Ever since Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code, the Internet has been awash with people trying to solve the “mysteries” of great art. From aliens in Renaissance paintings to countless conspiracies involving the Mona Lisa, there’s been no dumb stone left unturned. However, there is some truth to these ideas.
Not all theories about a work’s meaning are so crazy, since some manage to be both completely convincing and utterly mind-blowing. Curious much? Let’s find out more about 10 works of art and their hidden messages.
10. A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph Actually Shows A Brutal Murder
Painted by Piero di Cosimo in 1495, A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph supposedly depicts a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In that story, Procris is accidentally killed in the woods when her hunter husband Cephalus mistakes her for a wild beast and hurls a spear through her. It’s a typical choice of scene for a Renaissance artist, with only one problem. A close examination proves there’s no way Cosimo’s Procris could have been killed by accident. This probably wasn’t intentional. Professor Baum suspects Cosimo asked the local morgue to loan him a corpse for the painting and just happened to get a murder victim.
9. Diego Rivera Implies J.D. Rockefeller Jr. Had Syphilis
Diego Rivera’s Man, Controller Of The Universe is one of Mexican art’s biggest paintings—literally and figuratively. Originally commissioned for the Rockefeller Center but reconstructed in Mexico City after Nelson Rockefeller took issue with its depiction of Lenin and had it destroyed, it’s one of the 20th century’s iconic works. It’s also a monumental act of revenge. The mural claims Nelson Rockefeller’s father had syphilis. That wasn’t all he did. Despite J.D. Rockefeller Jr. being a lifelong teetotaler, Rivera drew him with a martini and a woman who may be a prostitute. For added effect, he stuck Lenin in a prominent position.
8. Isabella Features A Man Hiding His Erection
One of the leading lights of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, John Everett Millais is probably best known today for his Ophelia. At least, he was until 2012, when researchers discovered something unexpected lurking in his early painting Isabella. Featuring a bunch of characters from Boccaccio’s Decameron sitting around a table at a feast, it also includes what looks unmistakably like the shadow of an erection.
7. La Primavera Is A Love Letter To Horticulture
One of the most famous paintings in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery (which is saying something), Botticelli’s La Primavera is also one of the most mysterious. Featuring a group of women in a heaven-like meadow, experts still argue over its allegorical meaning. But there’s one theory that stands out from all the others, in terms of evidence and strangeness—some claim it’s all about horticulture. With all this attention to flowers, some aficionados barely register the human figures standing above. It’s even been said that the painting represents “not so much high culture as horticulture.”
6. The Music Lesson Is Kinky As Heck
Painted by Johannes Vermeer in the 1660s, The Music Lesson is considered one of the greatest portraits of 17th-century Dutch life. Featuring a young girl being taught to play a type of harpsichord called a virginal by her handsome tutor, it’s a photo-realistic depiction of a typical upper-class day in Vermeer’s world. At least, that’s the standard explanation. Another view is that it’s all to do with sex and hidden lust. It’s not just this one painting. Some art critics contend the presence of music in Vermeer always symbolizes sexuality, making his oeuvre deeply kinky.
5. Cafe Terrace At Night Is About The Last Supper
Painted in 1888, Cafe Terrace At Night is one of Van Gogh’s most important works. It’s also one of his most beloved, featuring a classic Van Gogh take on an ordinary scene. But another school of thought claims there’s something much deeper at play. According to a recent theory, Cafe Terrace At Night is really about the Last Supper. There’s contemporary evidence to back this claim up. When Van Gogh wrote to his brother about the painting, he claimed the world had a “tremendous need” for religion.
4. An Allegory With Venus And Cupid Is About Syphilis
A painting that shows Venus and Cupid getting it on while a bald guy watches and a man screams in the background was always going to be unsettling. Even by the standards of its subject, though, Agnolo Bronzino’s Allegory With Venus And Cupid is dark. Despite being described as an erotic picture “of singular beauty,” there’s a lot of evidence that it’s really a warning about syphilis. It gets darker. The child showering Venus and Cupid with flowers appears to have pierced his foot on a rose thorn without noticing. Such a lack of sensation would directly result from syphilitic myelopathy.
3. El Autobus Is About A Horrible Crash
Painted by legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in 1929, El Autobus is famous for showing a cross-section of Mexican society living side by side. A housewife, blue-collar worker, Native American mother, and rich gringo businessman are all waiting for a bus, along with a girl who is probably meant to be Frida herself. If that’s the case, then the painting has a much darker subtext. All of its subjects are about to be in a horrific accident. In 1925, Kahlo was on a bus that crashed headlong into a trolley car. The wreck was so bad that Kahlo was impaled on a metal handrail, leaving her in agony for the rest of her life.
2. The Dutch School’s Paintings Within Paintings
The Dutch Golden Age of painting is second only to the Italian Renaissance in stature. Like other eras, it had its own little quirks of style, like artists including other paintings in the background of their pictures. These “paintings within paintings” weren’t just Vermeer and his pals showing off. They contained a special symbolic code telling you exactly how to read each image. Go looking, and you’ll find hundreds of examples of these Dutch “paintings within paintings,” each one subtly altering the meaning of the larger image.
1. L.S. Lowry’s Work Is Full Of Hidden Suffering
A mid-20th-century painter known for depicting northwest England, L.S. Lowry was famous for painting vast urban scenes with crowds of “matchstick men.” Although he was popular, the art world dismissed his paintings as trivial for a long time. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Like a sadistic Where’s Waldo, Lowry’s paintings are filled with hidden flashes of human suffering.