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.
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If you look closely at the background of The Arnolfini Portrait, you’ll notice some writing on the wall (top right) and a small mirror (bottom right).
The writing means “Jan van Eyck was here 1434,” which means it’s the artist “tagging” the wall of his own painting. Beyond that, if you look in the mirror, you’ll notice—and this is only noticeable using a magnifying glass with a physical copy—that van Eyck managed to paint a pretty accurate reflection of the scene in the mirror, including what appears to be a tiny self-portrait.
One controversial theory for van Eyck's “tagging” is that the painting was meant as a legal record of the marriage of the couple depicted, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, and van Eyck signed his name as a witness to the marriage, which is a pretty cool thought.
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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.
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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.
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Benvenuto Cellini: Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1545)
At first glance, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, as the name implies, features two faces: mythological Greek hero Perseus and hideous snake-haired Gorgon Medusa. But if you take a peek at the back of Perseus’s helmet, sculptor Benvenuto Cellini left a little surprise...
Hello! It’s Cellini’s bearded self-portrait. Cellini also signed his name on Perseus’s belt, just in case anyone forgot who made this bronze masterpiece.