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Easter eggs in Art: top 10 paintings and frescoes with puzzles

In some countries on Easter, a magic hare leaves Easter eggs for good children. It hides them in secluded places, which are hard to find but one surely rejoices at his/her own ingenuity if succeeds. By analogy with this festive tradition, hidden hints, jokes and riddles in books, films and even in computer games and programs are now called "Easter eggs". There are dozens of artists who are ready to check our attentiveness as well. So, we get our baskets for findings and keep our eyes open!

Giotto: devil in details

Giotto has painted the The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in 13th century, but the devil in the clouds at the top of one of the frescos was found only three years ago, in 2011. A hooligan’s joke was seen by the restorers who approached the scene depicting the death of St. Francis as close as possible.

Clouds, as expected, are depicted beneath the dome of the church, so if you look at the mural standing on the floor, there is nothing outrageous about it. But it was worthwhile to get a stepladder to reveal a profile of a figure with a hooked nose, a sly smile, and dark horns hidden among the clouds.

Art historians try to justify Giotto. They say that the artist, most likely, had no intention to insult believers, when introducing evil spirits into the temple. In this way he was probably mocking over some of his foes, rendering him a devil’s features. Such a minor hooliganism is a common practice for great artists. Let us recall Michelangelo, as an example.

Michelangelo: for decency's sake

While making frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo did not provide much clothes to his characters. When Biagio da Cesena, who served as Master of Ceremonies to the Pope Paul III and commissioned The Last Judgment to the artist, have seen the paintings, he was appalled and replied "that it was a very disgraceful thing to have made in so honorable place all those nude figures showing their nakedness so shamelessly, and that it was a work not for the chapel of a Pope," but for a "bagnio," or brothel. In revenge, the artist portrayed Cesena "in the figure of Minos with a great serpent twisted around his legs, among a heap of Devils in Hell." Michelangelo has even made the snake biting off Cesena’s genitals.

… Also by mind he differed!

Vindictive pranks are not the only 'easter eggs' you can find in the Sistine Chapel.

In 1990, physician Frank Meshberger published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association where he stated that Michelangelo had symbolically portrayed God imparting intellect to Adam in the central panel God Creating Adam on the ceiling. He suggested that the rose-colored form surrounding God was a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section.

He said the billowing green scarf descending below the cluster of figures around God is the vertebral artery, the main artery that feeds blood to the brain. He also suggested that the pituitary stalk and gland, which produce many of the body’s hormones, are shown in the leg and foot of the angel whose left leg dangles below the grouping.
Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo, experts in neuroanatomy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, USA also found a depiction of a human brain in the Sistine Chapel. Although this one appears directly above the altar in The Separation of Light From Darkness panel.

Michelangelo perfectly knew the anatomy of a man and reproduced it in exacting mastery, but here God has got some strange neck. Dr. Rafael J. Tamargo, a neurosurgeon, looked closely and understood that Michelangelo concealed in it a precise depiction of the human spinal cord and brain stem, with parts of the temporal lobe, the medulla, the pons and other structures clearly drawn. Tamargo and his colleague, the medical illustrator Ian Suk, presented this theory in the May 2010 issue of the scientific journal Neurosurgery.

Why is it all so? Has Michelangelo been overworked and forgot that he was commissioned to create illustrations to the Bible and not to the Biology textbook? Perhaps, genitals and brain are the symbols of a fertilizing and spiritualizing principle in the human nature. In other words, it’s a terrestrial and divine origin, derived from parents and from heaven.

One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

Madonna with Saint Giovannino, a painting from around the 15th century most likely produced by Domenico Ghirlandaio, now hangs as part of the Loeser collection in the Palazzo Vecchio.

There is an incomprehensible stain in its upper right corner. If you pay attention to a tiny man with a dog, standing on a hill behind Madonna’s shoulder, you surely cannot take it for a blot. Their amazed poses leave no doubt: they are looking at a flying saucer. And a close-up works for this version: having enlarged the spot, we will see that it spreads rays to all sides. In general, it was not unusual to see UFO depictions in the Middle Ages.

