Spot the fiendish Easter eggs hidden in great works of art
The world’s museums are crawling with hidden messages. A cipher here, a joke or seditious statement there. Once spotted or solved, these carefully concealed details can unlock a new reading of a painting altogether. Such elements are known, colloquially at least, as “Easter Eggs”. It’s a term borrowed from computer gaming, used to refer to extra levels, keys and so on that are built into the game for only the most dedicated players to find.
They appear in other media too. Alfred Hitchock’s cameos in his films are “eggs”, and Google is stuffed with them. For a few weeks in 2015, if you typed “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away” into its search bar, your screen temporarily resembled the scrolling crawl of the original Star Wars films.
It is artists, though, who seem to take particular delight in the visual mischief that “eggs” require. Look closely at shiny objects in a still life and often there’s a miniscule face staring back at you. Caravaggio’s Bacchus (1595) and Clara Peeters’ Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels (c1615) contain these covert self-portraits.
Turner, meanwhile, hid a tiny hare in his painting Rain Steam and Speed (1844), and Gustave Klimt is said to have concealed images of blood cells in his 1907 painting The Kiss. The immunologist Karl Landsteiner was working on blood transfusions at the University of Vienna at the time, so I guess it’s feasible.
Intrigued? Here, then, are a few other examples, to inspire an egg hunt of your own.
National Gallery portico mosaics (1933)
Set into the floor of the first landing in the National Gallery’s portico entrance is a marble mosaic, The Awakening of the Muses, by the Russian artist Boris Anrep (1885-1969). Despite its classical theme, Anrep, who came to Britain in the early 1900s, hid many famous faces of his day in the mosaic. Diana Mitford, for instance, is muse of song, Greta Garbo is Tragedy, Virginia Woolf is History, Winston Churchill, Defiance and Clive Bell, a rather more sober than is customary, Bacchus. Anrep told an interviewer: “If there is any feeling of squeamishness in walking over august personages one can easily step around them.”
The Wilton Diptych (c1397)
Made for King Richard II and named for Wilton House, near Salisbury, where this little folding altarpiece resided between 1705 and 1929, the diptych depicts Richard with Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor (England’s patron saints), plus his personal patron, John the Baptist. They are presenting him to the Virgin and Christ Child.
But within this broad framework there are puzzling symbols. Not least, the tiny image (it is less than an inch wide) of England, hidden in the orb at the top of the standard. Discovered when the diptych was restored in 1993, it shows a turreted castle on an island, floating in a silver sea. (If that’s ringing bells, it’s because Shakespeare’s Richard II contains the line “this little world, / This precious stone set in a silver sea,” so it’s tempting to think that Shakespeare knew the diptych).
Paul Cézanne, The Bather (c1885)
Cézanne often painted bathers in a landscape, but this one is special. Look carefully at the patch of sky directly above his right shoulder (so on the left of the painting) and the bluish-white clouds form the face of a bearded man in a bowler hat. Compare it to photographs of the artist from the 1880s, and it’s obviously a self-portrait. And, as Cézanne didn’t paint over it, we can assume it is deliberate.
Why, though? It’s possible Cézanne was feeling unusually introspective at the time. He’d recently begun a doomed relationship with his family’s servant, and his father was gravely ill. Plus, his friendship with Émile Zola, whom he had known since childhood, was on the rocks. Serialisation of Zola’s novel The Masterpiece began that year, and its lead character – an artist tormented by a painting that eventually drives him to suicide – was significantly modelled, according to Zola’s journal, upon Cézanne. So many people remarked on it that the artist severed ties with Zola the following year.
The Sistine Chapel ceiling (1512)
Michelangelo’s interest in anatomy (kindled by the public dissections he saw as a teen and later performed himself) lasted all his life. He even conceived of a book on anatomy for artists, though it didn’t come to fruition.
It’s perfectly believable, then, that his Sistine Chapel ceiling is laced with secret renderings of the insides of the human body. Neuroanatomists have recognised a shoulder joint on the body of a sibyl, a vertebra in Holofernes and, most famously, a cutaway of the skull in the cloak surrounding God as he creates Adam.
If you watched the TV series Westworld, you’ll recall Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) explaining that hidden skull shape. Michelangelo, Ford says, meant to imply that “the divine gift does not come from a higher power, but from our own minds”.
Pretty much anything by Leonardo da Vinci
The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is only one in a long line of people to have found hidden meanings in Leonardo’s paintings. In 2010, an Italian researcher named Silvano Vinceti found the letter “S” in the Mona Lisa’s left eye and “LV” in her right. Does the “S” mean the subject is from Milan’s Sforza dynasty? Vinceti thinks so.
When it comes to The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (c1503), Sigmund Freud detected the silhouette of a vulture in the Madonna’s blue robes. The bird, according to the psychiatrist, referred to Leonardo’s latent homosexuality. In The Virgin of the Rocks (c1483-6), meanwhile, the palm tree’s resemblance to a scallop shell challenges the Church’s conception of Creation (a shell in the mountains proved the peaks were once seabeds, Leonardo wrote in his notebooks, meaning Earth was made tumultuously over eons, rather than by God’s hand in a few days).
As for the Last Supper, while Brown believed the 1498 painting pointed to a relationship between Christ and Mary Magdalene, an Italian musician has suggested that the rolls on the table and the apostles’ hands work as musical notes on a stave. You can listen to the “music” on YouTube. Do keep your expectations low though.