The 17th-century painting is incredibly precious, so the art conservators peel away layers of varnish from its surface with great caution. This artwork, Portrait of a Young Woman, is a beautiful example of the studio of Rembrandt – although it isn’t thought to have been created by the master himself. But as the conservators continue their meticulous cleaning, they discover something completely astonishing. And what they find is almost enough to turn art history on its head.
There’s no doubt that Portrait of a Young Woman is attractive. It’s very old, too, dating from 1632. But perhaps because the work wasn’t deemed to be important, it had languished in the collection of the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania for nearly 60 years. In 2018, though, the painting finally got its moment in the sun when it was sent to New York University for a clean-up.
And there’s a reason why the Allentown Art Museum had a hold of the painting in the first place. The institution first came into being during the Great Depression, with local people – led by the artist and critic Walter Emerson Baum – all working to create a haven for culture in their little part of the Keystone State. To begin with, this modest space exhibited works by mostly Pennsylvanian artists. But in the 1960s, there was a dramatic upswing in the museum’s fortunes.
That was when the Kress Foundation – founded by American businessman and philanthropist Samuel Kress – made a stunning donation to the museum’s collections. The organization donated no fewer than 53 paintings from the Renaissance era – a massive upgrade. And this donation motivated the good folk of Allentown to move the institution to a much grander home in the city, where it still stands today.
As you may have already guessed, one of the paintings that the Kress Foundation passed on to the Allentown Art Museum was Portrait of a Young Woman. This was a big deal, as at the time the work was attributed to Rembrandt. Unfortunately, though, in 1970 art experts in the Netherlands re-examined the painting and came to a devastating conclusion: it had in fact been created by a mere assistant of Rembrandt.
Presumably, the Allentown Art Museum’s staff and trustees would have been deeply disappointed when those Dutch art historians declared that Rembrandt had not painted Portrait of a Young Woman. Not every place has an original work by a legendary master, after all, and it would have been quite the coup for the small-town attraction if it had somehow managed to clinch one.
So, the painting remained on display in Allentown as a little-considered work by a Rembrandt understudy until 2018, when it was sent to New York University. There, it was subjected to a battery of tests, including electron microscopy, infrared scanning and X-ray procedures – high-tech indeed. But during these procedures, the conservators found that all was not as it seemed. There was something about this particular work that seemed strangely out of the ordinary.
And Portrait of a Young Woman bore all the hallmarks of someone who had learned at the knee of the great Dutch master himself. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn – for that is his full name – was born in Leiden in the Netherlands in 1606. As befits a man who made history for his astonishingly beautiful art, Leiden is an attractive city five miles or so from the Dutch coastline.
Rembrandt entered the world into a fairly prosperous family, too, although he had a lot of siblings – eight of them, as far as we know. His father supported the large clan by working as a miller, while his mother was the daughter of a baker. And Rembrandt would prove himself to be exceptional at a young age, as he was accepted by the University of Leiden at just 14.
But the young Rembrandt was apparently more interested in his art than studies. After just months at the university, he took on an apprenticeship with the artist Jacob van Swanenburgh, who had studied in Italy and was known as a history painter. This spell as an understudy to van Swanenburgh lasted for around three years.
In 1624 Rembrandt then moved from Leiden to the Dutch capital of Amsterdam. There, he joined the studio of Pieter Lastman for six months. Lastman was an artist whose paintings displayed a strong sense of narrative – a feature that would eventually figure large in many of his apprentice’s own works. If you’ve ever marveled over Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses or Christ Presented to the People, then, it’s Lastman you have to thank.
Finally, after learning his craft, Rembrandt returned to Leiden, where he opened a studio with his friend and fellow artist Jan Lievens. And in 1629 the fledgling artist had his talents recognized. Dutch diplomat and scholar Constantijn Huygens became a fan, and through him the artist now had a connection with the Dutch royal court in The Hague. A lucrative source of commissions from the likes of the powerful statesman Prince Frederik Hendrik would follow.
In 1631, though, Rembrandt moved back to Amsterdam and pursued a successful career as a portraitist. It’s worth noting that Portrait of a Young Woman was painted in 1632. At around this time, the artist also began to take on apprentices – helping others as his own teachers had once helped him. And Rembrandt cemented his reputation as an artist of great skill and quality before his death in 1669 at the age of 63.
