Compared to today's contemporary art, which can sometimes feel opaque, pretentious, and hard to understand, the portraits and landscapes of the old master painters seem pretty straightforward: a couple of people wearing funny, shiny clothes standing in front of some scrolls and quills and whatnot. And yet, hundreds of years after they were painted, art historians and amateur art detectives are still discovering details that complicate any sort of simple understandings of the works. Hiding "easter eggs"—inside jokes or hidden messages—was more common than you might think. In those days, most portraits were commissioned, so if the artist wanted to make any sort of critique or subversive statement, he had to be pretty sneaky about it—hiding it in a way that would be unintelligible to his patrons (yet discoverable by art historians years later).
Okay, so not all the "easter eggs" on this list were by artists intending to be subversive (in some cases, the artists were probably just goofing around). And sure, some historians got a little carried away with the conspiracy theory. But either way, the following six paintings are worth looking closely at. Once you see their hidden secrets, you'll never look at old master painting with an unscrupulous eye again.
Hieronymus Bosch’s Butt Music
Image via Classic FM
A couple years ago we wrote about the ten worst ways to die in an Hieronymus Bosch painting—and it’s pretty gruesome. How did the guy come up with this stuff? You could stare at The Garden of Earthly Delights for hours on end… and no matter how long you look at it, there will always be details you’ve missed. But recently, a music student at Oklahoma Christian University stared at it so long she discovered a detail previously overlooked: one particular torture victim has several phrases of music tattooed on his bare butt. The music student did what any normal person would do (kidding), and “decided to transcribe it into modern notation, assuming the second line of the staff is C, as is common for chants of this era,” she said on Tumblr. The result is this:
It’s entirely possible that, like a lot of tattoo artists, Bosch didn’t actually know the significance of his doodle, and instead just scribbled some music notes that he thought looked cool. (Ten bucks says there's an artist out there somewhere with Bosch's "Butt Music" tattooed on their butt.)
Pieter Bruegel's Where's Waldo?
This next painting is the 16th Century’s version of Where’s Waldo?. Except instead of lanky, candy-cane-stripped dudes, we’re looking for dozens of illustrated Netherlandish proverbs, like “swimming against the tide,” “armed to the teeth,” or “banging one’s head against a brick wall.” Historians have identified 112 proverbs and idiom’s in Bruegel’s scene (can you find them all?), though there are probably many more that we just have no way of knowing about, since there were surely proverbs used in the 1500s that have simply disappeared from the lexicon since.
Van Eyck Wuz Here
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck is one of the most studied portraits in art history, with an impressive number of symbols and iconography, and its complicated geometric orthogonal perspective and expanded picture space via the use of a concave mirror depicted on the back wall. But one of our favorite things about this 1434 oil on oak panel painting is that the artist wrote "Johannes de eyck suit his 1434" in a way that was meant to look like it was written on the wall in the back of the room. In other words, he put graffiti in his painting that said “Jan van Eyck was here.” Bass ass.
Hans Holbein's Post-Internet Skull
Painted in 1533 by German-born Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors represents a selection of very specific objects—two globes (one terrestrial and one celestial), a shepherd’s dial, various textiles, a torquetum, and a quadrant. The double portrait is symbolic in that the figure on the left is in secular attire while the figure on the right wears clerical clothes. Some critics believe it to be symbolic of a unification of capitalism and the Church. But the strangest part of this panting it’s use of anamorphosis—a distorted perspective the requires the viewer to occupy a specific vantage point in order for the image to be legible. Placed on the bottom center of the composition is an accurate representation of a human skull—but it can only be seen when looking at the painting from up high on the right side, or down low on the left side. It’s believed that the painting was meant to hang in a stairwell so that people walking up or down the stairs would be startled by the sudden appearance of a skull.
Why a skull? Some historians believe that the painting was meant to represent three levels: death in the bottom of the composition, the living world in the middle (as evidenced by musical instruments and books on the lower shelf), and the heavens (represented by the astrolabe and the other objects depicted on the top shelf). Then again, it’s very possible that Holbein simply wanted to show off his chops. Either way, is this not the most post-internet-y pre-internet painting you’ve ever seen?
Caravaggio: Genie in a Bottle
In 1922, one of Caravaggio’s most acclaimed painting, a 1597 oil painting of Bacchus, was cleaned by Italian restorer, who realized there seemed to be a face within the wine carafe in the lower left-hand side of the painting. But over the next few decades, the face disappeared due to poor restoration efforts (all the dark areas on the canvas were even repainted). But then, in 2009, a cutting-edge technology called multispectral reflectography was used on the painting revealing a very crisp-clear image of what the Italian restorer had thought he’d seen in 1922: a portrait of the artist himself while he was painting, with an arm held out toward a canvas on an easel.
Da Vinci Plays with His Food in The Last Supper
There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories that accompany Da Vinci’s The Last Supper—whether or not any of them are more than just that, conspiracy, we’ll never know. One of these theories begins with the half-moon window centered above Christ, which, according to Vatican researcher Sabrina Sforza Galitzia, contain a “mathematical and astrological” puzzle involving signs of the zodiac and the use of the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet (representing the 24 hours of the day). Luckily, Galitzia herself has supposedly solved it. Somehow, it reveals Da Vinci’s prediction that the world will end via apocalyptic flood on November 1, 4006. Add that to you Google calendar.
A more gratifying easter egg hidden in The Last Supper was found in 2007 by Italian musician Giovanna Maria Pala, who found a hidden clue among the seemingly random scattering of bread rolls across the table. If five horizontal lines are drawn across the table like a staff, and each bread roll and hand is read as a note, then we find ourselves with a composition that sounds like a requiem, a repose for the souls of the dead. Our mothers told us not to play with our food, but they didn’t say anything about playing our food! Hear the “requiem” below: