Look for the concealed meanings and hidden figures in these historical masterpieces
There’s often far more encoded in a canvas than first meets the eye. One of the great joys of looking at historical art is trying to unravel the intentions of the artist and decipher the meanings these works would have had in their day. Here, we put 5 of history’s great masterpieces under the microscope.
The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger
European Renaissance art is known for its love of symbolism, not least in so-called "vanitas still lives" where earthly pleasures told complex stories. In this painting by Hans Holbein the Younger we see two men of the Tudor court surrounded by musical instruments, globes and the most high-tech gadgets of the day. At first glance, it seems to be a straightforward celebration of wealth, education and influence. Until you notice the grey disk in the foreground.
When viewed from the bottom-left this elongated object focuses into a human skull, in what would have been the equivalent of a VR experience for viewers at the time. This acted as a "memento mori", a reminder to anyone who saw it that even the most fabulously rich would die someday, so you better live the most devout life you can.
The Night Watch, Rembrandt
Few paintings have come to sum up the pride of a nation in the same way as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s masterpiece The Night Watch (1642). It depicts one of the militia companies of the early Dutch Republic, responsible for keeping law and order as the nation forged its independence from the Spanish Empire. Instead of a formidable fighting force, however, Rembrandt shows the company as a shambolic cross section of society, all the more noble for their normality.
The painting is often held up as one of the great depictions of democracy, where ordinary people can do extraordinary things. It's clear Rembrandt empathized, because if you zoom in and peek over the shoulder of the guard with a chinstrap in the center of the painting, you can see what is thought to be the artist’s eye peering out.
La Primavera (Spring), Botticelli Filipepi
It’s hard to comprehend how radical Sandro Botticelli’s painting La Primavera (spring) (1481-82) would have been for viewers in 15th century Florence. Before this, large-scale European paintings tended to focus on delivering Christian sermons rather than presenting art as pleasure, and certainly would not have shown pagan rites.
Here, we see ancient gods and goddesses such as Venus, Cupid and Chloris set against a riot of foliage. Such a riot, in fact, that experts have identified 500 individual plants from over 200 species hidden in the painting, representing the entire flora of springtime Tuscany. La Primavera’s meticulous depiction of the natural world marks the dawn of humanism in previously dogmatic Europe: a new spring indeed.
Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer deliberately alienates the viewer through the composition and perspective of this painting. The placement of the two figures at the back of the canvas, behind furniture and musical instruments, gives the clear sense that they are not expecting to be watched. The woman is playing a virginal – so called because of its purity of sound – that is inscribed with the Latin for "music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow".
There's mystery surrounding the relationship between these subjects as well. If you look carefully at the mirror positioned above the virginal, you can see that the player’s eyes have wandered from the keys. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between the musician and her teacher? Is it romantic? Vermeer leaves it for the viewer to guess.
The Dutch Proverbs, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The meaning of this painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder isn’t exactly hidden – the title The Dutch Proverbs (1559) says it all. What is fascinating, however, is the sheer number of meanings concealed on the canvas, with researchers identifying 112 colloquialisms.
Bruegel the Elder pioneered this riotous style in Netherlandish Painting, having been heavily influenced by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Whereas Bosch focused on the demonic and surreal, Bruegel depicted everyday village life in extraordinary detail. Some of the sayings in this painting are still familiar today whilst others have disappeared into the mists of time. How many you can identify?
“To pull the wool over your eyes”
“To go against the tide”
“Like knocking your head against a brick wall”
“No use crying over spilt milk”