They’ve survived the centuries as unparalleled compositions, but there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to these famous works of art.
A centerpiece of Northern Renaissance art, van Eyck’s luminous portrait famously depicts the well-to-do Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini with his wife (who is not pregnant, as viewers often perceive). Van Eyck’s masterly composition renders the folds of Mrs. Arnolfini’s dress, and the shimmer of the brass chandelier behind them so captivating that it’s easy to miss an important detail: on the far wall behind the couple is a mirror, above which the artist signed, in Latin, “Jan van Eyck was here in 1434.” While it may require bionic vision to discern, the couple is not alone; two additional figures are reflected in the mirror, one of whom, as his tag suggests, was likely the artist.
Botticelli’s exalted representation of springtime has become a keystone of Italian Renaissance art. Painted sometime between 1477 and 1482, Primavera portrays far more than fair maidens and mythological deities; horticulturists have also identified no less than 500 real plant species present in the pastoral backdrop. As if that’s not enough, the painting has also been thought to conceal symbolic clues to a plot against the reigning Medici family (whom Primavera was created for). According to the Telegraph, Botticelli was a supposed follower of one radical preacher who was later burned at the stake.
Hans Holbein the Younger’s stately portrait of Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador to England (left) and Georges de Selve (right), the bishop of Lavaur and stand-in ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See, portrays two powerful young men in their prime—aged 29 and 25, respectively. They stand poised and well dressed in front of a rich green curtain, separated by a table of books, scientific objects, and instruments—all symbols of their education and enlightenment. The luxurious details and patterns in The Ambassadors (1533) serve as distractions from a curious object in the foreground; an elongated skull. The object is a memento mori—a common Christian practice in which an object evocative of death is always present. According to The National Gallery, the skull’s distortion corrects itself when the painting is viewed from the right.
At first glance, Ghirlandaio’s 15th-century Madonna with Saint Giovannino looks like your run-of-the-mill devotional portrait—except for the possible UFO behind her. Mary coos over the baby Jesus as an inexplicable object hovers in the background. Ghirlandaio even painted a man at the foot of a cliff looking at the object to draw attention to its unusual presence. In an era when angels and celestial bodies were often depicted glimmering in the sky, it’s quite possible that Ghirlandaio’s object is of a typical religious nature. But ask an alien theorist, and the portrait is proof that extraterrestrials have been paying us cheeky visits for centuries.