You can never take art at face value. Many creatives weave hidden symbols and meanings into their work. Some come across right away, while others take years to uncover. And then there are the conspiracy theories – even the most iconic masterpieces are subject to those too. Here are 20 of the most shocking claims made about some of the world’s most well-known works of art.
20. Anthony Quinn’s Facets of Liberty predicted 9/11
Glenn Harte’s 2017 book, The Prophetic Imagery of Anthony Quinn, claimed that the Academy Award-winning actor and artist had “precognitive skills.” In one example, Harte described how the ghost of post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin supposedly visited Quinn on the set of Lust for Life. The visit taught the actor how to hold a paintbrush properly, thus making his performance in the film so good that he won an Oscar for it.
But Quinn’s supposed psychic powers did more than improve his acting career. Harte told the The Hollywood Reporter that Quinn’s 1985 painting, Facets of Liberty, was strangely similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. He said, “It was quite a surprise to me, and I kept looking at it and looking at it and seeing more of the images of that day, which included the firemen, the smoke in the sky, the planes crashing into the tower and things like that.”
19. Not everyone at The Last Supper was a man
Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper covers a massive swathe of wall space at Milan’s Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The Renaissance Man created his famed artwork – one of the most recognizable in the world – in the late-15th century. And it seems to depict Jesus as he informs his 12 disciples that one of them will betray him.
However, some believe that da Vinci’s rendition of The Last Supper told a different story. They see the person next to Jesus not as a disciple, but Mary Magdalene. Backing up this theory is the fact that a V-shape appears between the two figures, a symbol for the womb. Da Vinci may have wanted to highlight the theory that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene, a possibility hidden by the Catholic Church.
18. The Arcadian Shepherds may reveal the location of Jesus’ tomb
Nicolas Poussin painted The Arcadian Shepherds in 1639, long after the crucifixion of Jesus. Still, the 17th century painting may have a secret to tell about the prophet’s final resting place. The painting shows a trio of shepherds and a woman near a tomb with an inscription that reads, “Even in Arcadia I exist.”
At the time, the Greek region of Arcadia was mythologized as a sort of paradise. So, one interpretation of the The Arcadian Shepherds could be that the inscription means that death misses no one – or nowhere. But others have said the painted-on inscription is actually an anagram for “Begone, I keep God’s secrets!” As such, they say the depicted tomb, wherever it is, actually holds Jesus’ remains.
17. Rembrandt van Rijn may have cheated on his famous self-portraits
Rembrandt van Rijn didn’t just master the art of painting. He was also a pro draughtsman and printmaker, which is why he’s considered to be one of the top visual artists in history and the most important ever in the Netherlands. While many others focused on a single style or subject matter, Rembrandt dabbled in all areas: landscapes, historical scenes, portraits and self-portraits included.
But Rembrandt’s impressive self-portraits may not have come directly from his head and onto the canvas. Instead, research has revealed that the artist used crutches including curved mirrors and lenses to create art that was extremely life-like. The theory is backed up by the lighting in his art – his work tends to be dark at the edges and brighter in the middle, the same glow that would be cast by a curved mirror.
16. Albrecht Dürer hid messages in paintings for his patrons
Albrecht Dürer rose to prominence in his 20s, when he started crafting woodcut prints in the midst of the Renaissance period. He rose to such heights that he kept in touch with his Italian contemporaries, including da Vinci and Raphael, while he worked in Germany. But those who patronized Dürer may not have realized he had messages for them too.
Dürer may have presented as a Christian artist during his Renaissance-era career, but art historian Elizabeth Garner believes that he secretly followed another religion. She says that she has found Jewish symbols hidden within his seemingly Christian pieces. And he did so, she claims, because the German government began to expel Jews at the time, and he was “bent on annihilating his Christian patrons,” according to Art News Net.
15. The Arnolfini Portrait may have a legal record painted into it
On the surface, The Arnolfini Portrait seems simple in its purpose. Painter Jan van Eyck crafted a portrait of Bruges-based couple Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a merchant, and his wife. Van Eyck’s brushstrokes truly bring the pair to life, and their vivid figures appear in an aesthetically pleasing, precisely geometric room.
But a closer look at the portrait reveals that van Eyck may have actually used his painting to create a record of the Arnolfinis’ marriage. For one thing, he brushed his signature onto the wall, writing, “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434.” On the wall hangs a mirror too, which reflects two figures standing in the room out of frame. They may serve as the witnesses to the marriage.
