Mona Lisa

Top 20 Paintings That Hide Secret Messages – Part 1

Nothing is what it seems like with these paintings.

by Iva Rizova

Secret messages in famous paintings – that’s something which always seems to intrigue people.

Art is a vast field. Even the works we think we know can surprise us. It turns out that many artists are true geniuses because they skillfully conceal encrypted messages in their paintings, which remain unnoticed by people for years, and today we still do not know the meaning of some of them. We at The Dope Lists have selected the Top 20 of the most famous paintings with hidden messages.

 Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa

What is more mysterious than the Mona Lisa? The most famous painting in the world was probably created in 1502 – 1506. Still, according to some people, the process of its completion lasted until 1517. There is speculation that the Mona Lisa was painted in the last years of the 15th century because the number 149 is written on its back, with traces that the number was four digits, but the last one was deleted. 

Leonardo took it with him to visit France, and King Francois I bought it. Millions of tourists visit the Louvre every year to see the famous painting. If you have not been to Paris, we will disappoint you, as you cannot examine the painting up close enough to notice the hidden signs. The artist’s initials are inscribed in the left eye of the Mona Lisa, and the bridge in the background hides the number 72. Among the researchers’ latest revelations is the presence of another female portrait under the image of the Mona Lisa, with most believing it to be a draft of the masterpiece. Some theories go further, claiming that the Mona Lisa is actually the female version of da Vinci. We simply can’t talk about paintings with secret messages without mentioning Mona Lisa.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper

The mural was painted in the period 1495-1498 on the wall in the dining room of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince claim that Mary Magdalene was actually depicted in the place of the Apostle John. Dan Brown’s famous novel, ‘Da Vinci Code’, is based on this theory. According to the musician Giovanni Maria Pala, in the hands of the apostles and the loaves on the table are encoded notes that form a 40-second musical composition. Computer expert Slavisa Peshi predicates that after imposing a translucent version on the original, Templars appeared on the mural at either end of the table and a man holding a baby on one side of Jesus.

Another popular theory is that da Vinci used the same model for the image of Jesus and Judas. When Leonardo painted Jesus, the young man was a baker. A few years later, the genius chose a criminal as Judas’ model, unaware that he was the same baker who had served as Jesus’ model. What an irony?! On the other hand, Sabrina Galicia believes that the mural gives us an answer to one of the questions that excite people the most, namely, when the end of the world will come. In her opinion, there is a hidden mathematical puzzle that indicates 4006 as the last. It’s arguably one of the most famous paintings containing secret messages.

Lady With an Ermine, Leonardo da Vinci

Lady With an Ermine

Leonardo da Vinci began drawing this painting in 1489 by order of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. The lady was without the cute animal in her arms in the original version. Da Vinci painted it later and deliberately made it white and more extensive than it really is. The mysterious woman in the portrait is the Italian noblewoman Cecilia Gallerani, who was the duke’s mistress. In the 15th century, ermine was a favorite pet, but that’s not why it was painted. 

Ludovico Sforza received the title ‘Hermelin’ (Italian Moor), and the animal became his symbol. Therefore, the ermine nestled in Cecilia’s arms represents the man with whom she is sexually bound. The predatory gaze of the animal reflects the duke’s behavior in reality. The whole picture can be taken as a metaphor for the situation of women in the early Renaissance – the fairer sex is still perceived as inferior to men and as a machine for childbirth. Still, wise women know how to achieve their goals by taking advantage of men in their lives.

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo

The Creation of Adam

This is one of the frescoes depicted in the Sistine Chapel. Have you ever looked at it in more detail? You may be amazed at some of the scholars’ interpretations. Some researchers believe that the cloud on which God is located while breathing Adam’s life is actually a brain, and the people around him are its separate parts. Scholars are divided into two camps as to the cause: some believe that this suggests that God inspires Adam’s divine knowledge. In contrast, others argue that it is a kind of rebellion against the church, which conflicts with science.

In the 19th century, Walter Pater expressed his view that the woman embraced by God was Eve because of her ambiguous gaze on Adam. The other figures that were part of the brain represented the unborn offspring of Adam and Eve. Another theory is that the reddish cloak around God has the shape of a uterus, and the green scarf is the severed umbilical cord.

