Great Masterpieces: Their Secrets and Hidden Messages
In this series dedicated to the mysterious hidden messages and secrets of artworks, you will discover optical illusions created by artists who sought to deceive us, ghosts hidden beneath the surface of paintings, as well as symbols concealed within the most famous works!
The 5 artworks that will no longer mislead you
1. "The Oculus of the Bridal Chamber" by Andrea Mantegna
Also known as the "Camera Picta," this room was completely transformed by the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna between 1465 and 1474.
The room is presented as an immense square. It consists of walls that are 8 meters wide and a ceiling height of 7 meters. Furthermore, the ceiling that covers the space is slightly vaulted.
Mantegna chose the optical effect to transform this grand space and give it an entirely different dimension. Now adorned with spirals and gilding, Mantegna offers it a trompe-l'œil architectural structure, composed of vaults, arches, and pillars.
Moreover, the artist takes advantage of the vaulted ceiling to create an illusory dome that appears to be open to the sky!
It is thanks to the system of perspective and the "vanishing point," developed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1425, that Mantegna achieves this dizzying illusion!
For this trompe-l'oeil dome, Mantegna stages a balustrade around which various characters move. Probably situated on a terrace, they observe from a bird's-eye view what is happening below.
Everything is set up to deceive the viewer. One can be surprised by a flower pot balanced on the edge of the balustrade. You might also be disoriented by cherubs playing among themselves and poking their heads through this latticed barrier!
These architectural optical effects are meant to be observed meticulously. It is necessary to understand their subtleties and the play of depth in order to deduce the artist's ingenuity!
2. "The Sacred Conversation" by Piero della Francesca
The composition of a painting often harbors numerous hidden messages, which the artwork suggests through clever and even mathematical architectural elaboration.
This is notably the case in the work of the Italian painter Piero della Francesca, "The Sacred Conversation," created in 1472 for the Duke of Urbino, Federico III da Montefeltro.
This artwork depicts a Virgin and Child on a throne, surrounded by biblical figures, and the patron of the work. The patron holds a significant place in the composition as the artist positions them in the foreground, kneeling in a gesture of prayer.
These figures are situated within a meticulously detailed architectural perspective composition, topped by a niche in the shape of a scallop shell, which is a symbol of Saint James.
The architectural composition is highly ingenious. The vanishing point of this magnificent perspective is located on the figure of the Virgin!
As a result, the entire architectural composition depends on her, as well as the placement of the characters. Indeed, the heads of all these biblical figures are located on the horizontal vanishing line. Furthermore, their silhouettes are extended by the pilasters of the architecture.
You might be wondering about the significance of the egg hanging from the scallop shell. It is actually a goose egg.
The egg aligns with the Virgin's head as well as with the child's navel. It represents the symbol of birth in religious texts of Creation. The scallop shell (coquille Saint-Jacques) symbolizes fertility!
To this architectural composition in service of religious and divine hierarchy, respond symbolic religious elements. Thus, this mathematical perspective takes on its full symbolic meaning when associated with the subject and the emblematic elements represented!
3. "The Seasons" by Giuseppe Arcimboldo
"The Seasons" is a series of four paintings created by the Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo between 1563 and 1573.
As you rightly noticed, these four paintings depict profiles assembled ingeniously from plants, flowers, fruits, and vegetables characteristic of the seasons.
These four paintings are paired: the faces of Winter and Autumn, and those of Summer and Spring, face each other.
But what you need to know is that these different faces carry a much more symbolic hidden message... These heads assembled according to the seasons are actually associated with different periods of maturity in a person's life!
Indeed, "Spring" presents the features of a young man, "Summer" those of a young adult in the prime of life, "Autumn" portrays a middle-aged man, and "Winter" represents an old man.
This association of human age and Nature was a common metaphor during the Renaissance!
Thus, the artist plays with the different shapes of these plants, fruits, and vegetables to compose recognizable and personified faces. As spectators, we must observe attentively to finely understand the hidden messages behind what appears to be still lifes!
4. "Swans Reflecting Elephants" by Salvador Dalí
In 1937, the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí created his work "Swans Reflecting Elephants." A specialist in hidden messages, Dalí tests our gaze through enigmatic works!
When we observe this work without knowing its title, we first notice swans in a pond, their silhouettes reflecting in the water. The twisted shapes of dead trees also capture our attention.
Upon closer observation, we discover a man on the left side of the composition, his clothing colors blending with those of the cliff. Above this man, peculiar clouds float in the sky.
The canvas, which initially seemed to be a straightforward depiction of animals in a landscape, becomes increasingly mysterious and enigmatic to us.
When we look even more closely, we realize that the reflection of the swans offers us a completely different view... Indeed, we see the outlines of elephants emerging from the water!
The heads and necks of the swans form the trunks of the elephants, their wings half-spread depict their large ears. Finally, the tree trunks, in turn, shape the bodies and legs of the elephants!
Furthermore, with a touch of imagination, the shape of the largest cloud seems to suggest the silhouette of the man, creating a mirroring effect.
Master of distorting reality, Dalí paints from dreams. The unconscious and hallucinations are at the heart of his surrealist works.
In order to distinguish himself from other surrealists, Dalí creates his own method, which he names "critical paranoia." This method is based on psychoanalysis and the theories of Sigmund Freud, which highlight repressed childhood traumas.
Dalí explains :
"It is through a distinctly paranoid process that it has been possible to obtain a double image: that is to say, the representation of an object which, without the slightest figural or anatomical modification, is at the same time the representation of a completely different object."
Salvador Dalí, "The Visible Woman," 1930
5. "Movement in squares" by Bridget Riley
Bridget Riley is a British painter of the second half of the 20th century. She dedicates her artistic practice to geometric abstraction and the exploration of optical effects.
The artist belongs to Op Art (Optical Art), an artistic movement that experiments with optical illusions. Op Art artists create works that give the impression of 3D or movement.
In 1961, Bridget Riley creates the artwork "Movement in Squares." She considers this piece to be her very first experimentation with geometric form and its dynamics.
For this artwork, the artist draws a series of black and white checkered squares, one after another. She aligns them while moving from left to right across the canvas. She also maintains their height.
However, as she progresses towards the right side of the artwork, the artist reduces the width of the squares, making them increasingly narrower.
In the same area, the squares have transformed into elongated vertical rectangles. This entirely new composition provides the viewer with a sense of three-dimensionality, even though the artwork is actually two-dimensional.
Indeed, in this area where the squares have turned into slender, vibrating bands, we experience a sensation of depth, akin to an open book!
When observing Bridget Riley's artworks, our eyes are disturbed. We have the sensation that the geometric lines and forms are in motion. Yet, our mind knows perfectly well that the elements of the artworks are immobile, as they are ultimately just paintings.
Fascinated by lines and geometric forms, the artist aimed to give them an entirely new dimension by experimenting with optical depth and movement effects!
Thus, as seen in "Movement in Squares," it is interesting to discover the subtle plasticity of a geometric composition with an optical effect. Through these details, we can grasp the hidden messages of the artist as well as the origin of her pictorial exploration!