14. Adoration of the Magi may share the opposite of a Biblical story
Many people consider da Vinci to be the greatest artist of all time. Perhaps that explains why his work has been analyzed endlessly – and why people have so many theories about the true meaning behind his art. Even one of da Vinci’s earliest works, The Adoration of the Magi, has a supposed ulterior meaning, although it seems to depict baby Jesus receiving gifts from the Three Kings.
According to researcher Maurizio Seracini, infrared imaging shows that Adoration of the Magi had a different story to tell. Namely, da Vinci seems to have first drawn a bloody battle scene, which was painted over with a much more placid image. Conspiracy theorists say that the battle scene was meant to show the very violent re-establishment of paganism, which would not have gone over well with those who commissioned the piece: monks in Florence.
13. Johannes Vermeer may have been a tracer
Girl With a Pearl Earring is an iconic piece of art – it even inspired a novel and a movie about the subject and the painter, Johannes Vermeer. Even before the Hollywood touch, though, Vermeer had plenty of fame for his incredible paintings. Specifically, he was known for his attention to detail – he crafted paintings so realistic, they almost looked like photos.
But some say Vermeer used a secret device to make such masterpieces. David Hockney, an artist himself, claims that the Girl With a Pearl Earring painter relied on a camera obscura to project images onto his canvas. Then he simply traced them. A software engineer named Tim Jenson – not an artist by trade – tested the theory, and he was able to recreate a Vermeer painting with ease.
12. A Glindoni painting may show that a Tudor scientist was actually… a wizard?
Henry Gillard Glindoni made it look easy to paint historical fashions and scenes. In one of his pieces, Tudor scientist John Dee helms an experience in front of Queen Elizabeth I and the rest of her court. But X-rays have shown that there may have been more to the painting – and it reveals Dee’s potential role to the royals.
The X-ray image of Glindoni’s painting showed that Dee had originally been painted with a ring of skulls surrounding him. Such an artwork would not have been marketable, so he seemingly painted over them. But the bones could indicate that Dee was less of a scientist and more of a conjurer – a much more magical career path.
11. Van Gogh may have drawn from da Vinci for inspiration
It’s hard to imagine Vincent van Gogh drawing his inspiration from anyone else. In his 37 years of life, he created more than 2,000 post-impressionist paintings that changed the course of modern art. But his 1888 creation Café Terrace at Night, which features a quaint streetside diner in Arles, France, may have included a nod to another famous work of art.
Café Terrace at Night features a single waiter tending to all of the tables. He dons an apron and white shirt, and he has long hair too. The window panes behind him create a cross, and that’s just one sign that da Vinci’s The Last Supper may have van Gogh. Beyond that, there’s a shadowy figure in the café’s doorway – Judas – and the lighting on the patio compared to the dark street could represent the line between good and evil.
10. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch may reveal a murder plot against him
Visitors to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum can’t miss Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. For one thing, it’s massive: a 12-by-14-foot painting, to be exact. The masterpiece also shows an incredibly realistic balance of light and shadow. Plus the militia men appear to be in motion, a novel concept in art during Rembrandt’s time. Most other artists would have had the subjects pose for a portrait instead.
But Rembrandt may have used the piece to do more than just experiment with new methods. Director Peter Greenaway started a conspiracy theory that the artist painted The Night Watch as a way to reveal the civil militia’s plot against his life. According to Greenaway, they didn’t just threaten his life, they led the artist’s career to ruin.
9. Goya might not deserve credit for The Black Paintings
Francisco Goya rose to fame as a romantic artist, but his style shifted later in his life. Case in point: The Black Paintings, which he brushed onto the walls of his home in the 18th century. At that time, he had isolated himself, which potentially affected his mental state. Consequently, he could have created much darker works of art.
Conspiracy theorists have a different explanation for The Black Paintings, though. An art historian named Juan Jose Junquera found words in the paintings that weren’t in use until the 1870s, although Goya died in 1828. As such, Junquera contends that Goya’s son painted them himself and passed them off as his father’s to sell his property at a higher price. Experts who believe that Goya painted the murals wonder why a forgery would have veered so far from the artist’s style, though.
8. Mona Lisa could be a self-portrait
Another day, another da Vinci conspiracy theory. This time, it has to do with the most well-known and widely visited piece of art in the world: the Mona Lisa. Most experts agree that the painting features Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant who commissioned the portrait for their new home.
Nevertheless, a conspiracy theory exists that the Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait painted by da Vinci. No one really knows why this theory exists, but Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage seems to take it seriously enough. It has requested permission to exhume the artist’s body to examine his skull to confirm or deny that he’s Mona Lisa.
