Conspiracy theorists love discussing secret messages in art. Subtle symbolism and images frequently appear in old paintings. Historians examine works of art for years to spot these hidden messages.
Some secrets are tiny details that people tend to miss, such as figures in a mirror’s reflection. Others, you can’t see–experts had to use x-rays to find what was painted underneath. If you see these pieces of art in a museum, you won’t spot these details. Learn all of the secrets that experts have found in art.
There Are More Than Two People In This Painting
In the 1430s, Jan van Eyck painted The Arnolfini Portrait to depict Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, Jeanne Cenami. The art has been praised for its complexity and geometrical perspective. But experts have spotted a secret: There are more than two people in the room.
In the mirror behind the two people, you can see two more people walking into the room. Who are they? Some believe that one of them is van Eyck himself. A Latin phrase above the mirror says, “Jan van Eyck was here. 1434.”
Man, Controller of the Universe Was Not The Original Work
In 1932, Nelson Rockefeller asked Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural for the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. Rockefeller thought that the political artist would create a hopeful mural for America, but that’s not what he got. Instead, Man at the Crossroads showed the destruction of capitalism and portrayed communism as the better option. Rockefeller tore down the mural in 1933.
A year later, Rivera recreated the mural in Mexico City. Now called Man, Controller of the Universe, the painting displays the crossroads where one must choose between capitalism and communism. Many viewers wouldn’t guess that if they just glanced at the mural.
David Is Anatomically Incorrect
Michelangelo’s statue David stands at 17 feet tall. Because most people view the sculpture from below, Michelangelo designed it for perspective. For instance, the head and hands are far larger than is anatomically correct. But to the average viewer, it looks right.
The artist focused on creating perspective rather than accuracy. David‘s right hand is far bigger than his left. The facial expression may look calm from the ground, but if you get close, you’ll see that it’s tense and determined. Most people wouldn’t know all of this unless they got up close.
The Whale Wasn’t Revealed Until 2014
In 1641, Hendrick van Anthonissen created the landscape View of Scheveningen Sands. When it hit museums in the 19th century, it was considered the most boring painting in the Dutch collection. The people on the beach seemed to stare at nothing, and one man appeared to float above the waves.
In 2014, restorers removed a yellow varnish on the painting. Then, they discovered the secret: a beached whale. The subjects of the artwork were looking at (and climbing on top of) a whale, and nobody knew for 140 years. Historians still debate why Anthonissen covered the whale.
John, Or Mary Magdalene?
Ever since Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code, people have wondered whether the figure to Jesus’ right in The Last Supper is really John. The novel proposes that it could be Mary Magdalene, and despite the book being fiction, some wonder whether there’s some truth to that.
In a video from the Smithsonian, Da Vinci expert Mario Taddei explains that The Last Supper was actually a copy of previous paintings. Da Vinci had to imitate former apostles’ artwork and place the same figures in the same spots. Therefore, the feminine figure is John.
Van Gogh Hints At The Last Supper
While Vincent van Gogh is best known for Starry Night, his lesser-known painting, Café Terrace at Night, has garnered much attention. Art enthusiasts have pointed out that the waiter looks a bit like Jesus. It may sound like a stretch, but religious themes commonly appear throughout van Gogh’s work, says researcher Jared Baxter.
While he worked on the painting, van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, talking about a need for religion. The artist sprinkled religious symbolism throughout his art, and he may have been channeling The Last Supper while painting Café Terrace at Night.
Most People Miss This Detail In An Accident
Twentieth-century painter L.S. Lowry created art depicting industrial life in northwest England. For decades, the art community ignored his works, but now experts realize that there’s more than meets the eye. For instance, in the painting An Accident, a group of people are actually gathered around a lake.
According to Art UK, An Accident was inspired by a real-life event in Pendlebury, Manchester. There, a woman ended her life by drowning, and a crowd of people gathered around the body. Lowry depicted this scene from afar.
