Hidden Treasure

As the Renaissance drew to a close, a new popular style struck Northern European art - one of creating what are now called 'anthropomorphic' landscapes, with features transformed to resemble human heads and faces. It wasn't only one artist who did it, either, but many... and it went on for centuries. And it wasn't only faces. If one examines closely, one can sometimes pick out the name of the artist too, spelt out in large letters, each taking the disguise of a tree, or other natural feature.

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Matthias Merian the Elder (1593-1650)

Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677)

Johann Martin Will (1727-1826)

Joos de Momper (1564-1635)

...and so did Dieric Bouts in his 'Pearl of Brabant', and Durer in his'Val d'Arco':

So where did the idea come from? Well, it's not hard to find more modest, and better hidden examples before the outpouring started. Bernardo Zenale (1460-1526), for example, hid faces in cliffs, as we can see in his 'Deposition':

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Jan van Eyck did it too when working on his Milan-Turin Hours... and long before this, Giotto did it in his 'Death of St Francis':

It wasn't only rock faces that such things found themselves hidden, either. Skies and clouds were especially popular,
as we can see here in Mantegna's 'Allegory of Minerva expelling the Vices'. Click on the pictures to make them larger, and you will find there are other faces there, too.

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No wonder, then that when Michelangelo did it boldly on that most famous of ceilings, the Vatican decided it best to paint right over the angry face, and pretend it had never happened...

Here is the Sistine Chapel ceiling before 'restoration' (left), and after (right).

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Nor was it only faces that appeared, but whole scenes, with riders on horses, if necessary, to tell the secret tale the artist was hiding there...

​Here by Mantegna again, we see evidence of a phantom meaning, this time in one of his St Sebastian paintings:

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The most important clue, though, lies not in the hidden drawings, but in the words that help us make sense of them. And of these, there too is no lack. 

Look for example at Ambrosius Benson's 'Lamentation', and in part-icular at the writing at the top of the lady's sleeve.

​The word is 'Arte' - 'Art'.

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As for who the characters are, the pink turbaned gentleman is the artist. Check the likeness gallery to be sure. What of the deceased, then, that he is lamenting? Well, it is his dad, a well known figure in the world of art. Compare these two, to guess who it is... he's in the gallery too!

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Here in this portrait of Anne of Cleves, historians have noted that her fingers are oddly posed, as if to suggest a profile rather less flattering than the potrait suggests. When Henry VIII saw the poor lady, in fact, he decided a terrible mistake had been made, and the marriage was never consumated. Compare this to the 'anthropomorphic' images we saw at the top of this page.

In this portrait by Clouet of King Charles IX of France, when we lighten the backdrop and enhance the contrast, a shadowy face can be made out, as well as faces on the other side.They are being hidden in the backdrop much as we saw faces hidden in rock faces and clouds above. More interesting, though, is when there is text...

Lettering is not often as easy to make out as in the Ambrosius Benson example. Here, an alternate letter technique has been used to help reveal the message being conveyed: 'Als ixh kan, papa' - 'As best I can Dad'. Who painted it? It was Cimabue, in her 'Capture of Christ', where Christ is her husband, Amadeus V, on whom the betraying Judas kiss is being planted by his son Ayman, Cimabue's step-son. Click for a large version to see the letters!

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Here you will definitely need to enlarge the image, but then you will be able to pick out the name of this youthful character in Duccio's Maesta... It's a self-portrait, and he kindly advises us of his formal name, Amadeus V (of Savoy), and his nickname, 'Duccio'.

You will notice also that the larger letters are actually composed of miniature versions of themselves - something that is commonly observed, and a handy confirmation that one is getting the name right!

These details from Cosimo Tura's Allegory of August, the Triumph of Ceres (above, left), reveal not only that Tura was in fact an alias of Uccello, but that he was having a laugh at the way Jan van Eyck's daughter had renamed herself, going from being a pious youngster to the libidinous lover of a King.

To the right we see equal hilarity being expressed by Simone Martini (another alias of Maria of Brabant, who we know now as Cimabue), who in her painting of St Augustine is laughing about her brother hiding himself away as a nun.

In this famous portrait of Henry V, completed shortly after his death by Paolo van Eyck, one can see the person who murdered him, his face leaning over the King's lips. Tiny letters advise us of the substance used: arsenic, and the name of the assassin (not in person of course, but the originator of the murder). He is identified as 'Carlo rey': King Charles VI of France.

Not having the king to sit for him, Paolo did the next best thing: he used himself as the model, as the Gallery of Likenesses confirms.

If you want to see more, turn to the Blog page, and check out the video series entitled 'Spelling it Out' . There you will find many examples of hidden lettering, portrayed in a way that makes it easier for you to see it yourself. But beware - every one of these examples also tells a tale of passion... of murder, violence, theft, secret love, and even the agonies of losing a loved one to the plague!