The Prophet Zechariah, Michelangelo

The Prophet Zechariah

Wondering what might be so hidden in this seemingly ordinary picture? Is this one of the famous paintings filled with secret messages? The answer will definitely surprise you. The image of one of the least known prophets in the Bible – the prophet Zacharias – is part of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, completed in 1512. Michelangelo’s work was commissioned by the then Pope Julius II. However, as well as Michelangelo’s exposure to this incredible opportunity that gave birth to his best works, the artist and the pope were not on good terms. 

This is why some historians profess that the prophet Zechariah was deliberately depicted to resemble the pope. According to them, Michelangelo was not satisfied with this and added two angels in the background, one of which shows an obscene sign – his thumb is put between the middle finger and the forefinger. It seems that this obscene sign began to be used much longer than we think, and it is obviously offensive not only today.

Separation of Light from Darkness, Michelangelo

Separation of Light from Darkness

Like most of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, this one is in the Sistine Chapel. It is one of the nine central panels, and it is the last to be completed. Yet, this mural differs from the others because it is unknown why Michelangelo brought light into the image not on the left but in the middle. Some researchers assume that the artist did this quite deliberately because, in the middle of the mural, the human brain and the spine are depicted in a coded way. They base their claims on Michelangelo’s interest in anatomy and the fact that he dissected corpses, even though it was illegal at the time. It seems that Michelangelo loved to put hidden messages in his works.

David and Goliath, Michelangelo

David and Goliath

Before revealing the secret of another work, it is essential to clarify that Caravaggio also has a painting of the same name. You can probably guess that Michelangelo’s work is in the Sistine Chapel, created in 1509. It is believed that the whole image is dotted with shapes representing the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The figures of David and Goliath form the letter’ gimel’, which means strength. We can guess why they are depicted precisely like that. The probable reason is to show that everyone can be defeated, regardless of their characteristics. In the biblical story, Goliath is portrayed as an invincible giant. Still, the young David defeats him by hitting him with a slingshot in the end. When we talk about paintings with secret messages, this one is really huge.

Bacchus, Caravaggio


Caravaggio completed the portrait of the Greek God, also known as Dionysus, in 1595. Looking at her, she seems pretty casual but at the same time very passionate and sexual. It’s as if Bacchus invites you to give in to your desires. As an argument for this, the cracked pomegranate and the rotting apple in the basket are considered, hinting at the transience of life and inevitable death (the so-called vanitas theme), i.e., that youth and pleasure are fleeting experiences.

Historians speculate that Bacchus’ model was Mario Minniti, who is said to have been Caravaggio’s lover. In 1922 the portrait was restored. Experts noticed that Caravaggio had hidden his self-portrait in the carafe of wine. This could be interpreted as a secret allusion and proof of the relationship between Mario Minniti and Caravaggio. At that time, same-sex relations were not looked upon favorably, and sodomy was banned.

Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio

Supper at Emmaus

The work is a masterpiece from the beginning of the 17th century, whose merits were appreciated only in the last century. Caravaggio’s religious paintings have often been criticized for their ‘lack of decency’. Like most of his pictures, the church also denounced this one as inappropriate and overly rebellious. The work recreates the moment when Jesus reveals himself to two of his apostles after the resurrection, and they realize that they are witnessing a miracle. The master of Baroque fine art was criticized because the innkeeper’s hat showed disrespect for the Savior, the apostles were presented in ‘rural’ nature, and the fruit basket did not correspond to the time of the supper (it was held in the spring and the fruit is autumn).

The Lute Player, Caravaggio

The Lute Player

It has long been thought that one of Caravaggio’s earliest paintings depicts a lute woman. However, in new studies of the canvas in the 20th century, experts see that this understanding was utterly wrong and actually represented a man. As arguments for their statement, they point to the presence of notes that are part of the work of composer Jacob Arcadelt ‘Do you know that I love you?’. In addition, at the time Caravaggio lived, the lute was considered a male instrument.

There is another far more curious and scandalous theory. Some researchers believe that the androgynous appearance of the model (the simultaneous manifestation of female and male features) is due to the fact that Caravaggio painted a castrate on his canvas (a man whose genitals were removed). The lute model is again Mario Mantini, who is said to have been the artist’s lover. Isn’t this another proof of a connection between the two?

These are 20 of the most famous paintings in history, containing secret messages. And did you know about them?

Don’t Miss to Read: Top 20 Paintings That Hide Secret Messages – Part 2

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