It doesn't matter how much we think we know certain works of art, there will always be something new for us to discover, like these hidden messages only a few have noticed.
Art is an immense and vast region we might never really unveil entirely. For centuries, specialists have tried to uncover all the secrets of the most impressive works in history, and still, every day new discoveries keep surfacing, even in well-known and studied pieces such as Leonardo da Vinci's Monalisa. The mastery with which artists created their pieces goes beyond what the naked eye can detect, and perhaps there’s where their artistic value lies, in their ability to portray so many messages with a single image. Some of the theories are based on rumors or gossip, while others have been proven by recognized art critics. Still, if you want to discover some of the most outstanding hidden messages, or see whether you’re an art expert who already knew about them, just keep on reading.
Et In Arcadia Ego (The Arcadian Shepherds) - Nicolas Poussin, 1637–1638
Poussin’s painting is a classic memento mori. Arcadia, though real, was understood as an idyllic and utopian place far from the sea, where people lived a prosperous and calm life away from the inclemencies of the sea. The phrase in Latin that gives the name to the painting is a remembrance of how even in a paradisiac land as Arcadia, Death is also present. However, besides the allegorical message of the painting, many specialists believe that Poussin was actually making a quite religious statement with this work. Remember Dan Brown's story about Jesus? Well, this novel isn’t really as original as it might seem. According to Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent, and Richard Leigh (scholars and authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail 1982), the painting is actually pointing at the real place in France where Mary Magdalene had Jesus’ baby, who became the ancestor of the Merovingian royal bloodline of French Kings.
Pope Paul III and his Grandsons - Titian, 1546
It’s no secret that popes weren’t the pure messengers of God on earth, especially during the Renaissance, where they installed a network of corruption, power, and endless crimes. Well, it’s believed that more than being a portrait of Pope Paul III and his powerful family, this is actually a political criticism against the ambitious family. In the middle of the painting, the Pope smiles at his youngest grandson, Ottavio, who named himself the legitimate heir of the Dukedom of Parma and Piacenza after murdering his father. At Paul’s left, his other grandson, Cardinal Alessandro, holds a cross as if he were blessing his brother’s crime.
Primavera - Sandro Botticelli, 1482
Considered one of the most beautiful portrayals of the classic pagan festivities of Spring, this painting is one of the most complex works, in terms of the wide iconography portrayed. According to some botanists, the painting contains about 500 identifiable plant species, which shows how, similar to many of the Italian Renaissance masters, Botticelli was quite an expert in science as well as art. But besides this impressive fact, it’s believed that this is actually a bold statement about religion. Unlike the previous painting, here he’s not trying to expose the corruptive nature of the Christian church, but he’s actually doing something far more dangerous: trying to reconcile the main ideals of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. This would explain the richness of plants and characters from different traditions. It’s well known that the artist believed that all these religions had their foundations on mystical life learnings, and by becoming institutionalized, they lost the real essence of their precepts.
The Music Lesson - Johannes Vermeer, c.1662–1665
For several years in art history, this was an innocent painting of an aristocratic woman learning with her music instructor. It might seem like there’s nothing going on. However, the painting is telling way more than it appears. The painting is also known as Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, since it apparently portrays this virginal aristocratic woman as an eligible wife. She’s playing, as the title suggests, the virginal, a key instrument thought for women, which was highly associated with purity and virginity. Everything’s great until you notice the wide mirror right above the instrument. The fact that she’s looking at the man instead of the instrument implies they had a relationship. Adding to that theory, the jar of wine on the table is thought to be an aphrodisiac, while the contrabass on the floor is believed to symbolize the phallus, showing there’s nothing virginal nor pure about the scene or the lady. This is probably too far-fetched, but still, this painting belongs to the Royal Collection in London.
An Allegory with Venus and Cupid - Angolo Bronzino, 1545
According to Christopher Cook in an article for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in the UK, Bronzino’s image is far from being a naive portrayal of Venus and Cupid. Moreover, he’s convinced that this is a representation of syphilis. He states that the real allegory of the painting isn’t really about love and passion as an elevated emotion, but as an act that can have deadly consequences. He says there’s plenty evidence supporting his theory, especially the kid on Venus’ right. If you look at his feet, they show a deformity that's often seen in syphilis: “syphilitic myelopathy and nerve damage.” Also the faces of the other characters show other signs of the disease, according to Cook.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews - Thomas Gainsborough, c.1750
Not so long ago, art historian James Hamilton released a new biography on artist Thomas Gainsborough. Here he told the story of a painting that was commissioned by an aristocratic family. While Gainsborough was still painting the portrait of Robert Andrews and his new bride, he got into an argument with the family, and instead of leaving the painting aside, he decided to get an artistic revenge. He included at least three phallic figures hidden throughout the painting. He never named the painting, which was actually concealed up until the twentieth century when the controversy was forgotten. It was later sold to the National Gallery during the sixties and no one had noticed his mischief until now.
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