1. The Sistine Chapel
There may not be another place in the world that houses as much artistic genius as the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City, where the ceiling frescos created by Michelangelo are widely considered to be many of the greatest contributions to Western civilization.
To add to an already stunning array of Biblical depictions are a host of shrouded images and hidden meanings.
Michelangelo had years to complete his magnum opus, as he spent his time up on the scaffolding working on the frescos from 1508 to 1512.
Undoubtedly, the most notable of all the works under this chapel’s roof is “The Creation of Adam,” the iconic piece where God and Adam’s fingers extend to one another (presumably the Renaissance version of bumping fists).
2. ‘The Creation of Adam’ – Michelangelo
Before diving into the REALLY mind blowing one, we’ll start with a fascinating “alternative” theory some art experts have presented. The idea presented is that God, surrounded by his red cloak, represents the gift of life via the birth process.
Not buying it yet?
That big red cloak protecting God is thought to represent the womb, while the green scarf flowing downward represents the umbilical cord. What’s most convincing about this theory is that Adam has a belly button. That sure doesn’t seem like someone “created” by God would need if not birthed.
Intriguing as this interpretation is, it pales in comparison to the much more popular belief…
3. Brain anatomy
It’s most widely believed that God and His angels surrounded by the cloak all make up the composition of the human brain. Just check out the mind-blowing (too easy?) anatomy traced along what is an uncanny resemblance to a cross section of the brain.
Don’t pass the notion off too easy. Michelangelo dove in deep studying human anatomy by dissecting corpses, so he’s surely put a brain or two under the knife to know exactly how it looks.
Then again, who knows, maybe this is just the most epic pareidolia ever.. us humans looove seeing ourselves in stuff that has nothing to do with us (FYI, for an explanation of pareidolia, stick around for the next slide).
4. ‘The Separation of Light from Darkness’ – Michelangelo
Wondering what that word ‘pareidolia’ was all about? Well, for the Sistine Chapel nonbelievers this may be another example, as it means interpreting random objects as shapes and figures that aren’t actually there. Think: cloud gazing.
Or think the Sistine Chapel, where a mere two images away from “The Creation of Adam“ is “The Separation of Light from Darkness.”
Many interpret this piece as a second representation of the human brain from another perspective. Before chalking this one up to pareidolia, though, simply consider the title of this piece. The allusion of God’s gift of light in Genesis to the mind’s “enlightened” state sure does make a lot of sense.
5. ‘The Prophet Zechariah’ – Michelangelo
We’re talking about the Sistine Chapel, so of course this isn’t going to be as straight forward as it looks, which is good, because this wouldn’t exactly be the most exciting piece to talk about. “Here’s an old man reading to some kids. The end.” Yeah, not much there.
Not even close. There’s actually something quite sinister going on in this painting of two little angels looking over Zechariah’s shoulder, and the good prophet doesn’t have a clue.
We can thank Pope Julius II for commissioning Michelangelo to do something else before the famed chapel. But first, a closer look…
6. Flipping the fig
Now that we’re up close and personal, check out the hand of the little “angel” whose arm is draped around his pal. See how his finger is kind of separate? It’s hard to see, but he’s got his thumb tucked between there. GASP.
The little man’s flipping Big Z the fig!
The fig was to this time what raising a middle finger all by its lonesome is to us today.
So why’s this baby hating on Zechariah? Pope Julius II—remember, he hired Michelangelo to do all of this—had commissioned the great artist to design his tomb only to cut funding after years of work.
Hard to argue with Michelangelo for feeling salty. That may also explain why Zechariah looks a whole lot like Pope Julius II too.
7. ‘David and Goliath’ – Michelangelo
Michelangelo’s “David and Goliath“ fresco is a pretty straightforward one, as far as his Biblical illustrations covering the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel go.
Standing with a sword raised above his head is David (Michelangelo loves David), as he grabs some of Goliath’s giant locks and prepares to give one of the worst haircuts imaginable.
After David rips a sling shot off the dome of Goliath, knocking the behemoth face first into the ground, he cuts off his head. (You can never be too sure when it comes to teaching someone a lesson.)
Michelangelo sought to capture that moment, but adds a pretty cool extra something, something, because like everyone else, he’s a huge Dan Brown fan and loves secret stuff like in The Da Vinci Code.
8. Hebrew symbolism
This piece proves to be a shining example of how every great piece of art should have no “wasted space” and put every detail to use. David’s stance is a very intentional one, as his positioning over Goliath creates a ‘gimel,’ a letter from the Hebrew alphabet.
Now assuming Michelangelo’s master plan went a bit further than hiding the Hebrew alphabet all around the chapel, this particular ‘gimel’ meaning (there are a whole bunch of ways the language translates) represents gevurah, which means strength.
