One of the many exciting things about looking at art, aside from learning the stories behind the work, is finding secrets that the artist may have hidden in the details. Classical artists were not only masters at their craft, but also well known to have added special messages in their masterpieces.
Sometimes it’s just a different underdrawing that was found with modern technology, or from a simple cleaning, but the exciting secrets were the ones that once revealed, took the work to another level. Now, many of these secrets are theories as we can’t really know what the artist was thinking or aiming for, but that doesn’t stop them from entering pop culture on a periodic basis in the form of books, movies, and social media. So, we have a small list here of some of outstanding classic works with something special hidden in each one.
Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. Photo by Wikipedia
Not only an exceptional painter, architect, and sculptor, Michelangelo was also well educated in human anatomy. It has been stated that starting in his younger years he conducted autopsies, which he continued into adulthood. This understanding of anatomy can be seen many times in his paintings that adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and especially in his iconic fresco, The Creation of Adam. The theory is that the layout of God, the surrounding figures, and drapery, accurately represent the human brain right down the brain stem and frontal lobe. This correlation is so strong, that many agree it’s harder to argue that this was not the artist’s plan.
La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli. Photo via Wikipedia
La Primivera is one of Sandro Botticelli’s most famous works, and while there is much speculation as to the true meaning of the piece, one idea is that the entire work is dedicated to horticulture. Seen throughout the work, it is estimated that there is no less than 500 individually recognized plants from over 200 species. Some have suggested that the plants seen in the piece are a representation of what would have grown in Florence between the months of March and May. While the figures are such a striking element to the work, it becomes so much more once you really see the plant life.
The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. Photo via Wikipedia
This painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, takes advantage of the Early Renaissance invention of anamorphic perspective. Seen in the bottom portion of the painting is an oddly stretched shape when viewed at a specific angle, such as the bottom left, it shows a human skull. You can try this with your computer or better yet laptop or mobile phone. The idea is that the painting might have been hung in a staircase so that viewers walking up or down the stairs would see the skull. It is often suggested that the layout of the painting represented the heavens, the living world, and death.
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck. Photo by Wikipedia
This masterpiece by the grandfather of oil painting, Jan Van Eyck, is a popular subject when it comes to the meaning of the various elements in the piece. Does the dog represent loyalty and the oranges wealth? Who knows, but one thing for sure, this work is an early example of an artist truly leaving an “I Was Here” mark for others to see. In the back of the painting just above the convex mirror, is written “Jan van Eyck was here 1434”. Also, upon closer inspection of the mirror we get a different view of the room, and between the two figures dressed in blue, it is believed to be Jan Van Eyck himself.
Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo by Wikipedia
The original “Renaissance Man”, Leonardo da Vinci. Painter, sculptor, architect, mathematician, inventor, is there anything he couldn’t do? Well, along with his seemingly endless list of skills he was also a skilled musician. So when an Italian musician came forward in 2007 and claimed that there was a 40 second piece of music hidden in the painting, it didn’t seem so outlandish. The idea is that when a five line staff is drawn across the painting, the bread-rolls and hands of the apostles along with negative space comprise a series of notes. da Vinci was known for writing right to left, so when the composition is played in this manner, it doesn’t sound like a clever theory anymore. It sounds good, have a listen here.
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