Yes, many connoisseurs recognized Rembrandt’s genius during his lifetime, although he did have his critics. There were those who accused the painter of portraying too much ugliness in his pieces – a side effect, perhaps, of his commitment to stark realism. But today, Rembrandt’s work is accepted as some of the greatest art that the world has ever seen. It’s no surprise, then, that his paintings command extraordinary prices at auction.
In 2009 one of Rembrandt’s paintings from 1658 – Portrait of a man, half-length, with his arms akimbo – sold for over $33 million at Christie’s in London. At the time, this was the fourth-highest amount ever paid for a Renaissance work. It also broke the previous record for a Rembrandt – the $29 million sale of Portrait of a lady aged 62 in 2000.
And Rembrandt’s work has rocketed in price over the years – meaning only a few can ever afford it. In fact, in 2016 the governments of France and the Netherlands had to join together to buy a pair of works by the Renaissance master in a private sale conducted by Christie’s. It was just as well that they did, too, as the value of the pieces was quite astonishing.
The two works were portraits of a woman called Oopjen Coppit and her husband Maerten Soolmans. Rembrandt painted the two pictures in 1634 – just a year after the couple had wed. Each canvas measured around 83 by 53 inches and went for a staggering $95 million each.
Unsurprisingly, though, these enormous amounts of money make Rembrandt’s work a big target for thieves. And in 1972 three masked and armed desperadoes pulled off one of the heists of the century, nabbing themselves a painting by the grand master in the process. The trio clambered through a skylight on the roof of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the dark of night before overpowering and binding the guards there. They then made off with jewelry and paintings that included the Rembrandt work Landscape with Cottages – a piece that has never been recovered.
Investigator Alain Lacoursière had a theory about the theft, though, and he recounted this to Radio-Canada in 2017. Lacoursière explained, “There were rumors at the time that members of the Mafia here were trying to construct a ship and that the canvases would be rolled up and put in the hold during construction. They are probably decorating the home or palace of a Russian, Italian or French Mafia member who may have exchanged them for drugs [or] weapons.”
And not one but two Rembrandts disappeared from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts in 1990. Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee was the only seascape that the great artist ever turned his hand to, and it was taken along with A Lady and Gentleman in Black. Both painted in 1633, these works were among 13 that were stolen in what the museum claimed to be the world’s highest-value unsold art theft.
On the night of the robbery, two men in police uniform arrived at the museum and were allowed to enter. They then handcuffed two guards. And after an uninterrupted 81 minutes, the thieves left the museum with their haul, which was worth around half a billion dollars. Apparently, a $10 million reward put up by the museum for information still stands, so be sure to contact the institution directly if you know anything about the crime.
Fortunately, the Allentown Art Museum has escaped the attention of art thieves, even although it owned what was believed to be an original Rembrandt. The generous gift came on behalf of the Kress Foundation, named after noted local philanthropist Samuel H. Kress.
The patron had made his fortune by founding the extensive chain of S.H. Kress stores, which the Kress Foundation website claims sold “affordable, durable and cheerful domestic merchandise.” At a certain point, there were around 200 Kress stores across the U.S. But the man had wider interests than just retail. For one, he spent much of his life assembling an outstanding collection of Renaissance art.
The Kress Foundation then distributed some of this incredible stockpile to public museums and galleries around the U.S. One of those paintings was the supposed Rembrandt one, which landed in Allentown in 1961. And when the Kress Foundation donated the piece, it was genuinely believed to have been painted by the venerable Dutch master.
But in 1970 the painting was reassessed by experts from the Rembrandt Research Project. The organization looks over paintings that are said to be by the great man to establish whether or not they are genuine. And sadly for the Allentown Art Museum and the good folk of the city, the Dutch specialists were clear: Portrait of a Young Woman was not by Rembrandt.
Yes, while the team judged that this work had indeed been painted in Rembrandt’s studio, it had been created by an assistant and not the master himself. What gave the game away? Well, apparently, it was the quality of the light in the painting as well as its coarse texture.
