Forget Nelson Shank’s Monica Lewinsky reference. Michelangelo was the original troublemaker.

*For more on presidential portraits, check out my new post that aims to predict Trump’s official portrait*

I just happened upon an article about a portrait of Bill Clinton containing a subtle reference to Monica Lewinsky.  Apparently, painter Nelson Shanks included a shadow on the left of the painting to indicate someone coming into the office.  Or a shadow hanging over him.


Reading more, it turns out he was being pretty explicit.  In Shanks’s own words: “It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there.”

Now, Bill Clinton seems like a willing model.  He was present at the painting’s unveiling at the Smithsonian Castle Building in Washington. So for this to come out is a bit of a kick in the teeth. Shanks should thank his lucky stars that Clinton isn’t Frank Underwood.

It got me thinking about what other works of art are out there containing hidden meanings that seek to undermine their subject or patron.  What examples are there of artists being mischievous troublemakers?

Michelangelo was a troublemaker.  A supremely talented, deeply subversive troublemaker.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of the most famous works of art in history.  It contains hundreds of figures and scenes painted over a period of four years.  Some of which gleefully undermine the Church.

Exhibit A: The Creation of Adam.


This looks straightforward enough.  God creating Adam.  The birth of humanity.

Until you start to think of God and his posse as a brain.  The composition of the figures and swirling cape undeniably look like the cross-section of a brain, from the central sulcus down to the pituitary stalk.

This could be interpreted as God providing Adam with the gift of thought and consciousness.  More cynically, it could also suggest that God is in the mind of man; a mere mortal construction (image from

It’s not the only hidden brain.

Exhibit B: Separation of Light from Darkness.

Ian Suk, a medical illustrator, and Rafael Tamargo, a neurosurgeon, proposed that Michelangelo also hid anatomical references in the Separation of Light from Darkness, which depicts God as described in the Book of Genesis.

They identified the undersurface of the human brainstem in God’s neck, including anatomically correct shapes for the cerebellum, temporal lobes and optic chiasm beneath.

Once again, a depiction of the supreme power of God conceptually undermined by a hidden reference to human intelligence and mortality.


Source of image: Wikipedia.

To read more, see Scientific American’s ‘A juxtaposition of God and the human brain’.

Exhibit C: Flipping off the Pope


As was common practice during the Renaissance, Michelangelo painted the visage of one of his benefactors into his work: Pope Julius II appeared as the prophet Zechariah.

All kosher thus far.  However, looking at the cherub behind him you can see that it’s actually making a rude gesture: the fig.  I find the brashness of such a move pretty incredible given my understanding of what a pissed off Pope might do to you in 16th Century Italy.

Furthermore, The Last Judgement segment depicts souls of the damned descending through the mouth of Hell.  Michelangelo just so happened to paint the mouth of Hell behind the papal seat, which many understand as a stab at the corruption of the papacy.

Exhibit D: Michelangelo was a gay athiest

Finally, I think one of the most subversive elements of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes actually has nothing to do with the work itself.  It’s that Michelangelo is widely believed to have been a gay man with athiest beliefs.

Let’s take a step back here.  One of the most important works of art in human history, a work of such exceptional range and depth and seated in the very heart of Catholicism, was created by a GAY ATHIEST. Boom.




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