Painting with a spoiler

And here is another spot. It is larger than a flying saucer, but still meaningless. It is so if you look at it full-face, but if you move away and look at it in profile…

If you move around the hall looking at Holbein’s "Ambassadors" at the London National Gallery, you’ll see a real performance — a short but powerful one.

First, you should admire the ambassadors depicted on the canvas and the attributes of their comfortable and perhaps even a happy life. And then, when you are about to leave the room and move away from the picture a meter or two, just look at it again. This time you need to get closer to the wall where the "Ambassadors" hang. But now you will not see any characters there. The stain turns into a skull and covers up the whole picture, predicting the finale of any human life.

The trick with forms' distortion (anamorphosis) was invented by Leonardo, and Holbein used it in the most impressive way.

Leonardo: heads or tails? All according to Freud

Sometimes, to find hidden meanings, it is not enough to be an attentive viewer, you need to have a diploma of a psychoanalyst. And ideally, to be Sigmund Freud. The father of psychoanalysis devoted an entire essay to the childhood memories of Leonardo da Vinci.

Since Freud did not have a chance to lay the artist on his couch, he used a famous painting The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, kept in the Louvre, as the basis for his conclusions.

In Madonna’s blue clothes, Freud detected the silhouette of a vulture, turned anticlockwise through an angle of 90 degrees. The more, the better: this bird produced the artist’s longing for his mother, with whom he was separated at the age of five, and the absence of his father in his early childhood, and — bingo! — confirmation of Leonardo’s homosexuality.

The Last Supper: he who is having ears to hear – let him see

If you take the loaves of bread and the hands of Jesus and the Apostles for music notes, and mentally draw a stave within the range of The Last Supper fresco, you’ll be able to play a melody encoded by Leonardo da Vinci. A short yet really solemn requiem comes up. The opening was made by an Italian computer technician Giovanni Maria Pala. You need to read the composition right to left, the artist himself ordered so in his diaries.

Botticelli: music is on

The Last Supper is not the only art work which you can look at and listen to. There is a theory that Botticelli’s Primavera, woven already of symbols and allegories, is composed not on a story with a strong plot, but with a musical rhythm. You are supposed to read and play it from right to left as well, perceiving groups of characters as chords.
Sandro Botticelli. Spring
1485, 314×203 cm

Jan van Eyck: Through the Looking-Glass and What the Artist Found There

Hardly has the artist foreseen that Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini would resemble the Russian president and made such an 'Easter egg' for us. Such "beauty" is exclusively in the eyes of those who look. Nonetheless, right in the center of The Arnolfini Portrait he left his luxurious autograph. The ornate Latin signature translates as 'Jan van Eyck was here 1434'.

A strange place and a strange redundancy in a signature, isn’t it? Everything becomes clear if you look in the mirror before you read the text inscribed, which is actually more appropriate for some popular see sights and chairs in a football fun-zone.

There are two more people reflected in the mirror. Arnolfini couple, most likely, is depicted during their wedding ceremony, so they should have witnesses. These people are in the mirror, one of which is the artist himself, for he was the groom’s friend.

An eternal puzzle: Bruegel's linguistics table

There are approximately 112 identifiable proverbs and idioms in the overloaded canvas above. Still it’s hard to decode all of them, for come might have already gone from the language. So the search is still on.

Proverbs are illustrated literally. You see what you hear. If they say "to crap on the world", the character defecates to the globe (see the card player in the upper left cornet).

Let’s see some of the proverbs which are still in use today, yet not the most scabrous ones.
1. To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe — to do too much to achieve a little.
2. To sit between two stools in the ashes — to be indecisive.
3. To be a hen feeler — to depend on an uncertain outcome (the same as to count one’s chickens before they hatch).
4. The scissors hang out there — they are liable to cheat you there.
5. One shears sheep, the other shears pigs — one has all the advantages, the other none.
6. To have the roof tiled with tarts — to be very wealthy.
Written by Natalia Kandaurova