The experts also questioned the way in which the woman’s clothing was rendered in the portrait, as this seemed to lack clarity. The signature on the work raised concerns, too, as it appeared to be at variance with other examples found on authentic Rembrandts. And all this evidence was supported by previous X-rays that had raised queries about the painting’s brushwork.
We can imagine that this new attribution must have been a severe disappointment to the folks in Allentown. If the Dutch team concluded that the painting had indeed been a work from Rembrandt’s own hand, then it would have been extremely valuable and a highly prestigious piece of the museum’s collection. As it goes, though, Portrait of a Young Woman was duly exhibited as having been created by an understudy of Rembrandt’s.
Yes, the magnificent piece had been crafted by a student of Rembrandt’s rather than the artist himself. That didn’t make it a fake, although it was not quite a triumph. And Portrait of a Young Woman was certainly worthy of conservation – hence its trip to New York. But what did the experts in the Big Apple make of the painting?
Well, to begin with, the portrait was shipped off to the New York University Institute of Fine Arts in Manhattan. This organization works with the Kress Foundation to conserve the art donated to galleries around the country – including the Allentown Art Museum. According to the institute’s website, it provides “new information about the authorship, function, authenticity and original context to which these paintings belonged.” And that was how the specialists there approached Portrait of a Young Woman.
Various types of technology were used to scrutinize the Allentown painting once it fell into the hands of the New York University conservators. Portrait of a Young Woman was examined using a technique called infrared reflectography. It was also X-rayed and scanned with electron microscopy. And this meticulous analysis began to reveal some unexpected secrets about a work that had once been attributed to Rembrandt.
In particular, this high-tech scrutiny uncovered something intriguing about the quality of the brushwork in the painting. Apparently, this was remarkably similar to the brush strokes in other pieces that had without a doubt been painted by Rembrandt. And one of the New York conservators, Shan Kuang, revealed more when she spoke to the New York Post in February 2020.
Kuang told the newspaper that close examination of Portrait of a Young Woman “showed brushwork, and a liveliness to that brushwork, that is quite consistent with other works by Rembrandt.” But there was still another important stage of work to be done on the painting: removing the coats of varnish that had been applied over the years.
Elaine Mehalakes, the Allentown Art Museum’s vice president of curatorial affairs, explained to the New York Post, “Our painting had numerous layers of varnish, and that really obscured what you could see of the original brushwork as well as the original color.” So, what would be revealed once the conservators had peeled away this lacquer?
Speaking to CNN about the varnish added to Portrait of a Young Woman, Kuang pointed out, “It was the fashion in the 1920s to not see any texture. We call it a ‘mirrored surface’ – people wanted to see their reflection, which is really counter to what a Rembrandt should look like.”
Kuang continued, “The restorer was so frustrated building up the layers of varnish to make the texture disappear that he actually poured it on. It was the consistency of molasses, and you could actually see the drip marks.” The conservator claimed, however, that as this varnish was removed, “it became very apparent very quickly that the painting was of a very high quality.” And art historians then came to a unanimous conclusion: Portrait of a Young Woman was by Rembrandt after all.
As Kuang put it, “A number of scholars and curators have now looked at [the painting], supported the attribution and said that if this was in their museums, they’d label it as a Rembrandt. And I think that gave Allentown [Art Museum] the confidence to go ahead – and rightfully so.” Yes, after decades of misattribution, the museum could now declare with pride that it owned a bona fide Rembrandt.
Unsurprisingly, Mehalakes was jubilant about the conclusions of the experts. She told The Philadelphia Inquirer in February 2020, “We’re very thrilled and excited. The painting has this incredible glow to it now that it just didn’t have before. You can really connect with the portrait in the way I think the artist meant you to.”
Rembrandt was not just an outstandingly talented artist but also a prolific one, so attribution controversies are no rarity when it comes to his works. Writing in the Financial Times in 2014, art historian Bendor Grosvenor pointed out, “In the first half of the 20th century, Rembrandt was believed to have painted some 600 [to] 650 works. But from the 1970s onwards, that number shrank rapidly to around 250.”
