This may be the most controversial suggestion because it has been proposed by many lay experts before and denounced by the academics every time as foolish and mistaken. Certainly, there have been some outlandish claims but to dismiss all of them, some of them highly important, is equally foolish. This is the truth: under the apparent surface of many great paintings, especially landscapes, is a hidden face. Sometimes it is the artist’s, sometimes an admired poet’s or, as in most instances, still anonymous. Academics comment in disagreement “that you can see what you want to see” but the self-evident examples shown here make that response untenable. Practising artists, however, when shown these examples have unanimously agreed with our perception, many with comments like “That’s how an artist thinks.”
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is the preeminent example. Scores of figures around the altar-wall, when seen together from a distance, resemble the unmistakeable profile of Michelangelo’s poetic hero, Dante Alighieri.....with Christ in the center of Dante’s brain. This was first suggested by a Venezuelan diplomat in 1951 and has been ignored with few exceptions ever since. Charles Tolnay, a well-known expert on Michelangelo, last cited it in a note in 1960.1 For the next half-century no book or article on Michelangelo ever mentioned it. I brought the observation back to the attention of the art world, with additional support, in the pages of The Art Newspaper in 2007. It was met with a deafening silence. Nevertheless, what you need to know is that hundreds of subsequent artists were inspired by the presence of Dante’s profile in the Sistine Chapel. Look at it in a book. Go see it yourself in Rome. It is the single most important visual illusion in the history of art.
The examples here all come with supporting evidence. It is not just that the “faces” look like a face but the “face” has meaning. All scenes in true art are ideas in the artist’s mind so the instability with which an image can change from an apparent scene of nature to a human head beautifully conveys the evanescence and constant mutability of human thoughts. After you train your eyes with the examples here, you will get more enjoyment out of a museum than you ever had before. Interpreting art becomes fun.
The evidence for the illusion in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is laid out in abundant detail in the essay “Michelangelo’s Art Through Michelangelo’s Eyes.” If you have the time – and it does not take long – read it. It explains not just Michelangelo’s methods but the fundamentals – explained here in a different way – of all art, helping you interpret other art by yourself. Each way has its own merit. Try both.
1. Joaquin Diaz Gonzalez, Scoperta d’un grande segreto dell’art nel Giudizio Universale di Michelangelo, 2nd. ed. (Rome: Angelo Belardetti) 1954; Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo: The Final Period (Princeton University Press) 1960, p. 119, n.68
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