I love art history. But in my freshman year art history class, in a basement classroom that was always dark and a little too warm, I constantly found myself drifting off as my professor showed us painting after painting and droned on in her quiet, soothing voice. I would always snap to attention when she urged us to look a little closer, and pointed out hidden symbols and messages that I never would have noticed at first glance. Throughout history, art is full of these little quirks if you can just look closely. Take a look at the paintings below and see if you can find them for yourself!
The Last Supper- Leonardo da Vinci
I spy with my little eye: a musical composition
I am willing to bet that everyone has seen this incredibly famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci. If you, like me, have Christian family members, you have probably seen this image in so many renditions that you have memorized every apostle’s facial expression. However, take a closer look at the bread rolls spilled across the table. They look a bit like notes on a section of sheet music, right? Like, at least a little bit. One Italian musician, Giovanni Maria Pala, transcribed these bread rolls into a 40-second song that sounds a bit like the music of da Vinci’s time. You can listen to it here
David and Goliath- Michelangelo
I spy with my little eye: a meaningful Hebrew symbol
It is pretty well-known that Michelangelo included many subtle and not-so-subtle hidden messages in his work on the Sistine Chapel. This portrait of the Biblical story of David defeating Goliath has an interesting composition. David and Goliath’s poses form the shape of a gimel (ג), the Hebrew letter that symbolizes reward, punishment, and strength. This is a fitting hidden message for a piece that portrays David, a faithful underdog, defeating the enormous Goliath with God-given strength.
Man, Controller of the Universe- Diego Rivera
I spy with my little eye: a whole bunch of Communists
Nelson Rockefeller originally commissioned a mural to be painted by Rivera at the Rockefeller Center in New York, but had it destroyed for portraying Rivera’s communist ideals. Instead, Rivera painted an adaptation of this mural in Mexico City. While at first it looks like a colorful celebration of science and human achievement, the painting is meant as an insult to Rockefeller and a celebration of communism. It depicts Rockefeller’s father surrounded by syphilis bacteria, and holding a martini (he was abstinent). It also includes many portraits of communist leaders- can you spot Karl Marx?
Cafe Terrace at Night- Vincent van Gogh
I spy with my little eye: a familiar religious scene
This is one of van Gogh’s most famous and beloved pieces, and if you love art a well-meaning relative has probably given you a phone case, tote bag, or laptop sticker with this image on it for your birthday. If you look a little closer at the people seated in the cafe, you can see a reference to another familiar work of art. Some experts believe this is van Gogh’s tribute to The Last Supper. There are 12 diners seated close together, with a larger and more distinct, Jesus-esque figure in the center. A subtle cross shape can also be seen in the window behind the diners. Coincidence?
The Madonna with Saint Giovannino- Domenico Ghirlandaio
I spy with my little eye: something extraterrestrial?
This is a painting that I probably wouldn’t give a second glance in a museum. It looks like the hundreds of other depictions of religious scenes to come out of the Renaissance. However, upon closer inspection, there is something strange in the top right corner. Many have theorized that the strange round object in the sky is a UFO, while others believe it is an angel. A man standing below the object is looking up at it, shielding his eyes. We will likely never know for sure what the object is, but the truth is out there.
Next time you are at a museum (if they ever reopen), take a second look at paintings that might seem unremarkable at first glance. You might spot something unusual that will give you insight into the artist’s mind, and learn that even the greatest artists in history were just like us- petty, political, ingenious, flawed, mysterious, and passionate.