4 Masterpieces With Hidden Messages That Might Surprise You

Long before publication of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, researchers have claimed that Da Vinci’s paintings are riddled with symbolism and hidden meanings. In this article, we look at four paintings by the masters, and secrets contained within them.

1. The Last Supper — Leonardo da Vinci

Da Vinci’s visual interpretation of The Last Supper depicts Jesus sitting at a long table, surrounded by all of his disciples. According to Christian teachings, as the group ate and drank, Christ warned them that someone sitting there that night would betray him by sunrise.

In Leonardo da Vinci’s creation, the disciples receive the news with varying degrees of anger, horror, and shock. Spilled salt near Judas Iscariot’s elbow is believed by many to represent bad luck and loss. Scholars have also questioned Da Vinci’s choice of food, musing whether the inclusion of eel might allude to Jesus’ prediction that his apostle Peter would deny knowing him.

Computer technician Giovanni Maria Pala recently made the astonishing claim that a 40-second musical composition may be encoded in the piece. Adding weight to Pala’s assertions, Alessandro Vezzosi of the Da Vinci museum in Tuscany agreed that it was a plausible theory.

2. Café Terrace at Night — Vincent van Gogh

Completed in 1888, at first glance, this atmospheric oil painting seems to be just as the title suggests, portraying a quaint café in a colorful French town. However, in 2015, art expert Jared Baxter put forward the theory that the painting was actually, once again, an artistic representation of The Last Supper.

Upon close inspection, the painting reveals a long-haired central figure surrounded by 12 individuals. One appears to be slipping away into the shadows, and could be suggestive of Judas. Close scrutiny also reveals tiny crosses throughout the painting, with one just above the central, Jesus-like figure.

3. Mona Lisa — Leonardo da Vinci

One of the world’s most instantly recognizable pieces of art, there is much more to the Mona Lisa’s beauty than her beguiling half-smile. The woman’s true identity remains a mystery to this day, and a topic of intense debate.

Some scholars speculate that the woman in the painting may be pregnant, her arms positioned suggestively over her belly, and a veil draped around her shoulders, as was the custom for pregnant women during the Italian Renaissance.

In 2011, Silvano Vinceti, an Italian researcher, claimed that he had discovered letters and numbers hidden within painting, written in microscopic writing. He suggested that the “L” he saw over the Mona Lisa’s right eye might represent the artist’s name. Furthermore, Vinceti also said he saw a letter “S” in her left eye, suggesting this could by symbolic of the Sforza dynasty, Milan’s rulers at the time.

Vinceti also claimed to see the number “72” under an arched bridge in the backdrop, speculating that the “7” could refer to the creation of the world, while the “2” might allude to the duality of men and women.

4. The Ambassadors — Hans Holbein

Today’s fascination with the dazzling and deadly court of King Henry VIII simply would not exist without the artistic talents of Hans Holbein. Famous for capturing the emotion of his illustrious subjects, Holbein’s most iconic painting defies direct interpretation.

Painted in 1533, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (known informally as The Ambassadors), has been scrutinized by art experts for centuries. Proudly displayed at the National Gallery in London, the double portrait remains a fascinating enigma, in which the tiniest detail seems to suggest multiple meanings.

The depiction of the two figures is widely praised to this day as both symbolic and technically brilliant. Dinteville stands on the left, lavishly dressed, his black coat lined with lynx fur. On his hat is his personal insignia: the image of a skull. Experts believe that the symbolic trope serves to remind us of the inevitability of death.

On the right side of the painting stands Georges de Selve, the bishop and classical scholar, dressed in far less ostentatious attire. Some experts surmise that the painting’s symbolism may actually explore the dysfunctional nature of France’s alliance with the Vatican, as well as commenting on the conflict between the Pope and Henry VIII. Indeed, in the background, a lute with a broken string is a potent symbol of discord, and quite possibly a reference to the royal court.

Numerous other items laid out on the shelves between the two figures have baffled historians and art experts for centuries. On the surface, the inclusion of math and hymn books, globes, and astrological, navigational, and musical instruments may be construed as a glorification of man’s achievements. But then, the eye is drawn down to an anamorphic shape on the floor.

Holbein has deliberately hidden a second skull image in the painting, which is only visible when viewed from low down on the left side, or high up on the right side. Experts believe that the painting was designed to be hung on a staircase, and intended to shock passersby.

Some experts believe that the painting is actually a commentary on the transitory nature of human values, reminding us of the certainty of human mortality: a state that overrides all earthly matters. However, Holbein’s painting is not entirely pessimistic. In the top-left corner is a crucifix, reminding the observer that Christian faith can help them to escape death and secure everlasting salvation.

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Julio Herrera Velutini

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