The Old Guitarist Features A Ghostly Woman
After the death of his friend, Pablo Picasso went through a “blue period” of art. His most famous painting from that era is The Old Guitarist. The man bent over his guitar was not Picasso’s original plan for the artwork. As the painting has aged, the figure of a woman has peered through.
Researchers from the Art Institute of Chicago took an x-ray of The Old Guitarist. Their image proved that the painting initially featured a woman. Picasso regularly reused canvases, so this came as no surprise to art historians.
What Is This Woman Looking At?
Johannes Vermeer’s 1665 painting The Music Lesson has a lot going on. The painting has instruments, tables, vases, and windows. But if you look at the reflection, it seems that the woman is looking in two different directions. In person, she’s looking at the piano. In the mirror, she’s looking at her instructor.
Historians have found that Vermeer painted multiple layers. He initially depicted the woman facing her instructor, but he changed it later. No one knows why Vermeer decided on the change, or why he didn’t adjust the student’s reflection.
The Painting That Depicts 112 Proverbs
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1559 painting makes more sense to a Dutch audience than an American one. To most viewers, Netherlandish Proverbs looks like chaos. But it actually depicts Dutch idioms and phrases that were popular in Bruegel’s time.
At least 112 phrases have been identified in Netherlandish Proverbs. Some modern ones include “swimming against the tide” and “banging one’s head against a brick wall.” Unless you’re a Dutch linguist, you might not be able to identify all of the phrases in this painting.
The ‘Madman’ Who Left A Message On The Scream
For decades, art historians have debated the origin of a tiny message scrawled in the corner of the famed Edvard Munch painting The Scream. The top left corner of the work is inscribed with the words “Could only have been painted by a madman!”
When an art critic first noticed the message, it was assumed that a member of the public had written it as an act of vandalism. But in February 2021, infrared scans helped experts confirm that Munch himself was responsible. “The handwriting itself, as well as events that happened in 1895, when Munch showed the painting in Norway for the first time, all point in the same direction,” explained National Museum curator Mai Britt Guleng.
What Does This Tomb’s Inscription Mean?
In 1637, artist Nicolas Poussin painted The Arcadian Shepherds. The French Baroque painting depicts shepherds gathered around a grave. On the tomb, an inscription says Et in Arcadia ego, which literally translates to “Even in Arcadia, there am I.” However, historians have debated the purpose of this inscription for centuries.
Some theorize that “I” refers to Death, meaning that death exists even in a Utopian land. André Félibien, Poussin’s biographer, claims that the phrase refers to the person in the tomb. They once lived in Arcadia, and now they are buried there. But nobody knows what the inscription really means.
Why This Painting Looks Like A Photoshop Mistake
Throughout the 16th century, Holbein the Younger became famous for his realistic paintings. But one, called The Ambassadors, includes a weird bit of abstraction. The blob on the bottom is a distorted human skull, and it seems out-of-place for the painting.
Historians still speculate why Holbein included the skull. Some believe that it was included as a “memento mori” (a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death). Others suggest that it may represent the schism between the Catholic Church and Henry VIII.
A Copy Of The Arcadian Shepherds Also Has A Code
Nicolas Poussin’s painting The Arcadian Shepherds has been copied with slight variations. One imitation is an 18th-century stone monument in Staffordshire called the Shepherd’s Monument. Instead of Et in Arcadia ego, the tomb has a more confusing inscription: O-U-O-S-V-A-V-V, surrounded by a D and M.
This tiny inscription has baffled historians for centuries. Linguistic expert Keith Massey believes that the phrase stands for Oro Ut Omnes Sequantur Viam Ad Veram Vitam, which means “I pray that all may follow the Way to True Life.” According to him, the D and M translate to Dis Manibus, which are mythical spirits of the underworld.
