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Our 5 Favorite Mystery Artworks
Get inspired 12 Oct 2022

Our 5 Favorite Mystery Artworks

Art history is full of hidden truths, ambiguous meanings, and mysterious figures. Despite advances in the field, some artworks still leave historians with unanswered questions. Today, take a trip into the past with us as we discuss five famous artworks from history and the sense of mystery that surrounds them!

1. Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1620 © Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi, mystery
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1620 © Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi

This work by Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi depicts a scene from the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. In this story, Judith, a widow, beheads Holofernes, who planned to destroy her home city. This scene was commonly depicted by artists during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. However, Gentileschi’s painting holds a more personal significance. This mysterious work is a self portrait of the artist as Judith, referring to her rape by Agostino Tassi, a colleague of her father. After the assault, Gentileschi claimed that she held a knife towards Tassi and told him that she wanted to kill him for dishonoring her. In Gentileschi’s painting, Judith wears a bracelet depicting Artemis, a Goddess who protected her virginity at all costs and even killed those who attempted to assault her. A final haunting element of the image is that some viewers perceive Tassi’s death as a rebirth— do you see it?

2. The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, famous art history, mystery artworks
Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, c. 1665 © Mauritshuis, Netherlands

The woman depicted in this painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer is one of the most famous faces in art history, yet her identity remains undetermined. While some believe her to be one of the artist’s daughters, her innocence hinted at by the pearl earring she wears, others see the regard of a lover in her eyes. The true relationship between the artist and sitter will likely never be known, which only adds to the mystery and intrigue of this enigmatic work. 

3. Haunting by Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon, Haunting, 1893-94, mystery artworks
Odilon Redon, The Haunting, 1893-94

French artist Odilon Redon is known for his strange and mysterious works. His Noirs, or monochromatic black artworks, depict a wide range of subjects that play with the supernatural and the imagination. In this work titled The Haunting, Redon evokes a somber and ghostly world. Beings with uncanny human-like features float in the air, silently observing. The strangeness and dark melancholy of this work provoke reflection, while leaving the viewer with a feeling of unease… The artwork leaves the viewer with the mystery: Redon’s works a figment of his imagination, or something more real?

4. Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Every corner of this painting by Dutch artist Jan van Eyck adds to the intrigue of this work. Two mysterious figures loom in the reflection of the mirror behind the two subjects. One of these figures is commonly believed to be a representation of the artist himself, a form of self portrait. 

Another mysterious element of this work is its original purpose and the scene that it represents. Initially, it was widely held that the painting depicts a wedding between Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami. However, this theory was discounted in 1990, with the discovery of a document revealing that the couple’s marriage actually took place 13 years after the oil painting was completed. This threw existing interpretations of the work out the window, often being replaced with the theory that the principal purpose of the work was to be a symbol of wealth and status. 

5. The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio

Caravaggio, The Beheading of St John the Baptist, mystery artworks
Caravaggio, The Beheading of St John the Baptist, 1608 © St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta

Italian artist Caravaggio was known for his violent temper. In 1606, he lost control in an argument with another man which escalated to a swordfight. He ended up fatally stabbing his opponent. Caravaggio then fled Rome for Naples and then Malta. In this painting, which he completed two years later in 1608, Caravaggio added his signature for the first time in his life. He wrote his signature from the pool of blood spilled from St John the Baptist’s neck. This detail is widely interpreted as Caravaggio’s admission to the murder that took place two years earlier.

The mysterious world of art…

Art is an inherently mysterious thing. This element of mystery might even be what makes it so appealing – it’s what prompts us to experience and interpret artworks through our own subjective lens. We discussed some famous works in art history that push this element of mystery to the next level – which artwork would you add to the list?

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