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 buried. Read on for some of the coolest—and totally legit—examples of secrets hidden in Renaissance art.
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.see more on The Ambassadors
Angolo Bronzino: An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1545)
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.
The Voynich Manuscript (1404–1438)
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.
Michelangelo: Zechariah (1508-1512)
Author and Vatican scholar Roy Dolinger spent six years investigating Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for his book The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican and made some pretty neat discoveries. Among them was a putti (small angel) “making the fig”—sticking your thumb between your index and middle fingers, the Renaissance equivalent of flipping someone off—behind the back of the prophet Zechariah.
Why? Michelangelo modeled Zechariah on the then-current Pope, Pope Julius II, also known as Il Papa Terribile, the Fearsome Pope. It was Michelangelo’s way, Dolinger argues, of insulting the Pope in a subtle way. The gesture is so small that’s it’s difficult to see from the ground, which would be the only way Il Papa Terribile would have ever seen it.