So, David’s subversive moment of triumph represents strength. Michelangelo got to the point a bit faster.
9. ‘Café Terrace at Night’ – Vincent van Gogh
Amongst Vincent Van Gogh’s many classic paintings is his Café Terrace at Night. At a glance, it looks like little more than a beautiful night at a French bistro. Upon closer inspection, however, there are some pretty unmistakable biblical references.
Let’s start right underneath that big glowing light shining down on the lovely waiter, serving all these hungry French fellas. Hmm, looks like there are 12 seated patrons, waiting for their dinner. Some might even say… supper?
Awww snap, now we’re getting somewhere. If we got 12 peeps gathered for supper than surely there must be Jesus somewhere. Hmm, it couldn’t be the waiter, standing right in the middle, draped in white and STANDING IN FRONT OF A CROSS (window), could it?
10. ‘Primavera’ – Sandro Botticelli
No surprise here that yet another masterpiece is loaded up with all sorts of crazy secret stuff was the product of another Italian Renaissance painter. Sandro Botticelli’s work, “Primavera“ is steeped in controversy, as the the convoluted amalgamation of Greek mythology leads down endless roads to different conclusions.
Toss all that stuff aside.
What’s absolutely bananas about this painting is the excruciating detail to the scenery. Since “Primavera” translates to “spring,” it makes a lot of sense that this lush garden is bursting with life.
Take it slow and drink in the details, because a staggering number of over 500 identified plant species painted throughout this bad boy.
11. ‘Madonna with Saint Giovannino’ – Domenico Ghirlandaio
Italian Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio had a massive influence through both his own work and the numerous apprentices he took under his wing, including the great Michelangelo.
Gherlandaio is known for his works depicting religious narratives in modern settings. One common motif across his works seems to be flying objects in the background.
Whether it’s birds or angels, the floating images are usually unmistakable, fitting in with whatever narrative the painting focuses on.
Then there’s this showstopper, ‘Madonna with Saint Giovannino.’ All right, we got Madonna holding these cute little babies and… wait a sec, what’s this dude on the right looking up at?
Sweet mother of ships! Did that baby angel just come out of a UFO to drop off its’ saint, alien, baby bro?!
From afar, that looks like little more than a floating bubble, which isn’t all that uncommon when illustrating angels in religious scenes, but a closeup of this thing offers such bizarre detail.
Go ahead and pass this one off as a holy ship that transports its wingless angels about, but there’s no way this meticulous attention to detail doesn’t serve a greater purpose.
While we’re talking aliens, we might as well address the elephant in the room and admit that either we’re insanely out of shape, or that baby saint was sculpted by God himself. Fella’s sporting a six pack that is out of this world.
13. ‘Supper at Emmaus’ – Caravaggio
After the groundbreaking period of the High Renaissance that saw some of the most well-known artistic pieces of all time created, Italy birthed the Baroque era, ushering in a new form of dramatic imagery.
Italy’s Caravaggio was at the head of this movement, fashioning gripping scenes by contrasting bright foregrounds engulfed in shadowy darkness.
On two separate occasions Caravaggio was commissioned to paint a scene of Jesus’ resurrection. While this first rendition of “Supper at Emmaus” (pictured above) is actually far less engulfed in shadows than his later work, the lighter setting opens up a neat little Easter egg opportunity.
Remember those awesome hidden picture puzzles in Highlights kids’ magazine where random objects are buried in a busy scene? This is like the OG, way less fun, least kid-friendly version of that. A resurrected Jesus revealing himself to his disciples can only be so much “fun.”
Hint: It has to do with Jesus.
Find it? Take a look at the food laid out on the table. Right away, the basket of fruit sticks out, as it dangerously hangs over the edge. Hold up! Baskets of fruit usually don’t cast a fish shadow.
Caravaggio would have been an epic Highlights illustrator. Then again, the symbol of a Christian identifier shown as Jesus revealing himself may be a whoosh bit over the average eight-year-old’s head.
15. ‘Young Woman Powdering Herself’ – Georges Seurat
French post-Impressionist Georges Seurat is most famous for his pointillist piece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” But some people might be more familiar with another piece by Seurat: “That huge painting in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off we stare at closer and closer and closer.”
Probably better that piece than “Young Woman Powdering Herself” for a couple reasons.
First, this isn’t just any woman – it is Madeleine Knobloch, Seurat’s mistress, whom he kept a secret relationship with. The original version of this painting gets even more scandalous, and kind of creepy, when X-rays revealed Seurat had originally included himself peering in through the window, painting her.
It’s believed Seurat removed himself at the advice of a friend. Shout out to that friend. Great call.
16. ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ – Jan van Eyck
“The Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan van Eyck of the Early Netherlands doesn’t initially jump out as unique. That is, unless we consider the Italian merchant on the left who looks more like some kind of spooky alien or undead vampire hybrid, but that’s for another time.
The oil painting was created in 1434 layers upon layers of glazes to give the image bold, glowing color, but that’s just the start of the realistic detail. By far the craziest part of this piece is dead center, but not the focal point at all.
Let’s get a closer look at this thing…
17. Trippy mirror
What the… How did… Whoa.
Van Eyck’s mastery is present in every last detail in this mirror shot. The convex mirror behind them—it’s curved like a fisheye lens—reflects the room in its entirety exactly as this type of mirror should.
From the couple being painted to their room’s surroundings, van Eyck got it all.
In what must have been a painstakingly arduous process, van Eyck was able to accurately represent the curvature of the objects as reflected in the mirror.
As if this picture-perfect mirror isn’t enough, we get some bonus mystery in the form of two extra figures not shown in the normal view. Presumably one is van Eyck, but only the mirror, mirror on the wall knows who the other person with them is.
18. ‘The Ambassadors’ – Hans Holbein the Younger
First off, Hans Holbein the Younger easily has one of those names that just sounds fantastic. The crazy skill the German portraitist brought to the easel during the Tudor period only proves that he deserved a cool name like that.
Take this ginormous piece, “The Ambassadors,” Holbein created of French diplomats Jean de Dinteville (left) and Georges de Selve (right). This bad boy comes in at just shy of six feet wide by six feet tall.
From the table overflowing with a garage sale worth of stuff to the whacky looking shape below, our young Holbein left a treasure trove of Easter eggs in this behemoth.
19. Warped skull
What is going on with this trippy skull?
As we’ll discuss later, these two smarty pants are all up on that knowledge grind, specifically that mathematician action.
When looking at this painting straight on, the skull looks all warped out of whack like it’s been stretched out.
Step way over to the right of the painting and look down at the elongated skull at just the right angle and… wait for it… magic! Once, at that perfect downward angle, the skull’s shape warps to look like a totally normal human skull.
Cool trick and all, but there’s a purpose to this impressive feat.
20. Ode to intelligence
There are hidden little Easter eggs from top to bottom, even the ambassadors’ ages are a fun “ I spy”—de Selve’s age (25) is on the book he rests his elbow on, and Dintville’s age (29) on his dagger—game.
Those numbers aren’t nearly as important as the rest of this piece’s homage to higher intellect and mathematics.
Check that globe on the top shelf. That isn’t any old globe, it’s a celestial one, depicting the constellations. This symbol alludes to all of these other scientific devices and instruments for time like the crazy advanced polyhedral sundials (it hurts the brain to imagine how that even works) represents the heavens.
Back down to earth we go.
21. Divided church
Starting on the left, the bottom shelf’s globe is a terrestrial one, symbolizing life on earth. A math book and instrument sit beside a book of sheet music and lute, but an even closer look reveals the lute has a broken string.
This is likely “discord” in the world (#Pun game strong). This may represent the struggle between religion and academics. Not convinced? Well, way up in the top left corner lies a half-concealed cross, which may further illustrate the division of the church.
From death below to life, the heavens, and a representation of resurrection above, there is a crazy amount of stuff going on here.
22. ‘The Last Supper’ – Leonardo da Vinci
It seems like every time Leonardo da Vinci stepped up to a blank canvas, he left behind an all-time marvel. There’s a reason he is the quintessential Renaissance man. His mural, “The Last Supper,” in the refectory of Italy’s Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, is no exception. Other than the Mona Lisa, it is probably his best-known work.
Even the depiction of Jesus and his disciples being in the room where people gather to eat in this classic image is awesomely meta.
Now let’s get to the bounty of secrets and hidden images scattered about this enormous piece that measures 15 feet high and nearly 30 feet wide.
23. Easter eggs
There’s a lot to take with this piece due to the sheer enormity of its size and there being 12 disciples to inspect, with their individual and unique reactions to Jesus’ revelation that (Spoiler alert!) one of them is going to betray him.
Let’s start with Thomas, the first guy to Jesus’ left (our right).
Notice how Thomas is pointing at Jesus. This may allude to the Biblical passage when Jesus rises from the dead. Thomas can’t believe his eyes, so he goes right on ahead and gives Jesus the ol’ fish hook treatment (zing), poking his flesh to see if he’s real.
Then we have Judas, turning the other way, not paying attention as he spills the salt (a representation of betrayal or bad luck) and is about to take that bread Jesus is reaching for… classic Judas.
24. Musical masterpiece
This part gets ridiculous.
