Art's Greatest Hidden Meanings

Discover the clandestine messages you might have missed in some of the world's greatest artworks

By Google Arts & Culture

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

Great art is able to convey so much more than just colour and form. It can communicate emotions and ideas, tell stories and even challenge and confuse. Not all of this is immediately evident and it can take time and effort to work out the true meaning of any work.    

For the most part, the artist wants the viewer to understand the context and meaning of any painting. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes artists include hidden messages in their work, hiding them away so that only a select few people can understand their true significance.
Below we look at five paintings and discover the hidden messages not everybody was supposed to see. 

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

Café Terrace at Night

Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Painted in 1888, Van Gogh’s classic is one of his most recognizable works. The scene depicts a seemingly ordinary café on a cobbled street. A waiter stands to take an order while patrons sit around leisurely. 

However, scholars have begun to believe the painting features an homage to Leonardo da Vinci. The twelve figures at the back sit beneath what looks like a cross. It also transpires Van Gogh declared a ‘tremendous need for religion’ in a letter to his brother around this time. 

The 12 sit along one side of their tables, like Leonardo's disciples, and a shadowy figure departs the scene like Judas.

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

The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci, 1490s

Of course, The Last Supper itself is said to contain hidden messages. As one of the most famous paintings in history, and a deeply important religious work, it's not surprising that people have often looked hard for deeper meanings.

In 2007, an Italian musician claimed to have found a selection of musical notes in the painting, hidden in bread rolls and other table features. When played they create a 40-second composition. It’s not impossible, given that Leonardo was a fine musician himself.

El Autobus

Frida Kahlo, 1929

Not all hidden meanings are meant to be publicly discovered. This is especially true of Kahlo’s El Autobus. What appears to be a simple depiction of Mexican society laid out on a wooden bench at a bus stop may have a more personal tone.

Four years before she painted it, Kahlo had been involved in a bus accident that left a permanent scar. The woman to the right of the picture appears to be Kahlo and the man in the blue overalls apparently bears a striking resemblance to the man who pulled an iron bar from her stomach after the accident.   

Blitzed Site (1942 - 1942) by LS LowryThe Lowry

An Accident

L.S. Lowry, 1926

L.S Lowry’s pictures are renowned for depicting working class life in the north west during the early to mid 20th century. His matchstick figures have entered the popular consciousness, even inspiring a song.

However, his pictures are more than just happy matchstick people going about their day. Many contain small scenes of hardship and despair. This is particularly true of 1926’s An Accident which may feature a scene inspired by a local tragedy – giving his works a much deeper social meaning. 

Pai Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel.LIFE Photo Collection

The Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo, 1477-1480

One of the great figures of the Renaissance, Michelangelo took years to create his masterpiece on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. However, there may be more on display than simply incredible beauty.

Art historians believe his work contains several hidden anatomical sketches, including an image of the human brain, disguised in the creation scene. This is believed to be a criticism of the Church’s attitudes to the science and discovery that was happening all around. 

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

Now you know about some of art's great hidden meanings. You can find out more about da Vinci and how he painted 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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