Historical Anamorphoses

Anamorphic art is the process of greatly distorting an image only to have it revealed either from a single vantage point or from its reflection on a mirrored surface. A cylindrical mirror is the most common form, but reflective cones and pyramids have also been used. The surprising appearance of the undistorted reflection or image is almost always met with wonder and delight.

It was Leonardo Da Vinci who first experimented with anamorphic perspective, and the first known example of an anamorphic drawing is an eye that he made in 1485. During the Renaissance, artists who experimented with perspective made great advances and perfected the techniques of stretching and distorting images in various ways using the geometry of perspective (see Leonardo’s Eye).

In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries anamorphic images became extremely popular, and supplied an ideal means of camouflaging dangerous political statements, heretical ideas, and even erotic images. Anamorphic images were widely reproduces in prints, and in a more permanent form adorned the walls of monasteries. Hans Holbein (1497 –1543), the great court painter to Henry VIII created perhaps the most famous and striking example of a hidden anamorphosis (see Holbein). It was in the 17th century that the first reflective cone and reflective cylinder anamorphoses were created. The technique also became popular in the Orient during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century, when color printing became inexpensive, the technique flourished again as a popular parlor game, alongside other optical tricks.

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• Leonardo’s Eye
This anamorphic drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, ca 1485 is the earliest known example of an anamorphosis. Although there are no notes accompanying this drawing by Leonardo, he does refer to the mechanics of anamorphic drawing in his treatise on painting, “And if you were to paint this on a wall in front of which you can move freely, the effect would appear out of proportion to you because of the great difference OR and RQ [the intervals]. This happens because the eye is so close to the wall that the painting appears foreshortened. And if you wished to paint that, however, your perspective would have to be viewed through a single hole.” • Schon
Play the movie to see how this early 16th century landscape concealed various hidden political messages, which were only revealed from a certain angle.

This masterpiece of hidden and anamorphic imagery was created between 1531 and 1534 by Erhard Schon, a Nuremberg engraver and pupil of Albrecht Durer. It contains the hidden portraits of Ferdinand I (top left), Charles V (top right), Francis I (bottom left), and Pope Paul III (bottom right). The human figures are identifiable, because the German and Latin inscriptions, which are only revealed from the same critical angle, present the names of each personage.

While preserving a thematic unity, the design combines two different pictures in one. The background which unfolds behind the hidden sovereigns recalls events connected with them and provides a key for deciphering their puzzle.

• Edward VI
Play the movie to see this distorted image transform into a portrait of Edward VI, son of Henry VIII. This portrait by William Scrots was painted in 1546, the year before Edward VI’s accession to the throne. There is a hollow hole in the frame which one can view the work from the correct angle.

• Holbein
Look at the strange shape near the bottom center of “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein, a portrait of the two French ambassadors Jean de Dinteville and George de Selve. What can it possibly be? Play the movie to see this shape transform into a recognizable image when you go to another viewing angle. The correct image of a skull can be seen by positioning yourself at an oblique angle relative to the right side of the picture plane.

The painting was originally hung on a staircase in Jean de Dinteville’s chateau, so that the skull may have appeared from below left or down the stairs. Although numerous explanations have been offered about the symbolic presence of the skull, including that it is a play on the artist’s name – Holbein, which means “hollow bone” in German, the reason for its inclusion is still unclear.