Leonardo’s execution of the golden ratio is one way of delivering the most pleasurable, symmetrical imagery possible, but the math translates outside the realm of just numbers. It’s believed that Leo dropped a song right into the painting. Like, it IS the painting.
That’s right, it has actually been theorized that the placement of everyone’s hands and loaves of bread are not strewn about mindlessly, but in a manner that literally creates a musical composition. It sounds eccentric, but the flawless symmetry from top to bottom adds merit to this master’s harmony in every sense imaginable.
25. ‘The Battle of Marciano’ – Giorgio Vasari
Giorgi Vasari is, shocker, yet another Italian Renaissance man whose masterpiece, “The Battle of Marciano,” is steeped in a steaming hot cup of mystery.
This fresco is enormous, taking up the entire length of two walls lining the Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio.
The intricate piece has tons of soldiers crammed into every inch, leaving room for viewers to find something new in the gigantic space every time.
Before seeing the hidden image though, it’s important to know what is not there at all. Nearly 50 years prior to Vasari’s painting, a piece called “The Battle of Anghiari” was painted by Leonardo da Vinci only to be lost to time… or so we thought.
26. Cerca trova
There are historical documents that come as close as possible to actually proving Leonardo’s piece once stood in the Palazzo Vecchio. After hiding in plain sight for hundreds of years a possible clue was discovered in the shape of a small little green flag with the inscription “cerca trova.”
“Seek and ye shall find.”
How deviously Leonardo does this mystery sound?!
The discovery of this clue was convincing enough that researchers were actually allowed to (very carefully) probe around behind Vasari’s. They found the holy grail after reporting the search behind the painting revealed “traces of pigments that appear to have been used exclusively by Leonardo.”
Just when the discovery gave conspiracy lovers the ultimate gift of hope, the intrusive research was shut down in order to preserve Vasari’s historic masterpiece. Heart shattered.
27. ‘Bacchus’ – Caravaggio
Magnificent as Caravaggio’s influence on Baroque painting and contributions to art were, he was a star who burned as fast as he did bright, dying at the young age of 38. This piece, “Bacchus,” was one of his most notable works for one of his earliest financiers, Cardinal Del Monte.
Though Caravaggio was only about 24 years old at the time, he had clearly already mastered the art of the Easter egg, because the precision required for such a microscopic detail gives the word “intricate” a whole new meaning.
No point even trying to spot this one, it’s so invisible.
Even with the extreme closeup, you may need microscopes for eyes (plus some imagination to fill out the details).
There is something special in that pitcher of wine, and no, it isn’t just the wine. Squint those eyes and get up close to the screen to get a view of Caravaggio’s teeny tiny self-portrait.
Right in the center of the glass beside the white reflection, you can make out Caravaggio’s head. The next part is even tougher, but a bit farther to the right, below the white dots is a barely visible cross. That cross is the easel that the canvas he’s painting rests on.
Craziest of all is that this FULL painting is 37 inches by 33 inches, meaning that self-portrait is smalllllll!
29. ‘Mona Lisa’ – Leonardo da Vinci
Here it is: The godfather of all conspiracy theory subjects, Leonardo da Vinci, coupled with the mother of all conspiracy theory subjects, the “Mona Lisa.”
From her completely nondescript half-kind-of-but-not-quite smile to the darkest depths of the even more illegible background, the more this masterpiece is analyzed the more mysterious is seems to get.
Mona Lisa—widely believed to be Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, who supposedly commissioned the piece to celebrate the birth of his second child—is actually believed by many to be pregnant!
Details that hint at this are so subtle they’re nearly invisible. Her gently crossed arms appear to rest over her stomach in a manner that indicates pregnancy (contemporaries have depicted the same). The painting was also created around the time that she was believed to have given birth to her second child, and 3-D imaging found a thin veil that pregnant women of the time were known to wear.
30. Seeing numbers
Now for the mini secrets Leo sprinkled all over for us.
There are numbers and letters scattered about. Start with her right eye, which contains the initials “LV” (presumably for Leonardo da Vinci). While a microscope is needed to see any of this (the man’s got some steady hands), the left eye is even harder to make out, but it’s believed to contain the letters “CE” or “B.” What that means is anyone’s guess.
In the background, that tiny bridge somehow contains itty bitty lettering on the arch that either reads “72” or “L2.” Considering that’s either a number or letter, guessing its meaning isn’t exactly easy.
Then there are far crazier discoveries, or at least what some are convinced were intentionally added details. Graphic designer Ron Piccirillo is convinced he discovered three animal heads—horse, boar, crocodile—in the background. Ehh, we’ll let you be the judge of that one.
One thing we do know is that golden ratioed looker will continue to mock our desperation with that smile for years and years to come.