Despite looking like it could have been produced hundreds of years later, “The Arnolfini Portrait” was painted by Dutch painter Jan van Eyck all the way back in 1434. It seems to be entirely straightforward until you start to look a little closer. Some of the details are strange.
It was a wedding photo, but the woman already appeared pregnant. There are touches like the small dog, the chandelier, and the trappings of the room, which could either be an allusion to wealth or to aspects of religion. Jan van Eyck’s signature is on the wall, and there are unknown figures reflected in the mirror.
You Know That Smile
It’s much smaller than you think it is, it’s mysterious, and it’s one of the most famous paintings in the world. It’s “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. This beguiling beauty has captured hearts, been stolen, and gotten art historians in a tizzy over what it is exactly.
First off, it might be unfinished: Lisa’s lack of eyebrows makes people wonder if Da Vinci had forgotten to finish it or if his right hand had become partially paralyzed before it could be done. Her enigmatic smile is due to the low spatial frequency of the artwork, meaning it disappears while looking straight at it.
Let There Be Light
This painting, “Separation of Light from Darkness” by Michelangelo, is one of nine paintings in the center of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which depict the birth of the world, the creation of man, and man’s fall from grace. It shows a muscular God who rips in half the universe, dividing the night from the day.
His up-angled face denotes a remoteness, and while the strokes that make up the figure are smooth and polished, the space around him is raw and chaotic, just like an unbuilt firmament might have been. God’s billowing red robe offers him majesty and power, despite nudity being the norm for most famous paintings of the era.
Plenty of Symbolism
Celebrating the achievements and friendship of two men, “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger is chock full of strange details. The most prominent of them is the odd shape on the ground between the men. When the painting is tilted and viewed from a specific angle, the shape becomes a human skull.
There is also a silver crucifix hiding behind the green curtain in the upper right, so well obscured that few spot it on their own. The pair of globes could mean anything from the exploration going on at the time to the tumult of the Lutheran Reformation. However, the celestial globe is proud and tall, perhaps speaking about the constancy of the stars above Earth.
A Minor Prophet, a Major Question
This one is one that most of us recognize, but what do you know about it? The inclusion of the prophet Zechariah in Michelangelo's immense creation of the Sistine Chapel is an odd one. While the minor prophet did foresee a king riding on a donkey, surely there were more major figures to include?
In addition, why does he have a pair of genies looking over his shoulder as he reads? Experts haven’t fully nailed down an answer just yet. Zechariah reads from his own book, which advocates the reconstruction of the temple, perhaps leading one to assume the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica are the new Temple.