So, this is a tale with a happy ending. For nearly a decade from 1961, the Allentown Art Museum’s staff, trustees and visitors believed that the institution was the honored owner of a Rembrandt. Then this belief was shattered by experts in 1970. But almost 50 years later, a team of restorers were able to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Portrait of a Young Woman was indeed the work of the great Dutch master. And who knows? Maybe other priceless Rembrandts are gathering dust in museums around the globe – all because of their layers of varnish.
But what of another even more famous painting, Leonardo’s The Last Supper? There’s no doubt that it was created by the Renaissance man himself, but have you ever stopped to really take a look at the masterpiece? Well, maybe you should, as it’s absolutely teeming with secrets.
There’s no doubt that it’s a special painting – a masterpiece, in fact – while its creator is one of the most celebrated and enigmatic artists in history. And the scene the artwork portrays is among the most powerful ever depicted, too – not least because the event so stunningly brought to life is central to the story of a world religion. But could there be even more to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper than this? Well, according to some, the classic mural could hold a clandestine message – or messages – that has eluded understanding for generations.
As one of the most famous and frequently discussed works in Western art, though, The Last Supper should really hold no secrets. After all, countless experts have pored over the painting in the centuries since its creation. Yet while The Last Supper has earned its place in history, many myths and legends have sprung up in its wake.
So, what does the painting itself reveal? Well, central to the work, of course, is Jesus Christ – the son of God according to the Christian religion. And Christ is surrounded in The Last Supper by his 12 apostles. As the Bible tells it, these were the 12 men who most closely followed the teachings of Jesus and who would advance his message after his crucifixion.
And for Christians and art lovers the world over, the scene portrayed in the painting is a powerful one. Conventional thought says that the work depicts the last supper of Jesus and the apostles before Judas’ ultimate betrayal and Christ’s subsequent crucifixion. This event, as set out in the four canonical Gospels, forms one of the most powerful foundations of Christian tradition and rite: the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
But that seemingly isn’t the scene that Leonardo – the celebrated painter of the masterpiece – wishes to concentrate on, although its symbolism certainly exists within the painting. Instead, The Last Supper seemingly captures the moment when Jesus informs his closest followers that one of them will shortly betray him.
And the emotion that perhaps best sums up the expressions of those featured in the painting – other than Jesus himself, naturally – is consternation. Indeed, the apostles’ body language as they come to terms with Christ’s revelation suggests that this may be the most overt message portrayed in The Last Supper.
But the painting has arguably captivated some people because of what it doesn’t reveal rather than for what it does. There are those who believe the messages contained in the masterpiece go beyond conventional interpretations, in fact, and that these secrets in turn make profound statements about the story as reported in the Bible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, some of these theories are rather controversial in nature.
Let us begin with what we do know about The Last Supper, however. For starters, work on the future masterpiece began in around 1495, when Leonardo’s reputation was already established. Leonardo was born in Tuscany, Italy, in April 1452 and later educated in Florence by an artist named Andrea del Verrocchio. And as history tells us, he went on to become perhaps the greatest example of a polymath – or Renaissance man – that the world has ever seen.
Yes, Leonardo is not only credited as being one of the greatest painters in history, but he was also an inventor, mathematician, sculptor and astronomer – to name just a handful of his many accomplishments. Among the inventions to which Leonardo is accredited are the earliest known designs for a flying machine.
When it comes to Leonardo’s paintings, however, many were of a religious bent. Perhaps the first of his works that drew widespread acclaim was Baptism of Christ – his collaborative effort with Verrocchio. Other Christian-themed works followed before Leonardo was asked to create a mural for Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie convent. This in turn became The Last Supper, and to this day the painting can still be found in the refectory there.
And it certainly wasn’t unusual to depict the last meal of Christ and his disciples in works of art at the time. Pietro Perugino’s interpretation – which had been painted only a matter of years earlier in 1490 – even shares similarities with Leonardo’s masterpiece, although Perugino has the traitor, Judas, sitting on the opposite side of the table from the rest of the apostles. Other works from the period shared Leonardo’s placement of the diners, however.
Furthermore, Leonardo’s painting was based on events told in the Biblical Gospel of John. According to the gospel, a matter of days after Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem, an important meal is shared by the 13 central figures in the story. And during the course of this “last supper,” several important events are said to have occurred.
