For centuries, artists have used symbols and codes to create meaning in their work. While Symbolism has always existed, Iconography is a more open adaptation of this technique. Recently, it has been revealed that there are much deeper layers of meaning disguised within the symbolism of Iconography.
Take a look at the prehistoric cave drawings inside the Chauvet Caves in southern France, or Renaissance masterpieces such as The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. In each instance, these artists used encryption to communicate something much more profound than the associated concepts or ideas. It is suspected that most of these artists used encryption to hide beliefs they kept very close to their chests, and to guard sacred truths about the world.
In the ancient medieval period, anyone who deviated from the established Church was charged with heresy. Factions such as the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, and the scientists of the day held beliefs that dissented greatly. To avoid oppression, artists belonging to these groups, began encoding their beliefs within religious art, guarding their sacred secrets. It was a way to continue to communicate with others and to preserve their truth for future generations.
More recently, historians have made profound new discoveries. Art historian Chiara Frugoni discovered the profile of the devil in Giotto di Bondone’s Twentieth Scene of the Life of St. Francis, in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. The devil appears to be leering into the heavens, waiting amidst a swirl of clouds for his chance to block the soul’s ascent into heaven.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, a thorough restoration and cleaning of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel at the Vatican revealed hidden secrets. One revelation was in the painting of a young Jewish man, Amminadab, who is wearing the symbol for persecution. The image is directly over the supposed location of the Pope’s throne. Another uncovered image illustrates two Jewish men in the inner circle of the Last Judgment scene, a sacrilegious statement that ultimately reveals Michelangelo’s beliefs about tolerance and acceptance.
Perhaps the most cryptic discoveries have concerned the enigmatic work of Leonardo da Vinci. For hundreds of years, experts have been intrigued and baffled by the hidden meanings in Leonardo’s work. In his most famous masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, it is not only the eerie smile that seems to evoke a sense of mystery, but the subject itself. In 2010, Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage president Silvano Vinceti used a digital magnification device to reveal text and numbers within the eyes of the Mona Lisa. Many assumed the presence of the letters “L” and “V” supported the theory that the Mona Lisa is in fact a self-portrait of Leonardo. Others still maintain it is a portrait of one of his male cohorts.
In Leonardo’s The Last Supper, researchers have made incredible discoveries through thorough examination of the painting. One of the most notable has been the discovery of a musical score within the piece. Leonardo himself said “music is an invisible art,” and as such, the notes are clearly not visible, but deciphered from the details in the art. Researchers noted that the apostles are situated in groups of three. They followed the positions of their hands and the positions of the pieces of bread on the tablecloth, and then drew a pentagram over the canvas between the tablecloth and Jesus’ face. The result is solemn music that seems to honor the dramatic scene of the painting. Researchers went even further, finding that the sequence of the notes revealed an ancient Hebrew text “bo nezer usbi,” which translates to “with Him, consecration and glory.”
Da Vinci was also known for his fascination with illusion and his use of “mirror writing.” Researchers have discovered mysterious images that appear when a mirror is strategically placed upon his work. In the Mona Lisa, a mirror placed on the sleeve reveals a hidden face that many suppose is the image of Leonardo himself. In The Last Supper, a mirror allows the image of the Holy Grail to appear. Recently, information technologist Slavisa Pesci used a mirror to discover Templar knights at both ends of the table. He also revealed an image holding a small infant to the left of Jesus. Many believe that this is the child of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
Regardless of religious, political, or social intent, artists have found solace in the use of encryption. And as this has persisted throughout the history of art, so too have people spent their lives trying to decode this hidden symbolism. Their discoveries have not only shed light on the piece of art itself, but on the artist, who is ultimately found within the depths of these masterpieces.