13 Conspiracy Theories About Famous Paintings

This list is for all you fans of The Da Vinci Code who can't get enough of art conspiracy theories. If these theories are to be believed, all these famous works of art have hidden meanings or clandestine scandals surrounding them. Many are da Vinci's, but the famous Italian polymath certainly wasn't the only artist who knew how to hide a secret in plain sight.

Some of the theories on this list are pretty bizarre, but if you've found your way here, you're probably okay with that. These ideas are rife with speculation; art historians, stick with your books and academic journals. Here you will find only wonder at the potential of the world and myriad forgotten histories and secret messages buried all around us. Absent uncovering a note from the artist specifically detailing his intentions, there's no way to prove any of these famous art conspiracies are true. But it's fun to think about how these famous artists may have left hidden messages for us.


  • The Last Supper Features Mary Magdalene
    Photo: Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Perhaps the most famous conspiracy theory about a work of art, popularized by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, suggests that the person seated to Jesus's right in da Vinci's depiction of The Last Supper is Mary Magdalene. With that in mind, it's difficult to look at the painting and not see the person in question as a woman (as opposed to John, who the figure is traditionally assumed to be).

    The theory also points out that Jesus and Mary Magdalene form a "V," which represents the womb or the divine feminine. Slavisa Pesci, described by the Telegraph as "an amateur Italian scholar," further claims that, if you superimpose a mirror image of the painting over itself, as one often does with Renaissance paintings, you can see a woman holding a baby and also a Knight Templar chilling at the end of the table (to your far left). 

    Why would da Vinci include all this? The prevailing theory (yes, a theory within a theory, how Midsummer Night's Dream) is the artist sought to reveal a story the Catholic Church tried to erase. There's evidence, in a dusty manuscript found in the British Museum some believe to be a lost gospel, that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children with her. But the Catholic Church downplayed her role in Jesus's life, turning her into a prostitute. and also eliminated the divine feminine element of Jesus's message. In The Last Supper, da Vinci attempts to rectify this in his version of the event.

    • Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
    • Subject: Jesus Christ
    • Genres (Art): Christian art, History painting
    • Art Form: Mural
    • Period / Movement: High Renaissance, Italian Renaissance, Renaissance
  • The Last Supper Predicts the End of the World

    The Last Supper Predicts the End of the World
    Photo: Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    According to Vatican researcher Sabrina Sforza Galitzia, the half moon window above Jesus in The Last Supper contains da Vinci's prediction for when the world will end.

    It's unclear how Galitzia worked her theory out, but she claims the window contains mathematical and astrological clues placing the "final reckoning" in the year 4006. There will apparently be a great flood, which will start on March 21 and end on November 1 of that year. While this sounds a little... hard to believe, Galitzia studied da Vinci manuscripts at UCLA before moving to the Vatican archives, so she's got all the right credentials for such an assertion. 

    According to Galitzia's theory, da Vinci didn't think the world would end at this point, but rather, that it would be "a new start for humanity."

  • Cafe Terrace at Night Emulates The Last Supper
    Photo: Vincent van Gogh / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Cafe Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh depicts just what its name describes. But is there more to it than that?

    Researcher Jared Baxter thinks this Van Gogh painting is an homage to da Vinci's The Last Supper (what's the deal with people and this painting?). If you look closely at Van Gogh's piece, you'll see a figure (a waiter) with long hair standing in the middle of the terrace, surrounded by 12 individuals (two of whom appear to be cats). There's another person sneaking away into the shadows at left - could this be Judas?

    Further evidence for Baxter's theory comes from a note Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, around the time he painted this work. Vincent referenced his painting in the letter, and also said he had a "tremendous need for, shall I say the word—for religion."

    Baxter further points out multiple crosses in the painting, including one in the window right above the person who might be Jesus. If this theory is true, it doesn't have much significance other than that showing how Van Gogh snuck religious symbols into his art. But it's cool, nonetheless.

    • Artist: Vincent van Gogh
    • Art Form: Painting
  • The Mona Lisa Has a Message in Her Eyes
    Photo: Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mona Lisa has always been known for her eyes, which seem to be looking at you, no matter where you stand (a common technique in art). 

    In 2010, members of Italy's National Committee for Cultural Heritage made another interesting observation about the muse's eyes - they found small letters and numerals hidden in her pupils by examining them with a magnifying glass. The right eye contains the letters "LV," probably the artist's initials. The left eye contains numbers and letters not easily decoded. 

    It's unclear how da Vinci would have painted letters and numerals so small they can only be seen with a magnifying glass. The Committee offered no concrete theories for why da Vinci would have included these details though pointed out that, by putting them in the darkest part of the subject's eyes, he essentially hid them from viewers. 

    • Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
    • Subject: Lisa del Giocondo
    • Genres (Art): Portrait
    • Art Form: Painting
    • Period / Movement: Italian Renaissance, Renaissance