Portraiture or portrait painting is an art category that represents a specific subject, typically a person, where the subject’s appearance and personality are captured in the painting. They are usually commissioned to serve as memorabilia, gifts, or created by artists purely to make art.
A good portrait should capture the subject’s appearance and some other elements of their personality. However, custom portraits may reveal more than just appearances; they often hold hidden messages that may either be obvious or indirectly implied. Sometimes, these secret messages may be hinted at through an expression, pose or even the artist’s preferred color scheme. Other times, artists go as far as making cryptic additions to their works.
Because this is a widespread practice among artists, art enthusiasts constantly devote themselves to spotting and deciphering these cryptic messages of infamous art pieces. Here are some of the famous paintings with hidden meanings:
The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci
The subject of much speculation, this late 15th-century painting by Leonardo da Vinci has been at the center of several conspiracy theories. Fans of The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown are familiar with a particular conspiracy involving Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and a secret child. However, art historians have rejected this theory as plausible.
A more compelling hidden message was discovered in 2007 by Italian musician and computer technician Giovanni Maria Pala. According to him, the notes, which are hidden in the bread rolls and hands of the disciples, produce a 40-second composition reminiscent of a requiem when read from right to left.
This theory is more probable because Da Vinci himself was a fine musician and his writing style followed the right to left pattern.
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni is chiefly remembered as a phenomenal artist, architect, and sculptor. However, many do not know that he was also a skilled anatomist who produced anatomical sketches by dissecting corpses.
His famous fresco painting The Creation of Adam illustrates the creation story from the biblical book of Genesis in which God creates the first man named Adam. The painting depicts God’s right arm outstretched to impart life from his forefinger into that of Adam, who also has his left arm extended to mirror God, a reminder that man reflects God’s image and likeness.
The painting itself and Michelangelo’s knowledge of anatomy believe that concealed within the God figure is the likeness of a human brain. The hidden message is interpreted as a commentary on the church’s attack on science. Ironically, the iconic painting forms part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci
This is the second Da Vinci painting with a hidden meaning on our list. The portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as The Mona Lisa, has been described as one of the most famous works of art portraits in the world. However, it seems there’s more to see than her famous half-smile.
In 2011, an Italian researcher named Silvano Vinceti claimed to have found letters and numbers microscopically painted over the eyes of the woman and in the backdrop of the portrait. Vincenti insists that the symbols provide leads for ascertaining the model’s identity, dating the painting, and Davinci’s views of religion and mysticism.
Portrait of Bill Clinton by Nelson Shanks
At the National Portrait Gallery in 2006, former U.S President Bill Clinton unveiled a portrait of himself painted by American artist John Nelson Shanks. The painting depicts the former President in the Oval Office, standing beside a mantel. At first glance, the artwork does not reveal much, but Shanks himself admitted that the painting contained a hidden message.
The celebrity portraitist told the Philadelphia Daily News that he subtly incorporated the shadow of a dress into the painting, the dress being the controversial blue dress belonging to White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The infamous blue dress had become a symbol of the scandal, and the artist included it as a metaphor for the shadow the affair cast on Clinton’s presidency. The shadow can be seen on the left side of the painting.
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck
This 1434 portrait is an oil painting of the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. At a quick glance, there seems to be nothing unusual about it, but upon taking a closer look, one can see the hidden detail in the painting.
If you pay close attention to the mirror positioned behind the subjects in the center of the room, you will notice two figures entering the room. It’s generally believed that one of them is meant to be the artist Jan Van Eyck himself. But, that’s not all; you will also notice an elaborately written Latin inscription on the wall above the mirror; in English, it translates to “Jan van Eyck was here. 1434.”
The Old Fisherman by Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka
At first impression, the asymmetrical features of the painting’s subject may question Kosztka’s skill, but beneath this oddly distorted painting lies a sinister secret.
However, when each side of the portrait is mirrored, the chilling optical illusions hidden within it are revealed along with their interpretation. The artist decided to illustrate how the average person has both good and evil within by using optical illusions to portray the duplicity of human nature.
Depending on the mirrored side, the painting reveals a kindly-looking older man praying or a more menacing image of the devil, set with a red face and horns.
Apart from appreciating the alluring aesthetics, art is often meant to be appraised with critical deconstruction. As a result, paintings are often far more complex than they seem at a first impression. It takes an expert eye to discover the gems buried within and a keen mind to decipher their hidden meanings.