant for the especially discerning observer. It turns out that some of the world's most famous paintings have secret stories waiting to be told.

From Leonardo da Vinci to Van Gogh

You've probably seen images of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa hundreds of times. But you probably never noticed the artist's initials written in the subject's right eye. That's only one of the many mysterious qualities of the work. Scholars say that additional symbols can be found in the left eye, though their meaning is not as clear. Same goes for mysterious brushstrokes on the bridge behind the Mona Lisa; it might be the number 72, or it might be an L and the number 2.

The Creation of Adam

Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" shows God reaching out to Adam from a cloud that's shaped like a human brain. As a teenager, Michelangelo dissected corpses in the church cemetery, which is where this accurate brain representation may have come from. Symbolically, it represents the idea that God's greatest gift to mankind is intellect, a concept borrowed from late Neo-Platonist philosophy and incorporated into Christian theology.

Cafe Terrace at Night

Some art scholars believe that Van Gogh intended his masterpiece "Café Terrace at Night" as a realistic interpretation of da Vinci's "The Last Supper." Both paintings show 12 individuals seated around a table, the Van Gogh's long-haired, white-clad waitress playing the role of Jesus, standing immediately in front of a cross in the adjacent window. This interpretation seems to play out according to Van Gogh's own letters to his brother Theo from that period of time, where he references the painting and expresses a mysterious need for religion in his life.

These weren't the only artists to hide symbols and secret images in their works. Botticelli's "Primavera" depicts more than 500 different plant species, including 150 different flower species. Jan van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Portrait" contains a convex mirror that shows an optically perfect reflection of the room and himself painting the couple in the artwork.

Related Video: Get to Know the Mona Lisa

Modern Subversions: Dali and Warhol

Not all artists incorporate symbols into their work in order to reward diligent and observant audiences. Some of them are merely toying with the expectation that valuable artwork must be symbolically rich in creative interpretation. Art historians often interpret the melting watches in Salvador Dalì's famous painting "The Persistence of Memory" as a reference to the fluidity of time expressed in Albert Einstein's then-recent theory of special relativity. Dalì admitted that he was not inspired by any cosmological theories, but by watching leftover Camembert cheese melt on a sunny day.

The Persistence of Memory
Campbell's Soup Cans

But when it comes to frustrating the expectations of the art world, Andy Warhol towers above every other artist in history. While critics attempted to place Andy Warhol within a complex metaphysical framework like they did with the abstract expressionists that came before him, he constantly frustrated any attempt at understanding his artwork on any terms outside of its immediate context. For Andy Warhol, art was supposed to represent reality, and his modern, New York City reality consisted of consumable goods, movie stars, and money. He didn't paint Campbell's soup cans as an ironic commentary on modern capitalism — he painted them because he liked them.

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Find more secrets in "The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art" by Richard Stemp. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Austin Jesse Mitchell March 15, 2019

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