10 Hidden Self Portraits

A tradition emerged in the Renaissance for the painter to hide a self portrait of themselves in the background of the painting.  Let's look at ten examples of this.

#1- Raphael in The School of Athens

Raphael painted this fresco in the papal apartments at the Vatican at the same time that Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel.  The pope at the time was Pope Julius II and he was having Raphael paint a series of large paintings in all the Papal apartments.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-10, Stanza della Segnatura, Papal Apartments, Vatican Museum

The fresco, now known as The School of Athens, shows a variety of famous figures in a classical setting.  Raphael used several of his contemporaries who were artists to represent famous ancient Greek scholars, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians. Among them (circled in red below) are Leonardo da Vinci in the center, Michelangelo seated and a self portrait of Raphael at the far right.

Raphael is looking out at the viewer in a hidden self-portrait, a style that already had a long history in the Renaissance as we can see in some earlier examples.

#2- Lorenzo Ghiberti in The Gates of Paradise

Lorenzo Ghiberti's beautiful bronze set of doors, his second set for the Baptistery of Florence which hung on the east side were dubbed 'The Gates of Paradise' by fellow Florentine Michelangelo.  The viewer would primarily be paying attention to any of the ten large biblical scenes portrayed on the doors.  However Ghiberti actually hid two small self-portraits of himself in the decoration between the large panels. 

The first was a portrait of himself as he looked at the current time, and the second was of him as a young boy looking towards a small portrait of his mother.
Ghiberti, Gates of Paradise, Florence Baptistery, 1425-52

Ghiberti, Gates of Paradise, Florence Baptistery, 1425-52

Andrea Mantegna, The Meeting, Camera degli Sposi, Mantua, 1465-74

Detail with Self-Portrait

#3- Andrea Mantegna in the Camera degli Sposi

Andrea Mantegna is perhaps best known for his 'Camera degli Sposi' (Wedding Chamber) also known as the 'Camera Picta' (Painted Room) in the Ducal Palace in Mantua.  The rooms has frescos along the walls and the ceiling.  Just as Ghiberti did, Mantegna hid a small self portrait among the decorative bands.  Both the painted wall showing the well known meeting scene and a detail of the decorative band are shown above.

#4-  Botticelli in The Adoration of the Magi

Botticelli painted more than one version of the Adoration of the Magi, this one was painted in 1475.

Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Museum, 1475

Botticelli is thought to be the figure at the far right, looking out at the viewer as seen in the detail below.  Just as in the later Raphael painting the figure is at the far right, and rather than taking part in the action of the painting he is staring out to the viewer's space.  This is a style that would be repeated by other Italian Renaissance painters.

Detail of Botticelli's Self-Portrait in the Adoration of the Magi

#5- Fillipino Lippi in The Dispute with Simon Magus

Lippi, The Dispute with Simon Magus (1481–1482) Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence

The Dispute with Simon Magus (1481–1482) is a fresco in the Brancacci Chapel in the Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, Italy.  The Brancacci Chapel is famous for being the chapel where Masaccio and Masolino first used one point perspective in painting.  The frescos all show scenes from the life of St. Peter.  Lippi studied under Botticelli and this self-portrait has several similarities in the way it is portrayed as Botticelli's in the Adoration of the Magi.

Detail of Lippi self-portrait in The Dispute with Simon Magus in the Brancacci Chapel

#6- Michelangelo in The Last Judgement 

The Last Judgement was painted in 1537-41, he started painting it in the Sistine Chapel 25 years after he had finished painting his famous ceiling frescos.  The act of painting in fresco, especially at the enormous scale of the Sistine Chapel left the artist feeling worn out and drained.  He lets the viewer know as much by including a hidden, and rather grotesque, self-portrait as the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew.  St. Bartholomew is sitting on a cloud just below and to the right of Christ and is holding his flayed skin as a symbol of his own martyrdom. 

Michelangelo, The Last Judgement, 1537-41, Sistine Chapel, Vatican

#7- Sofonisba Anguissola in Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola 

This work dates from the late 1550's and is less a hidden self-portrait than a unique variant on other self portraits.  This painting both showed her own self-portrait and showed the fact that a well known artist had painted her.  However it was extremely clever as it wasn't presented as a straight self-portrait.  The artist even convincingly uses two painting styles to differentiate a person from a painted person.

Anguissola, Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, 1550's,

#8- Pontormo in the Deposition of Christ from the Cross

Pontormo, Deposition of Christ, 1525-28, Santa Felicita, Florence

What is interesting about Pontormo is that he used his own face to model the majority of his faces on, so there are echos of his features in several figures in both this work and others.  Just as in several of his Florentine Renaissance predecessors he paints himself at the far right and looking out at the viewer. 

This painting is from 1525-28 and was painted in the new style of Mannerism which followed the Italian High Renaissance and was inspired by Michelangelo. 

9- Caravaggio in David with the Head of Goliath 

This painting done in 1609–1610 has another type of grotesque hidden self-portrait.  Caravaggio painted in his own features as those of the severed head of the giant Goliath.  We know that Caravaggio, whose given name was Michelangelo Merisi, was inspired by Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling since the famous gesture of Adam in the ceiling fresco show up in his Calling of St. Matthew.  Perhaps he was also influenced by his macabre self-portrait from the Last Judgement when he painted this hidden self-portrait.

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, Borghese Gallery, Rome
10- Velázquez in Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, The Prado, Madrid

Velázquez painted Las Meninas in 1656 while he was the royal court painter for the King of Spain, King Philip IV.  This is one of the best known and most analyzed paintings in art history.  The subject of the work is the princess, Infanta Margarita Teresa and her attendants.  However there are several figures hidden in the painting and the most prominent of those is the painter himself, in partial shadow working at his easel to the left.

The reason that he has included himself in this work has been often discussed, is this a type of artistic calling card, a way to show his importance at court, does he feel he is part of the royal family or is he simply painting a realistic version of all that goes on in the day to day life in the royal court?  Maybe he knows he is creating a slight illusion for the viewer and is giving us a puzzle to sort out.

There are many more hidden self portraits in art history, a clever way for the painter to leave their mark upon their work and include themselves in the interesting scenes they portray.

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