Even if you’ve never studied art history, chances are you can recognize the oil-paint swirls of The Starry Night. That’s because there are certain works of art that we all just know. But while the works of the masters might seem familiar, the truth about what they’re hiding goes much further than you know.
Some of the art world’s greatest creators didn’t just make art to please their patrons. They very often hid secrets inside of their work, some of which went undiscovered for centuries! These 10 pieces of art are all classics, but hidden within the paint and marble are secrets even the most studious art historians missed at first…
1. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most famous pieces of art ever created. There is so much mystery surrounding Mona Lisa that historians continue to study the painting today, and after all these years she still has secrets to reveal…
In 2015, a French scientist using reflective light technology discovered a portrait of a another woman hiding beneath the painting we see now. The underlying portrait is believed to be Da Vinci’s first draft of the famous painting, but it’s difficult to confirm if that belief is true or not.
2. Jan van Eyck, the Netherlandish painter, created the famous Arnolfini Portrait in 1434. The painting depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, an Italian merchant, and his wife, Constanza Trenta. While the renowned work is impressive in itself, there’s more to the painting than meets the eye…
Take a closer look, you’ll see a mirror centered in the background of the painting. Reflected in the mirror are two other figures who appear to be looking at the Arnolfini’s. Based on our logic of mirrors, one of the figures is presumed to be the artist, Van Eyck, subtly eternalizing himself in the portrait.
3. We can’t talk about art without bringing up the chiseled bod of David. Arguably one of the greatest sculptures of all time, Michelangelo’s statue of David stands 17 feet tall. Seriously, we have to admit, David doesn’t really have a bad angle going for him. But looking up at David does distort one thing that might change the way you consider the work.
David is positioned in a heroic manner. Due to its size, when we admire the statue we are forced to look up at him. His body is anatomical perfection, and, paired with his confident stance, David is often thought to be sculpted as “hero.” Looking at David at eye level reveals a different story. His expression shows concern and fear, which makes sense after all given he is about to engage in a battle with Goliath!
4. This one is a touch macabre. In 1533, Hans Holbein the Younger painted The Ambassadors. The work showcases two rich ambassadors, seemingly healthy and in their prime, surrounded with their fine material goods. While the portrait is strikingly rich in color, the hues defy the underlying message of the work, which is far from vivifying.
Looming at the feet of the ambassadors is an anamorphic perspective of a skull. The skull, with its placement and perspective, seems so stark that it feels like it doesn’t belong in the painting. This piece was intended to hang in a stairwell so, at the angle of ascension, the skull would jump right out at you. The skull was to serve as a memento mori, which translates to, “remember you will die.” So much for a welcome mat, huh?
5. Despite his name, Pieter Bruegel the Elder is not a wizard. Unfortunately. What he is though, is one of the most notable artists of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting. In 1559, he created the Netherlandish Proverbs. It may look more like a Neanderthal-ish bedlam, but this raucous scene is actually telling a story — 112 stories to be exact!
The artist is known for inserting the absurdity of humanity in his work, and he didn’t miss a beat with this one. The painting literally illustrates 112 different proverbs and sayings from the Netherlands. Some of which include, “To be a pillar biter” and “Armed to the teeth.” But the real proverb here is, if you’re not Dutch, you’re not getting much (at least not much face time in a Bruegel painting)!
6. The Sistine Chapel. You may have heard of it — the big, painted chapel in the Apostolic Palace, nestled in the Vatican City. Well, way back in 1512, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the story of Genesis across 9 sections of the concave ceiling. Michelangelo’s work would come to be recognized as a cornerstone of high renaissance art. Some speculate that beyond a masterpiece, the artist also left behind a message…
Michelangelo spent many years studying human anatomy. With that deep understanding, the artist was able to depict people with greater realism and insert more cerebral meaning into his paintings. In this famous section, God is surrounded by what looks like a brain. This insinuates that not only did God give Adam life, but also the ability to reason and think.
7. The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci is almost as famous for its rumors of secret meanings as it is for its artistic brilliance. Da Vinci was unique in his genius, and much of that is to due to his vast and diverse passions. Not only an artist, Da Vinci identified as a mathematician, scientist, inventor, and even a musician.
And when a fellow musician admired Da Vinci’s work, he noticed something peculiar. When the five lines of a musical staff are drawn across the supper, the bread rolls combined with the apostle’s hands create musical notes. When you follow Da Vinci’s signature style of right to left, the notes make up a 40-second musical composition.
8. Vincent Van Gogh created Café Terrace at Night in 1888, a scene so charming, you can almost hear accordions. Some art historians have a different take on this painting though. There are theories that posit this café might have a more symbolic impetus, coming from the son of a Protestant minister…
There have been many comparisons with Van Gogh’s Café Terrace and Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The central figure in white is thought to be a representation of Jesus, while the dark figure in the doorway is speculated to represent Judas.
9. There is a good story here, but first let’s take a moment to appreciate the name of this painting’s creator, Hieronymus Bosch. Ohhh, it’s so good! Hieronymus Bosch is the creator behind this triptych oil painting titled, The Garden of Earthly Delights. What is even more delightful are the secret, behind-the-scenes notes…
These notes, found on the bottom of a tortured soul in the “hell panel” of the painting, translate into approximately 28 seconds of what can only be described as a reject Nokia ringtone. This melody is widely referred to as “the butt-song from hell.”
10. The legendary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo had a husband who was, apparently, a painter as well. Just kidding, Diego Rivera is totally a big shot. Due to his notoriety, in the early 1940s, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Rivera to paint a mural, Man at the Crossroads for the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Alas, even the richest of the rich don’t always get exactly what they want…
Young Rockefeller didn’t appreciate the inclusion of the communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in the mural, so he had the painting destroyed. In response, Rivera re-created the mural in 1943 in Mexico city and titled it, Man, the Center of the Universe. Not only was Lenin even more prominently featured in this mural, but Rivera, not so coyly, painted in Rockefeller’s father below the bacterial illustration of syphilis.
These pieces of art are already incredible as they stand, but how amazing that they pack so much more depth! It really makes you appreciate the genius of the artists who created them. Who knew after all this time that these works could still have something new to say?
Share these arty secrets with your friends below!