First of all, Jesus apparently predicted that one of his apostles will betray him to the people who will later come to arrest him. This is the scene that Leonardo portrays in The Last Supper, with the apostles seen to be reacting in dismay to the news that someone at the table will be disloyal to their Lord.
The second important event that is said to have taken place at the meal is the establishment of the Eucharist. This is the Christian rite of taking bread and wine as the representation of the body and blood of Christ. It’s a ritual that forms the basis of Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, which is a sacrament still performed by most Christian denominations.
Thirdly, the Gospel of John claims that Jesus had yet another revelation in store: that the disciple Peter will deny knowing his Lord three times before the following morning’s sun has risen. And, understandably, this news again apparently causes consternation among the gathered apostles. However, it’s the prediction of betrayal that concerns Leonardo in his interpretation of the scene as set out in The Last Supper.
As that final gathering plays such an important part in the Christian religion, then, it’s unsurprising that Leonardo’s painting was far from the first to portray the event. But unlike other depictions of the last supper, Leonardo’s piece has become the focus of widespread debate, conspiracy theories, myths, legends and puzzles. So, does the master’s work really contain secret messages?
Well, many believe so, and there’s one theory in particular that has really grown in prominence in recent times. You see, Leonardo was known to paint male figures who could be seen as androgynous in nature – most notably in his works Bacchus and John the Baptist. And according to some, that’s also the case in The Last Supper.
Most markedly, there’s a fairly androgynous character situated to the left of Jesus as you look at the painting. And while most art historians and scholars claim that this figure is the disciple John, the gender of the person can easily be questioned owing to the length of the subject’s hair and their effeminate features.
As a result, it’s been claimed by some that this figure is in fact a woman. And if that’s true, then her identity becomes an even greater source of controversy. One of the most popular theories in this vein was used as part of the central theme in Dan Brown’s incredibly popular 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code.
As the novel’s title suggests, its premise is that the great polymath and artist planted hidden messages in his works of art. And Brown’s book claims these symbols apparently allude to the fact that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene. It’s said, for example, that there’s a letter “M” featured in the center of the painting, with this apparently representing both Magdalene and the idea of marriage.
And Mary Magdalene is undeniably a key figure within Christian scripture. The close follower of Jesus was purportedly present at his crucifixion, for one, while she was also said to have been among the first to note his resurrection. As such, she’s become referred to as the “apostle to the apostles” among numerous denominations.
So, could Mary Magdalene have been the wife of Jesus? Well, most historians and religious scholars reject such a notion out of hand, as there is no strong evidence to suggest this was the case. In fact, the concepts raised in Dan Brown’s novel were actually just reworkings of earlier ideas that were based on the same premise.
There’s little doubt that Leonardo was a master of ambiguity, however, and his most famous painting takes open interpretation to the highest levels. La Gioconda, known in English as the Mona Lisa, portrays a woman with an enigmatic smirk upon her face that has intrigued viewers for centuries. The work is a particularly good example of Leonardo’s famous use of the technique of sfumato, which translates as blurred, soft or vague. It’s a shadowy effect that could perhaps apply to the meaning of Leonardo’s work as much as the artistic style itself.
Nonetheless, Leonardo expert Mario Taddei also rejects the theory as set out in Dan Brown’s novel. And central to Taddei’s position is the fact that Leonardo’s painting cannot stand alone in terms of what it depicts, as he was far from the first artist to interpret the scene set out in the Gospels.
“Before Leonardo da Vinci, there were hundreds of ‘Last Suppers,’ and when he painted The Last Supper he had to follow some rules,” Taddei told Smithsonian in July 2016. “These rules want to have the people in that position and with that smile so that people could recognize the apostles one by one.”
So, when it comes to the theory set out in The Da Vinci Code, Taddei is dismissive. “Is this John or Mary Magdalene?” he asked. “It’s a very easy question, but it’s a stupid question, because it must be John, because Leonardo had to copy the last suppers before him, and John looks like a woman.”
But that doesn’t mean Taddei dismisses the idea of a hidden message in the work of art – far from it, in fact. Instead, though, Taddei believes that Leonardo was trying to make a less overt statement in his painting – one that centers on the concept of using halos.
