Artist: Paint at your Peril…

When open expression means threat to life and limb, art soon becomes more than just a picture. What one sees at first glance is what was designed to greet the oppressor’s eyes, and those of his spies – while the real art, the passion, the anguish, the love, the outrage, all the artist feels, this is traditionally hidden beneath.

What is on the surface is more than just a cover, though, more than just a deception. It also contains the keyholes into which those with the key may unlock the secret, and enter the artist’s now hidden world.

It has long been known that many masterpieces, created when there was no justice, had more than one meaning. The greatest masters all did it. Giotto did it, Jan van Eyck did it, Mantegna did it, and their examples are there for the seeing, brazen in their advertising of a second meaning.

If these ‘keyholes’ were noticed, they were explained away to the tyrant as visual jokes or curiosities, a ‘three monkeys’ explanation that – amazingly – is still adhered to by the more conservative of art historians, even today. ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil…’ might be their motto. They talk instead only of the superficialities the tyrant thought he was commissioning when he bought the art… The truth beneath they shut their eyes to.

Many of the most obvious clues were drawings in their own right – faces in a cloud or a rock face, but more significant and revealing were the clandestine words. Generally better camouflaged, these spoke volumes of the horrors and outrages being perpetrated on the innocent: robbery, rape, murder and genocide…

Now, given the wonders of digital enhancement, and the miracle of Photoshop, it has proven possible to decipher many of these inscriptions, and we find they tell entire, horrifying stories, stories that conflict sharply with the history we learned at school… This, it seems now, was just PR put out by the tyrant of the time so people would believe what he wanted – and we took it in, hook, line and sinker. We believed every last word. Now, though, a series of videos has been released showing the world of the Renaissance artist in action, revealing the text and unveiling the astounding truths lost for centuries. Here is just one of them, to give you a taste:

On the same website where this appears, there are many others too, each giving a different example of the use of disguised text, and revealing the secret truth that drove the passions of the painter. If you want to know what truly moved the artist, you can find it on the ‘Blog’ page. Click below to take a look.

On the same site you can also find some of the most dramatic stories that have been discovered so far, not least of which is one vitally important to anyone who cares about defeating tyranny. It’s the tale of a boy, born after a brief affair between Michelangelo and a slave girl, an astounding character who really upended the world of his time, and in so doing, changed ours too. The story, pieced together over the past five years, can now be told again – for the first time in 500 years.

But why is this important to us? Well, it used to be that for most of those lucky to live in the West, tyranny was not a problem, so no need to hide what one felt when painting. This post, though, is international, and there are many places in the world where this is far from true, and where tyranny still rules. Even in the West, with the changes currently afoot, the comfortable white majority may soon find that they are subject to the same abuse that the African American community, for example, has had to live with ever since it arrived in slavery. Tyranny is widespread, and growing, so best for those of us who love art to be prepared, no?