Easter Eggs in Art History

Easter eggs aren't just treats hidden by a giant (and terrifying) rabbit. The term has also come to mean something hidden within a work - whether that's a movie, song of image. 

Just in time for Easter, we're taking a look at the greatest Easter eggs in art history:

7. Raphael's Unicorn

Raphael.  Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn . 1506. 

Raphael. Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn. 1506. 

Much has been written of Raphael’s portrait, spurring many imaginations. From the resemblance to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to speculation about the identity of the sitter, this painting is filled with enigma. And that isn’t even mentioning the fact she’s holding a unicorn!

The painting, has undergone several revisions. In the 17th century, the sitter’s shoulders were covered (for modesty) and the broken wheel of St. Catherine was painted over the mythical pet - transforming a magical painting into a religious artwork. 

It wasn’t until the 20th century that technological advancements allowed for these discoveries during x-ray examination. 

Unfortunately, these examinations also revealed it was not originally a unicorn, but rather a lap dog. In fact, the original painting had no animal in the lap of the girl. The dog, and later unicorn, were subsequently painted by other artists.

Sorry to shatter your dreams of Renaissance unicorns running freely through the countryside, this Easter egg is less magical than we had hoped for.


6. God rides in a chariot....of the human brain?

Michelangelo.  The Creation of Adam.  1508-1512.

Michelangelo. The Creation of Adam. 1508-1512.

Whether you’ve been to Rome or a gift shop, we’ve all seen The Creation of Adam – a masterpiece that took Michelangelo 5 years to create.

But, if you look a little closer, you might find something strange about the shape of God and his posse of angels. First discovered by physicist, Frank Meshberger and written about extensively in scientific texts, this unusually shape is an anatomically accurate depiction of a cross section of the human brain.

And it’s not improbable - apart from drawing, painting and sculpture, cadaver dissection was among Michelangelo’s favorite hobbies – a habit he picked up at the age of 17 when he would use bodies from the church graveyard.


Though The Creation of Adam is generally thought to depict God creating man, are these anatomical undertones a hint that Michelangelo thought the origin of humanity lay in the human brain? Could one of the most venerated works of art is an apparently atheistic sentiment? Perhaps.


5. The Wedding Portrait

Jan Van Eyck.  Arnolfini Portrait. 1434. 

Jan Van Eyck. Arnolfini Portrait. 1434. 

This 1434 painting by Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck has surprised scholars for centuries. It is considered one of the most original works of Western art for its uniqueness and complex iconography and geometric composition.

The mysteries contained in this painting are perplexing. While superficially, it appears to be domestic scene, all the content within goes beyond first impressions. From the little dog which symbolizes loyalty, to the green dress which connotes hope – this painting is rich with iconography. We still aren’t sure what the horn hairdo means, but it probably symbolizes something.

The detailed inscription and signature on the wall of the portrait has lead many to believe the painting was legal documentation of the matrimonial union. Nowadays, it’s not unusual for couples to spend thousands of dollars on wedding portraits, but this example is pretty extravagant.


The most notable Easter egg contained in this painting remains the convex mirror on the back wall. The small medallions set into the mirror’s frame depict tiny scenes from the Passion of Christ, representing God’s ever-present promise of salvation for those depicted in the mirror. Within the mirror, the entire room is reflected back to the viewer in nearly perfect accuracy – including the artist himself.

Could this be the first selfie in history?


4. Close Encounters of the Renaissance

Domenico Ghirlandaio.  The Madonna with Saint Giovannino.  1449 – 1494

Domenico Ghirlandaio. The Madonna with Saint Giovannino. 1449 – 1494

This 15th century painting is a little strange, and not just the fact that baby Jesus has a six-pack.

Look closer at the sky, and you might be surprised to see what looks like a UFO. It’s made even more suspect by the bystander’s reaction in the background.

Many contemporaneous Florentine paintings depict strange objects flying in the sky – but this definitely isn’t an angel or a dove.



3. Music at The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci.  The Last Supper. 1494-1495

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper. 1494-1495

Da Vinci was a master of planting Easter eggs in his paintings, many of which we still haven’t unravelled.

And, it’s all too festive that there are some hidden within his painting of The Last Supper. This work has been the source of many conspiracy theories over the years, most notably in Dan Brown’s pulp novel The da Vinci Code. 

The strangest thing isn't the fact they're sitting at one side of the table (imagine making that dinner reservation - "table for 24, only 12 will be dining, but we want to sit on one side").

Take close note of the loaves of bread on the table. While Jesus and his apostles may have loved dinner rolls, a musician realized that they could also be music notes.

Giovanni Maria Pala discovered that each loaf of bread in the meticulously composed painting represents a different note that combined make a 40-second requiem.


2. Bum music from hell

Hieronymus Bosch.  The Garden of Earthly Delights.  1503-1515.

Hieronymus Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights. 1503-1515.

While on the topic of music, we'd be remiss to not include one of the most puzzling artworks in all of art history. Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is loaded with puzzling imagery that has ignited the imaginations of scholars for centuries. 

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From pigs in nun habits to disembodied ears, it would be easy to label this painting an Easter egg hunt and call it a day.

But, one character in particular has fascinated historians; a small character depicted in Bosch's hell has a musical score tattooed to his derriere.

A Christian University student from Oklahoma, Amelia Hamrick transcribed and recorded this 500 year old song. While it's not the most complex piece of music, it's definitely the only Renaissance butt song out there. 


1. Who is Mona?

Leonardo da Vinci.  Mona Lisa.  1503.

Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa. 1503.

Perhaps the most enigmatic painting of all time, Mona Lisa attracts millions of visitors to the Louvre every year.

A lack of definitive evidence as to her identity has fuelled many theories. Her masculine features have perplexed many historians who have speculated that perhaps da Vinci used both male and female sitters. Another (crazier) hypothesis is that Mona Lisa is in fact a self-portrait of da Vinci himself. We aren’t buying the resemblance.

From the placement of her hands inspiring speculation that the sitter was pregnant, to a mysterious “LV” placed in her right eye, the many mysteries of Mona Lisa may never be uncovered.

According to historical records, the only women in 16th century Italy who would remove their facial hair were prostitutes, sparking further questions about her identity. Though she has the markings of a noblewoman, could Mona Lisa have been a lady of the night? Technological advancements may have an answer to this mystery, however. Using high definition cameras, a French engineer discovered she may have originally had eyebrows.

This is an Easter egg we’ll never be able to crack.