Something great about the visual arts, mainly paintings, is that it’s always open to interpretation. You can look at your favorite paintings over and over again and every time, discover some detail you haven’t seen before. As you find more detail in the painting, your interpretation might change.
Art scholars and art lovers accept that there are also hidden and/or secret messages within many famous paintings of people. Artists have various reasons why they add “messages” to their work.
This article will look at the message theory and discuss a few examples.
Are there Secret Messages Hidden in Paintings?
Art is so interesting that everyone doesn’t discover the same detail in the artwork. This is one of the reasons why people give different interpretations of the same painting. But over the centuries, creators of famous paintings, including paintings of people, have sometimes put “secret messages” in their paintings.
Artists have various reasons to add “messages” to their work intentionally. Sometimes they do it to subvert authority. Frequently it is to challenge audiences or reveal something about themselves. Sometimes artists incorporate hidden messages in their paintings so that only a select few people can understand their true significance.
Modern technology makes it possible for art researchers to find hidden symbols and detail in famous old paintings of people. Still, as the painters or the people depicted in the painting are no longer living, the meaning of many symbols and messages will always be a secret.
Type of Symbols and Messages
Paintings with people often have a deeper meaning than what is usually seen when you view the painting for the first time. There are two basic types of hidden messages found in famous people’s paintings.
One type is where the artist uses painted elements that symbolize a theme or idea. This is called iconography. Iconography is a range of specific images used by an artist or group of artists to convey particular meanings. For example, there is an iconography of images in Christian religious paintings – the lamb represents Christ, and the dove, in turn, symbolizes the Holy Spirit.
The more exciting and intriguing type is where the painter uses his symbols and techniques to hide “messages” in their gorgeous paintings of people. If they are old masterpieces, we’ll never know whether all the messages have been found. And even if all of them have been found, the real meaning and reason they were inserted in the painting will never be known.
Examples of Hidden Messages in Famous Art People – “Mona Lisa”
Image Source: 1st Art Gallery
The painting with probably the most hidden and assumed hidden messages is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” Many art historians have discovered aspects in the painting that they assume are hidden messages. However, not all art researchers agree with what the messages mean.
However, one aspect generally accepted is that Mona Lisa’s right eye contains the letters “LV,” which most art scholars assume is da Vinci’s way of claiming the painting as his. The letters are too tiny to see on the original artwork but were discovered with modern technological methods.
Interestingly, another hidden aspect of the “Mona Lisa” is not as much a message, but it has been a hidden secret until researchers have also discovered it with modern technology. In 2015, a French scientist spotted another woman’s portrait underneath the image of the Mona Lisa. Many art scholars agree this was probably the “first draft” for the artist, and then he just painted the masterpiece over it.
“Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife” by Jan van Eyck
Image Source: 1st Art Gallery
When you look at the “Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife,” one of van Eyck’s paintings with people, you immediately see the two subjects. But if you look in more detail into the mirror on the back wall, you realize that there are more people in the painting.
You can see in the mirror that two more people are entering the room. Many art scholars believe that one of them is supposed to be van Eyck himself. However, Van Eyck had also included other “signatures” in the painting. In fact, you can see a Latin inscription on the wall above the mirror. When you translate this inscription, it translates to “Jan van Eyck was here. 1434.”
Another hidden message can be found in Giovanni’s loose grasp on his wife’s hand. Art historians believe it symbolizes her “slipping away.” She died while van Eyck was still working on the painting. On the man’s side, the candles are also still tall and lit, symbolizing life, while the candles on the woman’s side are burned out, signifying that her life has ended.
Two More Paintings of People with Hidden Secrets
According to an Italian musician, there is a hidden song within “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. He discovered that the painting represented musical notes when the rolls were lined up on the table that when he lined up the rolls on the table and the hands of the Apostles on a musical staff. This might be accidental, but if not, Da Vinci left behind an exceptional composition.
“Netherlandish Proverbs” by Pieter Bruegel depicts a bustling Dutch street. But there are many messages for the viewer if you just know where to look and how to interpret what you see. The messages include the following:
- The earth is painted upside down, referring to the proverb that the planet earth is upside-down.
- A man is running with his rare on fire, referring to “running like your butt’s on fire.”
- The three subjects in the back standing in a line symbolize that a blind person is leading the blind.
- The man in armor holding a knife in his mouth refers to the proverb “armed to the teeth.”
Art researchers and art lovers have discussed hidden and/or secret messages in famous people painting for centuries. Of course, we’ll never know whether the interpretation of the messages is correct and whether there are still many messages to discover. But the message theory makes it very interesting to look at well-known and famous paintings!