Hidden Imagery in Historic Art

“Sometimes, an artist deliberately hides images within a work of art. An artist may use one of several techniques to produce a painting with hidden images.” -  Teressa Rose Ezell

Placing hidden or subliminal imagery in works of art has occurred for centuries.

In 2009, an art exhibit was presented in Italy entitled "Masterpieces of trompe l'œil from antiquity to the present day". This exhibit traced the fascinating history of trompe l'oeil (French for ‘deceiving the eye').

Concerning this exhibit, Lynette Eyb writes:

"Visual illusion has been used in art for thousands of years to trick and deceive us...The show places optical illusion not only in the context of painting but also draws in the many other forms of art that have fooled and deceived us through the years..." 1 

“The aim [of the exhibit] is to allow visitors to probe the many ways in which the human brain can be deceived, and the pleasure a person feels when they find themselves involved in clever deception." 2

I am going to now present two historic works of art that contain hidden images in them.

The Ambassadors

Below is a painting entitled "The Ambassadors". This painting was done by Hans Holbein in the year 1533:

Do you notice anything unusual about this painting?

Everything looks pretty commonplace except for this strange object at the bottom of the painting:

This "subliminal image" is an anamorphic image of a skull.  At the time the painting was made, people could only see the image of the skull if they looked at it from the right angle.  However, today this image of a skull can be clearly seen with the help of a computer by turning and reducing the picture of the painting as follows:

The Basilica of St Francis in Assisi 

There are 28 frescoes  in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi that were created by Giotto between 1296 and 1304.  Here is an example of a hidden image in the fresco number 20 in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi:

Chiara Frugone (an Italian art historian) discovered the profile of a devil hidden in the clouds of Giotto’s fresco number 20 in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.   The frescoes were created by Giotto between 1296 and 1304. 3  The devil has “a hooked nose, a sly smile, and dark horns hidden among the clouds in the panel of the scene depicting the death of St Francis.” 4

Art is a key element in subliminal advertising.  Skilled artists have been hired to apply the practice of placing “hidden” images in select print advertisements.