Hidden messages in Renaissance art

Michelangelo may have put hidden images of the human brain in some of his religious art.

Are there other examples of this, hidden messages or hidden images in art from that period? I know with modern films, directors like to put easter eggs and hidden messages in them. I’m sure art is no different.

Really it doesn’t have to be Renaissance art, just any pre-industrial art.

looks to be a bit of a stretch to me

In The Last Supper by da Vinci, plotting the positions of everyone’s hands and the bread rolls on the table on a musical staff makes a nice, very harmonic piece of music. There are lots of youtube videos of the piece being played. Composers seem to agree that it would require a deliberate effort to arrange and wasn’t likely to be accidental.

Both could be mere chance, but IMO it isn’t really that much of a stretch. These guys inspired the term renaissance man. When approaching the creation of an epic piece of art in one medium it seems only natural and fitting to the times that they would incorporate their knowledge of other mediums - in these cases human anatomy and musical composition - into their works.

A recent novel that goes into great detail about hidden meanings in Renaissance paintings in the Prado in Madrid is The Master of the Prado by Javier Sierra.
The edition I read had colour reproductions of all the paintings discussed and the descriptions of the art was accurate, whatever faith you put in the ascribed meaning.

Holbein’s The Ambassadors contains a distorted (anamorphic) skull. In this case, there’s no question that that’s what it is.

The mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait shows the witnesses, but it’s disputed whether there’s a message intended there or not. There’s a lot of other symbolism, like the dog, but it’s not hidden.

How “hidden” do you mean?

Lots of paintings of that period had coded messages that were clearly intended. They weren’t as deeply hidden (or as ambiguous and controversial) as the ones in the OP, but they were clearly messages that weren’t necessarily obvious to modern eyes.

One is The Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, painted in 1559. The painting depicts literal illustrations of over 100 proverbs. A few of these are familiar enough even today (“Belling the cat” , from the Aesop fable; “Armed to the teeth”), but most require some explanation. And quite a few are pretty …earthy:

These wouldn’t exactly be hidden to people at the time. It’s kind of like the 1960s cover of an issue of Boy’s Life I have that’s covered with such literal puns (a tree with a Square Root, A Driving Rain guiding a Football Coach… you get the idea)

Others are less obvious. Exactly what most of the meanings in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings, a generation earlier than the elder Brueghel, is still debated. I can make rguments for several of the things in his so-called Garden of Earthly Delights*, but the majority of images in this and several of his other paitings is still open to dispute. I, for one, don’t acceopt the weirdo assertions of Wilhelm Fraenger, which gets a lot of publicity just because his interpretations are so odd.

Another odd thing about a couple of Bosch paintings – his Saint John on Patmos ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St.John_the_Evangelist_on_Patmos ) bears a startling resemblance to the Groom in his painting of The Wedding Feast at Cana ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Marriage_Feast_at_Cana(Bosch) ) . This is probably because of a medieval legend that held that the groom WAS John, who when he saw the miracle of wine and water was so convinced of the divinity of Christ that he forsook his wife and immediately became a disciple. Again, this was likely more familiar to people of the day than to people today. Is it a “:hiddemn meaning” or not?

*It would help if we knew what Bosch himself called the painting. This name wasn’t applied to it until well after his death. The earliest name we have for it is The Strawberry Plant.

Did Michelangelo know what the cross section of a human brain looked like?

If you play it backwards, it says “Michelangelo is dead”.


He started dissecting bodies when he was 18, so yeah, I think he did.

His dissections seem to be mostly of the musculo-skeletal system, to help him illustrate figures - not the deep structures of the brain.

I suppose it is possible that he meant this as a hidden message, but it is pretty well hidden AFAICT.


How do you know? Certainly one of his contemporaries braggedabout doing *exactly *that to impress a potential client: Baccio Bandinelli: "I will show you that I know how to dissect the brain, and also living men, as I have dissected dead ones to learn my art”
And Leonardo’s own sketches show that he did a lot more than just surface dissection.

So why do you think Michelangelo was any different?

Wow, lots of things to look at. Why are the pizzas on the roof? The archer doesn’t seem to be shooting at anything, although there are flying geese elsewhere.


To have a roof tiled with tarts is to be very wealthy and/or live in a fool’s paradise.

He’s shooting a second bolt to find the first. (Dutch proverb describing foolish, misdirected perseverance)

If you scroll around on this siteit will explain some of the proverbs in that painting.

So did the site I linked to.

I like the one I linked to better than wikipedia simply because it isn’t wikipedia. But also it is more interactive. (but, not as complete)

Interesting you should mention that, even if in a facetious manner, because da Vinci actually wrote backwards - or more precisely used mirrored writing. You could read his writing if held up to a mirror, like the way “ambulance” is written on the front of ambulances. Nobody knows exactly why he did this. He could also write normally. But it serves as another example of how he did mentally-difficult things simply because he could, and enjoyed using the supercomputer we all come equipped with to the fullest extent he could. This very well could include putting ‘easter eggs’ in various works.