After ‘The Da Vinci Code’ became a best-selling phenomenon, conspiracy theorists and historians the world over joined as one to study the art world looking for secrets. With a helping hand from the internet, a huge number of attention-grabbing theories about famous paintings have risen to prominence ever since.
There has, of course, been a huge number of crackpot philosophies, which the more rationale minded of us have rightly debunked. That said, not all theories about secret messages in art are crazy – far from it, in fact. To prove this, here are five famous paintings with hidden meanings that both convince and astound in equal measure.
1. L. S Lowry’s ‘Matchstick Men’ Paintings
Above: An Accident, painted by L.S. Lowry in 1926. Image by Ben Sutherland
Lowry’s paintings are famous for depicting scenes of mid-20th Century working life in North West England. Characterised by a distinctive style that portrayed ‘matchstick men’ in industrialised urban settings, the art fraternity dismissed the merit of Lowry’s paintings for many years.
However, decades after the artist’s death, it is now clear there is a lot more to Lowry’s well-known works than first meets the eye. In the vast majority of the artist’s paintings, there are a multitude of ‘blink and you’ll miss them flashes’ of human suffering hidden within the everyday scenes of industrial England.
Take the 1926 painting An Accident, for example. In this picture (featured above) you will see a large group of people staring into a lake. This might seem perfectly mundane. However, a genuine local suicide actually inspired the painting, and the matchstick men are all gathered to look at a waterlogged corpse.
Within Lowry’s body of work, this is not an isolated example – fist fights, people being evicted from their homes and illustrations of isolation are all common. Meanwhile, each painting’s remaining matchstick men continue to get on with their daily lives, almost unaware of the suffering on their doorstep.
The hidden message? We’re all alone and our pain is meaningless. Despite the chasm of difference between industrial England and modern life, for many, the hidden messages imbued within Lowry’s work are as true today as when the artist first put paint to canvas.
2. Michelangelo, The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Above: The Sistine Chapel celling, the Vatican. Image by Matthew Riley
The Renaissance period was a time of great learning and discovery, inspired by a throwback to the ancient Greek spirit of scientific inquiry. It was also a period where many artists loved to hide a few mysteries in their work for the eagle-eyed viewer – and Michelangelo was no different.
For those that don’t know, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting tells the story of the book of Genesis across nine sections. However, the subtext to this painting’s narrative is arguably more interesting than the well-thumbed Bible story at the forefront.
Michelangelo was a genius artist, sculptor and architect – however, fewer people know that he was also an expert anatomist. At the age of 17, Michelangelo began dissecting corpses from the church graveyard, with the intention of producing anatomical sketches and notes.
What has become clear over 500 years later, is that the skills Michelangelo developed during this time were put to good use when painting the Sistine Chapel.
Concealed within the robes and the faces of the figures that Michelangelo painted, American scientists have found several anatomical sketches. This includes an image of the brain, cleverly hidden in the representation of God’s neck and chin in the section entitled ‘Separation of Light from Darkness’.
Are you asking yourself why Michelangelo felt compelled to hide anatomical sketches in his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Well, a growing body of theorists believe it was the artist’s attempt at a clandestine attack on the church’s contempt for science.
3. Vincent Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace At Night
Above: Vincent Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night. Image from Wikimedia Commons
For many, Cafe Terrace at Night is one of Van Gogh’s most important paintings. If you look at the painting, like most, you’ll probably see an ordinary, unremarkable scene – albeit one painted with the artist’s trademark magic touch. Yet many believe the picture is actually a portrayal of the Last Supper.
So, let’s take a look at the evidence that points to this conclusion. First of all, as the son of a protestant minister, Van Gogh was very religious. For this reason, many art critics believe that many of Van Gogh’s seminal paintings displayed a binary relationship between art and Christian imagery. For many, Cafe Terrace At Night offers the best example of this theory.
The Last Supper is the final meal that Jesus sat down to eat with his 12 disciples. If you count them, Van Gogh’s painting clearly portrays 12 people sitting down to eat, with a long haired central figure standing among them.
Coincidence? Maybe. But when you take into account the number of hidden crosses in the painting – including one above the Christ-like figure – all the evidence points to the assertion that this painting truly is Van Gogh’s artistic expression of the Last Supper.
4. Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper
Above: Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous The Last Supper. Image by ideacreamanuelaPps
From Van Gogh’s pseudo Last Supper to the real thing. And we’re not talking about the Dan Brown world of cryptograms revealing the secret life of Jesus here. Instead, we’re focusing on a hidden message that will bring music to your ears – literally.
If you look at Da Vinci’s Last Supper (above), you will see a series of bread rolls that run across the centre of the painting. A few years ago, a musician found that by drawing the five lines of a musical staff across the painting, the bread rolls in combination with the Apostles’ hands lined up to make musical notes.
When read from right to left, which adheres to Da Vinci’s unique writing style, the notes combine to make a tuneful 40-second composition. Even disbelievers have admitted that the composition’s note perfect harmony is too good to be a coincidence. Plus, in true polymath-style, Da Vinci was an expert musician, as well as a painter, sculptor and inventor.
5. Diego Rivera, Man, Controller Of The Universe
Above: Diego Rivera’s 1934 mural, Man, Controller of the Universe. Image by Joaquín Martínez
Nelson Rockefeller originally commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint Man at the Crossroads for the Rockefeller Centre in New York. But when he took exception to the painting’s depiction of the Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, he had it destroyed.
Diego Rivera eventually repainted the mural in Mexico City, and renamed it Man, Controller of the Universe. Yet upon its reconstruction, Rivera went ahead and made one key addition – a depiction of Nelson Rockefeller’s father under a bacterial interpretation of syphilis.
Therefore, the hidden meaning of this painting becomes immediately clear: Nelson Rockefeller’s father had syphilis. To hammer the insult home, Rivera also painted Rockefeller – a famed teetotal – holding a martini, while standing next to a woman who could easily be a prostitute. Oh, and Lenin was also given even more prominence in the reimagining of this painting.
Do our featured artists hide secret messages in their paintings? In all honesty, we haven’t got a clue. But by visiting the ArtGallery.co.uk homepage and using the search tool on the right, you might just find a painting that brings out the art detective in you.