Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code has been thoroughly debunked as being nothing but a “beach book” with no basis in reality (despite Brown's claims of a scholarly pedigree). Brown’s become something of a joke to actual art history scholars, mainly because he made the general public start thinking there were mysterious codes and symbols in Renaissance art—and hidden meaning in art in general—when there largely isn’t. There’s no doubt, of course, that artists use symbolism in their work and have for centuries, but it’s not the coded biblical messages and prophesies that a lot of people think.
There are, however, other examples of hidden meanings, messages, and “Easter eggs” in Renaissance art that are pretty damn cool, even if they don’t tell us when the world will end or where the treasure is hidden. Read on for some of the coolest—and totally legit—examples of secrets hidden in Renaissance art.
Using an Art Camera to scan the painting, Google produced the highest-resolution scan of da Vinci's The Last Supper at 1 billion pixels, and made it available online. Google Arts & Culture partnered with England’s Royal Academy of Arts to create the scan, which is actually the closest original copy of da Vinci's work, thought to have been created by his pupils, Giampietrino and Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio.
With the new resolution, art historians noticed some key details hidden in the Giampietrino and Boltraffio copy. Next to Judas's right arm is spilled salt, thought to be a bad omen. Also, Peter is holding a knife, which could be foreshadowing the fact that he will cut off a soldier's ear trying to stop Jesus's arrest.
It sounds like something you’d find in a cheesy haunted house: an old painting with a hidden skull, visible only as you ascend the stairs. But that’s exactly what’s going on in The Ambassadors. It’s called anamorphosis, a piece of visual trickery where an artist intentionally creates a distorted image that is “reconstituted” if looked at from the right perspective. See that strange smear of white and black at the feet of the titular ambassadors? The image on the right is what it looks like when viewed "correctly."
Spooky! Scholars are torn about why, exactly, Holbein would include this little illusion. Some say he might have just been showing off.
Christopher Cook claims in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is actually all about syphilis. Nearly every detail, he argues, suggests that the real “lesson” of the piece is that “with unchaste love comes not only joy and pleasure, but also painful consequence.” There is plenty of creepy evidence to back this up, including the thorn that is piercing the small child’s foot next to Venus. The kid is “foolishly indifferent to the damage,” perhaps as a symbol for “syphilitic myelopathy and nerve damage.”
Regardless of Bronzino’s intentions with the painting, there’s one hidden element that is spooky as hell when you see it:
The little girl is actually a monster.
Everything about the so-called Voynich manuscript is cryptic and mysterious, earning its reputation as “the ultimate work of outsider art.” It’s written in an unknown language—still not deciphered—by an unknown author. The illustrations and diagrams appear to be scientific in nature, but no one knows for sure what they’re meant to display, or who actually drew them. Carbon dating tells us that it’s from the early 15th century, but no one knows where, exactly, it originally came from.
Some experts—such as William F. Friedman, “chief cryptologist for the American military in both world wars”—think it’s an attempt at creating an artificial language.