This Queen Elizabeth Painting Once Had Skulls
Henry Gillard Glindoni’s painting John Dee Performing an Experiment before Queen Elizabeth I seems self-explanatory. But an x-ray image showed that John Dee–the figure on the right–was once surrounded by human skulls. Glindoni painted over this detail for some reason.
John Dee is most well-known for his contributions to astronomy and alchemy, but he was also an occultist. Even today, occultists view him as a sorcerer who taught others how to work with angels. The skulls likely alluded to Dee’s magic, but the commissioner may not have liked them.
This Still Life Is Also A Self-Portrait
In 1615, Clara Peeters painted Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels. The Dutch artwork is a realistic depiction of food on a table. Not much to look at, right? Well, there’s one small detail that only the most acute observers would notice.
Ross King, an author of several books on art and history, noticed that Peeters included herself in the work. Look closely at the lid of the vase in the center of the painting. The artist painted a tiny version of herself in the reflection.
Carlo Crivelli Did Not Paint A UFO
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius is a medieval painting by artist Carlo Crivelli. It depicts Archangel Gabriel blessing the Virgin Mary. In the top left corner, a disc shines light upon Mary. Many have interpreted this as a UFO, but this is highly unlikely.
Historian Massimo Polidoro explains that the light is a “frequent representation of God in Medieval and Renaissance sacred works of art.” Based on the title of the painting, this makes sense. Polidoro asserts that the UFO theory assigns 21st-century ideas to a Medieval painting.
A Hidden Code In The Mona Lisa‘s Eyes
Since The Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous painting, art critics have spent a lot of time staring at it. Italian researcher Silvano Vinceti asserts that he found codes in the woman’s eyes. Her left eye has S, her right eye has L, and the number 72 appears underneath the arch in the background.
Vincenti claims that the L stands for Leonardo, and the S may refer to the Sforza dynasty that ruled Milan. Seventy-two supposedly represents Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. But other scholars argue that Vinceti’s claims are not substantial.
The Secret Message Beneath The Sistine Chapel
Five hundred years after Michelangelo Buonarroti painted the Sistine Chapel, historians have discovered a secret inside the depiction of God in The Separation of Light from Darkness. Before he painted the religious figures, Michelangelo drew elaborate anatomical sketches. Experts from Johns Hopkins University found drawings of a spine and brain stem in God.
Michelangelo was fascinated by science and anatomy. At age 17, he started dissecting bodies from the local graveyard and drawing their bodies. But why did he include these sketches? Was it a commentary about science and religion? Is it sacrilege? Historians can only speculate.
Bosch Painted A Soundtrack On A Man’s Rear End
Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings were…interesting, to say the least. His artwork featured many fantastical illustrations with a lot to explore. In 2014, a music student at Oklahoma Christian University discovered something new in The Garden of Earthly Delights. She spotted a music score painted onto the rear end of a man in the bottom left corner.
On her blog, the student composed the music based on what she knew about Gregorian chants. Other music fans recreated the song to be as historically accurate as possible. You can find the track on YouTube. Spoiler: it sounds creepy.
Caravaggio’s Tiny Self-Portrait
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted himself into a few of his portraits, including Young Sick Bacchus. But his second Bacchus painting from 1595 has a hidden self-portrait. The artwork depicts the Roman god of wine next to a bowl of fruit.
In 1992, a restorer found a tiny reflection in the carafe. It took 17 years for researchers to learn that the reflection is Caravaggio himself. The painter created himself in the glass as if he were standing with the Roman deity.
Madame X Once Caused A Scandal
Today, Madame X, by John Singer Sargent, stands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Passersby would have no idea that there was once a scandal over the woman’s dress straps. In 1884, Sargent painted the well-known socialite Madame Pierre Gautreau. He initially had her right strap falling off her shoulder.
The depiction seemed scandalous to many Parisian citizens. Gautreau demanded that Sargent scrapped the painting, but since it was not a commission, he refused. To save his career, Sargent repainted the strap and renamed it Madame X.