Decoding the Secrets of Great Artworks

Get beneath the surface and discover art's hidden codes and curiosities

By Google Arts & Culture

The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein the YoungerThe National Gallery, London

Sometimes, even in representational art, all is not quite as it appears. Scroll on to pull back the curtain and reveal some of art history's secret codes and hidden messages...

Terrace of a café at night (Place du Forum) (c. 16 September 1888) by Vincent van GoghThe Kröller-Müller Museum

Café Terrace at Night, Vincent Van Gogh

Painted in 1888, Café Terrace at Night is one of Van Gogh’s most famous works. The image shows a street in the French city of Arles. The artificial light from the nearby café illuminates much of the scene, while the background is dotted with windows and the sky lit up by stars. 

Some experts have speculated that this is actually Van Gogh’s version of The Last Supper. The central, Jesus-like figure is surrounded by 12 people, one of whom, like Judas, is slipping off into the shadows. There also appear to be a number of crucifixes dotted around the scene, emphasising the work's religious overtones.

The Last Supper (c.1515-20) by Attributed to Giampietrino and Giovanni Antonio BoltraffioRoyal Academy of Arts

The Last Supper

This brings us neatly to The Last Supper itself, painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 15th century (shown here in a 1520 copy by Giampietrino). One of the most famous artworks in the world, the painting has long been the subject of speculation and creative interpretation. 

One popular theory is that the layout of the bread and crockery on the table is supposed to represent musical notes. When put together, these create a short 40-second hymn. Having music hidden within the piece definitely helps to bring the work to life and gives us a tantalising glimpse into the creative mind of Da Vinci. 

The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein the YoungerThe National Gallery, London

The Ambassadors

Painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1533, The Ambassadors is one of the most famous works from the Tudor period. Almost every object in the picture is there to symbolize something, making this a favorite for code breakers everywhere. 

The most intriguing secret contained in this painting can be found right at the front of the image – an anamorphic skull that can only be seen clearly when viewed from the correct angle. A stark memento mori, it also shows off Holbein's talent with perspective. 

Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 1564 or 1565 – Antwerp 1638)Rockoxhuis

Netherlandish Proverbs

Netherlandish Proverbs was painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1559. The busy scene is filled with people and animals, many of which tell the stories of old Dutch proverbs. In fact, the painting is so action packed, you can spot a saying or phrase almost everywhere you look.

Many of these sayings are still in common use. For example, this man here is ‘banging his head against a brick wall’. 

While this figure is ‘swimming against the tide’.

And this man is ‘armed to the teeth’.

Altogether, there are around 126 proverbs and idioms contained within the image, though it’s possible the scene contains more sayings that have since fallen out of use. This makes it one of the most code-packed paintings around. 

Children’s Games (1560) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Learn more about Pieter Bruegel the Elder here.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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