Sometimes, when painters decide to use their fine art skills with oil on canvas, they picture an idea of what the finished product will look like. Other times, they just let the inspiration come to them as they go. Whatever their process may be, most of us believe painters try to transmit a beautiful message behind their masterpieces, and we hold their art to a very high standard, especially if they’re from the Renaissance. Thus, you probably pictured these master painters as serious and respectful professionals that had zero time to waste on foolishness and silly pranks. Wrong! Shockingly, there are many paintings from this era that depicts graphic and sexual messages and satirical illustrations that would crack anyone up, even centuries later. This doesn’t mean their artistic value and meaning is less important; on the contrary, they add to the the piece’s value and will have you zooming in to look. Here are some of them:
Pieter Bruegel (father) : Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)
From a distance, this painting looks like an ordinary depiction of a village, but if you take a closer look, you’ll find the many small comical illustrations Bruegel left for us to laugh at. The painting is as busy as the back of a cereal box, but these illustrations aren’t for kids to understand. It illustrates the Dutch proverbs and idioms that were common in villages at the time. For example, on the far left corner, there is a woman holding a demonic-looking creature, which refers to the proverb that says you can do anything, if you’re persistent enough, even “tie the devil to a pillow.” There is also another proverb that says “they crap through the same hole,” and he illustrates it as … well, a man crapping through a hole. Also, a fox and a stork dining together recalls the proverb that talks about imposters thinking about their advantages.
Here are other interpretations of the proverbs: “To crap on the world,” “Confessing to the Devil,” and “One foot stood, the other bare.”
Pieter Bruegel (son): The Flatterers (1592)
Pieter Bruegel’s son inherited his father’s name and painting skills. He was more focused on illustrating images of hell (people called him “Hell Bruegel”), but he also liked to imitate his father’s style and sense of humor in his paintings, which is probably what inspired this painting. The title of the painting does much of the explanation: a squatting man lets coins fall off his bag, and people crawl up into his behind. This was a clever way of saying that because he was wealthy, many people would flatter him, but he didn’t believe them. Gives the idiom “brown nosing” a whole new image, doesn’t it?
Unknown artist: The Tree of Fecundity (13th century)
This mural was discovered in 2000 inside a public fountain in Massa Marittima, in Italy. The author behind it is unknown, but experts say it dates back to the 13th century, and it’s probably an example of witchcraft in Europe. How? Although from a distance it resembles a gorgeous tree with villagers and birds around it, if we take a closer look, we can see that the fruits hanging from the tree are actually penises.
Alonso Cano: “Saint Bernard”(1656)
Cano was appointed First Royal Architect and painter to Philip IV thanks to his hard work and devotion. He produced many religious works for the Church, like the famous “Madonna and Child” painting at a church in Lebrija. This painting shows the Virgin Mary feeding milk to Saint Bernard, and even though it looks disrespectful and weird, it is actually an interpretation of a religious story that Spanish Catholics hold very dear. As the story goes, Saint Bernard was rewarded for his long devotion to Mary with a taste of her own milk.
Jan van Eyck: “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434)
This painting of Giovanni Di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife was painted by van Eyck, but the artist wittily left a signature behind for people to laugh at. In the very middle of the portrait, there is a circle-shaped mirror that shows van Eyck and his assistant, the perfect signature to say “I was here.” However, van Eyck probably wanted to mock the important London merchant, since he also portrayed Arnolfini’s wife as pregnant, but records say she wasn’t at the time.
Besides the great painting skills and historical value of these artworks, it’s the sense of humor and sheer irreverence what makes them so fun to look at hundreds of years later.