Trying to find hidden meaning in cultural artifacts is nothing new. Especially when it comes to some of the world's most recognizable works of art. Just ask Dan Brown, who made millions off of tiny details in Leonardo da Vinci’s work. But da Vinci isn’t the only artist who liked hiding things in his paintings. Here are some of the coolest Easter eggs in famous art...
"Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn" by Raphael
For years, it was unclear who was responsible for "Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn." The original, which was painted around 1505-06, was changed several times, including once in the mid-17th century when an unknown artist changed the subject into St. Catherine, covering her shoulders and putting a wheel and palm frond in her lap.
About That Unicorn, Though...
In 1934, art restorers discovered the wheel and palm frond were hiding a small unicorn. Twenty-five years after that, further restoration revealed the unicorn used to be a dog. Common belief among scholars is that the original painting was commissioned for a wedding, and the dog represented fidelity. When the nuptials were called off, the unicorn, representing chastity and virginity, replaced the dog.
"The Arnolfini Portrait" by Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck’s 1434 "Arnolfini Portrait" sets itself apart from other 15th-century works of art for a number of reasons, and art historians consider it to be both original and complex for its time. Van Eyck created something that seems to share space with the viewer, offering a full 360-degree view through the use of a mirror on the opposing wall.
The Man in the Mirror
But van Eyck didn’t just create a portrait of a marriage when he painted the "Arnolfini Portrait." Take a closer look at the mirror in the background and you’ll see a third figure staring back into the room. Although it isn’t confirmed to be the artist himself, scholars widely believe it to be so.
"Young Woman Powdering Herself" by Georges Seurat
The “young woman” in Seurat’s 1888-90 portrait happens to be the artist’s 20-year-old mistress, Madeleine Knobloch. Turns out Ms. Knobloch may have been pregnant with Seurat’s child at the time he made the painting.
A Hidden Self-Portrait
The frame on the wall behind Knobloch isn’t actually a frame at all. Or, at least, it didn’t start out that way. The story goes that the frame originally was a mirror into which Seurat painted a self-portrait, but he later painted over it on the advice of a friend. In recent years, X-ray technology has revealed the self-portrait for the first time, proving the story to be true.
"The Ambassadors" by Hans Holbein the Younger
Hans Holbein the Younger's 1533 painting "The Ambassadors" has the distinction of being multiple types of painting in one. On the surface, it’s both a double portrait (of landowner Jean de Dinteville and Bishop of Lavaur Georges de Selve) and a still life.
But there’s something weird about Holbein’s work. And that something is a giant, distorted skull in the center of the painting. It’s one of the more famous examples of anamorphosis, which requires the viewer to look at it from a separate angle to get the full picture. Morbid, but cool.
Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi fresco by Giotto
Medieval master Giotto di Bondone is responsible for some of the most beautiful (and famous) religious artwork, which you can find in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. But for 700 years, the artist hid something unusual in fresco No. 20, which depicts the life and death of St. Francis...
Devil in the Clouds
Perhaps one of the reasons this creepy Satanic portrait in Giotto's fresco stayed hidden for so long is that it's not something one can see from ground level. It wasn’t until modern-day art restorers got up close and personal with the fresco that anyone noticed the devil in the clouds.
"The Madonna with Saint Giovannino" by Domenico Ghirlandaio
While there are plenty of 15th-century paintings depicting the Madonna with the baby Jesus, there aren’t exactly an overwhelming number of them with UFOs painted into the background. So this work by Domenico Ghirlandaio is something of a standout...
X-Files, Renaissance Style
The odd sphere painted into the sky above the Madonna’s head could possibly be written off as a weird cloud or maybe even a star that’s visible in the middle of the day. But then there’s the guy staring at it from the shore, and that's not the reaction of your typical daytime stargazer.
"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
Da Vinci’s 1494-95 masterpiece "The Last Supper" asks plenty of questions that we don’t seem to have the answers to, even after 500 years. Is that Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ side? And why do 12 people all need to sit next to one another on one side of the table?
Musical Dinner Rolls
But even Dan Brown didn’t see this one coming. Look closely at the loaves of bread on the table and you may notice something beyond your average love of carbs. The loaves actually create a 40-second musical piece if placed as notes on a musical staff.
"Cafe Terrace at Night" by Vincent Van Gogh
To the untrained eye, van Gogh’s 1888 "Cafe Terrace at Night" is a lovely evening scene set against the picturesque backdrop of Arles, France. But a 2013 academic paper promoted the idea that perhaps the artist had something a little more religious in mind when he painted it...
Ode to da Vinci
More specifically, some scholars now believe "Cafe Terrace at Night" is an homage to da Vinci's "The Last Supper." Of note are the 12 cafe patrons (like the apostles), the central figure in white (Jesus), and the cross-like shape of the window pane directly behind him.
"The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch’s 1490-1510 triptych oil painting has divided art historians for centuries. No one can quite figure out if it’s meant to caution against sins of the flesh or celebrate their pleasure. It is, however, full of unique imagery and overall sexiness.
The 600-Year-Old Butt Song From Hell
Check out the third panel, which is meant to represent hell. Along with a ton of other weird stuff meant to represent the deadly sins (like a bird monster eating people on its toilet throne), you’ll find some music written on the rear end of one of the figures. Lucky for you, a college student transcribed and recorded the music, so you can listen to it for yourself.
"Netherlandish Proverbs" by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
Also known as "Flemish Proverbs," "The Blue Cloak" or "The Topsy Turvy World," this 1559 work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is meant to depict the many Dutch-language proverbs and idioms in use at the time. Like "The Garden of Earthly Delights," it’s chock full of fun Easter eggs.
The Dutch and Their Proverbs
Many of the sayings portrayed in the piece are things you’d probably never use in everyday conversation, however colorful they may be. (“He who eats fire craps sparks” should definitely make a comeback.) But others, like “the blind leading the blind” (depicted in the upper-right corner of the painting), are still very much in use today.
"View of Scheveningen Sands" by Hendrick van Anthonissen
Before its restoration, Hendrick van Anthonissen's 1641 painting titled "View of Scheveningen Sands" seemed to be nothing more than a nice beach scene in which a bunch of people stand around staring out into nothing. But why, though?
Art restorers discovered in 2014 that a beached whale appeared to have been painted over at some point in the work’s history. Shan Kuang, a restorer who worked on the painting, shed some light on things. She explained that the depiction of a dead animal would have offended people in the 18th and early 19th centuries.