In the period in which The Last Supper was created, you see, it was the done thing to include halos around any depictions of Jesus and his apostles – aside from Judas. These features were naturally intended to imply that these people were divine, or at least holy. And as The Last Supper was produced in a devout era, it’s somewhat of a surprise to see Leonardo break with the contemporary tradition of including any halos.
So, Taddei believes the omission of halos was in itself Leonardo’s real message – and the decision was itself a potentially controversial one. “I believe that Leonardo never put the halos because he thinks that those people are common people. And this is the true secret of Leonardo,” Taddei explained. “There is no extra-terrestrial or supernatural object inside The Last Supper. Leonardo wants to tell us that the 13 men are simple men, and this is something much more powerful.”
Even discounting the Mary Magdalene suggestion, though, it seems that there could be yet more messages hidden within The Last Supper. There’s one theory, for example, that relates to the numbering system used in Leonardo’s groupings of the diners in the painting. And there are two bands of three apostles on each side of Jesus, meaning the placement can be interpreted as 3,3,1,3,3.
What’s more, if Taddei’s interpretation of the painting is accurate, then Leonardo was seemingly setting himself out as a religious sceptic – which would have been hugely controversial at the time. Undoubtedly, the artist was a man of science, and that didn’t necessarily tally with religious theory. Plus, if – as speculated – Leonardo was gay, that also would have placed him outside of heaven according to beliefs of the period. But what’s the relationship between these facts and the apparent 3,3,1,3,3 ratio?
Well, according to one theory, the answer lies in Lamentations 3:31-3 – with the chapter and verse numbers all neatly tallying with the numerical ratio of the people depicted in the painting. And this particular passage from the Old Testament begins, “For no one is cast off from the Lord forever.” Could this have been Leonardo predicting his own salvation?
Whatever your take on that particular theory, though, it’s arguably not the most obscure secret allegedly held within the brush-strokes of The Last Supper. Nor is the myth that the human models used for Jesus and Judas were one and the same person – although that particular hypothesis does make for a fascinating allegory about sin.
One version of that tale claims that Leonardo identified a young man who possessed all the facial characteristics the painter was looking for in his depiction of Jesus. Then years later, as the story goes, The Last Supper was nearly complete but for the face of Judas. So, seeking a suitably sinister subject to base his interpretation on, Leonardo supposedly went to a local prison and sought out a prisoner. It was only after completing the picture, however, that the artist discovered the models for Jesus and Judas were in fact one and the same man – or so legend has it, anyway.
Sadly, though, that particular story is too full of holes to be accurate. The purported timeline doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, for one, as the painting was reported to have been completed in a four- or five-year period at most. But then there’s yet another theory about The Last Supper – and it’s one that seemingly contradicts the suggestions that Leonardo was somehow a non-believer.
Specifically, it’s claimed that the grand master included musical notes in the picture. And, on the surface, that’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility; Leonardo was also a musician and instrument-maker, after all. The potential for yet another secret piqued the curiosity of Giovanni Maria Pala, too, and Pala consequently began looking into the possibility that there was a hidden musical composition included in the work.
Pala even found something intriguing after he transposed musical staff lines over The Last Supper and used particular religious symbols such as the bread and the hands to identify notes. But the composition only truly made sense when the Italian realized that the score had to be read in Leonardo’s distinctive method of writing: right to left.
The result is a 40-second piece of music that Pala has described as a hymn to God. He also suggests that the pipe organ – used ubiquitously in Leonardo’s day for religious music – delivers the composition to best effect. And Pala has even recorded the tune he’s interpreted from The Last Supper as well as detailing the process in his book La Musica Celata, which translates as The Hidden Music.
In addition, Pala believes that his findings point to a rather different version of Leonardo than those put forward by some of the other theories relating to The Last Supper. “A new figure emerges. [Leonardo] wasn’t a heretic like some believe. What emerges is a man who believes – a man who really believes in God,” Pala told the Associated Press in November 2007.
Whatever the truth, though, perhaps The Last Supper’s true genius lies in the way in which it still captivates viewers all these centuries later. And thanks to its beautifully crafted figures, expert use of perspective and clever inclusion of apparent symbolism, the masterpiece still possesses the capacity to create endless debate.