7. Michelangelo might’ve shared his personal opinions through the Sistine Chapel ceiling
The Sistine Chapel is an undeniably stunning piece of art. Michelangelo spent a decade in total bringing biblical scenes and figures to life on the ceiling and behind the altar. But conspiracy theorists say that these frescoes shouldn’t be taken at face value. One piece, The Prophet Zechariah, has a detail that may reveal how Michelangelo felt about Catholicism.
In the painting, two cherubs float behind the prophet. A closer look reveals that one of the little angels has their thumb tucked between their index and middle fingers. In the olden days, this had the same connotation as today’s middle finger. Michelangelo may have felt similarly about the Pope and his faith.
6. That’s not holy light in The Annunciation with Saint Emidius
The Annunciation with Saint Emidius contains a slew of different religious symbols – that much is for sure. Artist Carlo Crivelli created the piece for the Church of S.S. Annunziata in Italy. The painting features an apple in the foreground to represent sin and fall of man. The town’s patron Saint Emidius convenes with the angel Gabriel. But it’s the overhead ray of light that has gotten chins wagging.
Traditional interpretations see the light as a symbol for the moment Mary became pregnant. Indeed, the piece is meant to celebrate the angel Gabriel’s announcement of this information. However, some people see something different in the heavenly light shining down on the piece. They think Crivelli incorporated a UFO into the painting.
5. Jack the Ripper may have been a famous artist
Although he’s one of history’s most well-known serial killers, people still don’t know for sure who Jack the Ripper really was. A slew of names have been thrown out as potential men behind the murderer, including Richard Mansfield and Prince Albert. Then, in 2001 a writer named Patricia Cornwell came up with yet another theory – and this time, Jack was supposedly an artist.
Cornwell claimed that Jack the Ripper was actually British artist Walter Sickert. Indeed, he chose relatively strange subject matter for his artwork: nudes, nightlife and dancers in London and Paris. But Sickert’s most damning painting was called The Camden Town Murder, which the novelist found eerily similar to a Jack the Ripper crime scene. DNA evidence has yet to link Sickert to the infamous slasher, though.
4. Diego Rivera’s Man, Controller of the Universe may have revealed the subject’s medical diagnosis
Nelson Rockefeller hired artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural for New York City’s Rockefeller Center. The original piece was called Man at the Crossroads, but it didn’t last long. Once Rockefeller realized that Rivera had painted Communist Vladimir Lenin into the piece, he had it destroyed – the businessman and politician was a staunch capitalist.
Rivera didn’t let his customer’s dislike for his work stop him. Instead, the artist traveled to Mexico City, where he painted a new version of the mural. He called it Man, Controller of the Universe, and he used Nelson’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, as the subject. The artist painted the billionaire’s form beneath an unexpected shape – the syphilis bacterium. Because of that, some believe that Rivera wanted to tell the world that John had the sexually transmitted infection.
3. Michelangelo’s Pietà is not actually the Virgin Mary
After Jesus’ death on the cross, his mother, Mary, cradled his lifeless body in her arms – that’s the scene that Michelangelo so meticulously sculpted from stone. However, over time, people have begun to wonder if the artist actually meant for the woman to be interpreted as the prophet’s mother. There’s something about her that seems to indicate otherwise, though.
Some believe that the Pietà is actually a sculpture of Mary Magdalene holding Jesus’ body in her arms. They think this because the woman appears to be young – much too young to have birthed and raised Jesus into a grown man. Plus, Michelangelo supposedly made a prototype of the statue with a small Cupid carving included. This further corroborates the Mary Magdalene theory if you believe that she and Jesus were actually man and wife.
2. Salvador Dalí didn’t get too deep with The Persistence of Memory
A painting that shows clocks melting in the sun sounds deep, right? Experts attempted to peel back the layers of Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory. And many thought the artist wanted to show that space and time were relative: the wilting, dripping clocks meant to say that there was no cosmic order.
Unlike many of the other theories on this list, Dalí himself had the chance to debunk interpretations of his painting. Namely, someone asked if he usedThe Persistence of Memory as commentary on the theory of special relativity. The artist said no, instead revealing that the melting clocks were just his surrealist take on Camembert cheese melting beneath the sun’s rays.
1. Da Vinci’s Saint John the Baptist contains a sinister-looking face
By now, it should be clear that da Vinci was probably concealing some messages and symbols within his paintings. This is his fourth inclusion on the list, after all. Now, the focus shifts to his painting Saint John the Baptist, which experts believe to be the Renaissance Man’s last painting before his death in 1519.
On its face, John the Baptist seems like a depiction of the biblical figure himself – no more, no less. But conspiracy theorists have found that mirror-imaging the painting next to itself and brightening the canvas shows a sinister figure in the middle. Some see it as an alien but, like all of the other ideas on this list, that’s open to your interpretation.