Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Michaelangelo’s David… These iconic monuments and artworks are so familiar that they’re embedded in the cultural fabric of society. But did you know that many of these ultra-famous statues have fascinating hidden meanings or secrets concealed within them? Yes, we could tell you some things about Lady Liberty that would blow your mind! In fact, what we’re about to reveal might change your perception of these celebrated landmarks forever...
20. Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
This iconic Brazilian statue, depicting Jesus Christ with his arms outstretched, is famous the world over. A marvel of early 20th-century construction, finished in 1931, it stands at a jaw-dropping 98-ft high. But even more remarkable is the illusion of its composition. Yes, from a distance the towering monument looks completely smooth, right?
But aha! Look closely and you’ll see that it is in fact constructed from millions of soapstone tiles on which, the BBC tells us, are messages written by women volunteers who hand-glued them onto linen cloths. Cool huh? But the secrets don’t end there; as there is also a trapdoor concealed in the statue’s right shoulder, lending access for maintenance workers.
19. Mustangs of Las Colinas, Irving, Texas
A quite wondrous piece of bronze artistry, Mustangs of Las Colinas depicts a group of wild horses, or mustangs, galloping through a river. According to the Irving Archives and Museum in Texas, the piece was commissioned by a Dallas entrepreneur, Ben Carpenter, who wanted a sculpture for the Las Colinas Center that reflected “the state’s natural, untamed past.”
Kenyan wildlife artist Robert Glen spent a remarkable eight years laboring over the dramatic work — an effort that wasn’t wasted. Here’s the really clever part though: the effect of the water splashing around the horses’ hooves was achieved with a series of strategically-placed fountains. Pretty smart, we think you’ll agree!
18. Bust of Nefertiti, Berlin, Germany
The superbly well-preserved bust of Nefertiti, wife of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, was found in 1912. According to the website of magazine Reader’s Digest, it is believed to have been made in 1345 BC by the sculptor Thutmose: the work was found in his workshop. This beautiful bust, now displayed in Germany’s Neues Museum in Berlin, is typical of ancient Egyptian art, with its vibrant colors and intricate detail.
Eye don’t know…
But there is one detail about Thutmose’s sculpture that has baffled historians: the left eyeball is missing. The thing is, there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that the real Nefertiti was missing an eye. And an extensive search for the “lost” eye has never located it. What’s more, there aren’t any signs of adhesive to suggest there ever was an eye. Looks like this mystery will remain unsolved!
17. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington D.C.
As well as being a mightily impressive monument, there are a host of important details about the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial — according to the website of the National Park Service (NPS) — that may have escaped your notice. First off, its position: located on 1964 Independence Avenue, S.W, the address is a nod to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which King was instrumental in establishing.
Out of the mountain
Then there’s the fact that the statue is exactly aligned with two nearby monuments to other notable civil rights activists: Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Finally, the memorial’s construction — depicting King emerging from a mountain — references the line, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
16. Peter the Great, Moscow, Russia
Its curious construction of naval ship sculptures jutting out of a towering column has earned Moscow’s Peter the Great monument an unfortunate reputation as one of the world’s ugliest statues. That’s according to Atlas Obscura, anyway. But aesthetics aren’t the only reason that some people have strong feelings about the monument.
Is it really Peter?
Peter the Great, a statue of whom purportedly stands atop the column, infamously committed some pretty barbaric acts in his time. But he earned his “Great” title after establishing the Russian navy. So he’s a controversial figure — much like Christopher Columbus, whom it’s alleged the statue was originally created to commemorate, as per an article in newspaper the Washington Post. It’s claimed nobody wanted it, so sculptor Zurab Tsereteli passed it off as Peter the Great — a story the artist vehemently denies!
15. Supreme Court Building, Washington D.C.
With its Pantheon-like design, the Supreme Court Building is another iconic Washington landmark. As well as being a magnificent piece of architecture, it has a rather fascinating detail hiding in plain sight. And it involves a certain former president who also served as a Supreme Court Justice. Do you know who we’re talking about?
Got Taft? Not daft!
Kudos to anyone who got that we’re referring to William Howard Taft! Yes, Howard was president from 1909 to 1913, before going on to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930. In tribute to him — according to the Best Life website — Taft’s likeness was featured by the sculptor in the pediment above the building’s entrance.
14. Fallen Astronaut, the Moon
The existence of this commemorative piece of art might even come as a surprise to many. Did you know that there is a nearly-4-inches-tall aluminum figure of an astronaut on the Moon? You do now! It’s become known as the Fallen Astronaut because said figure is lying face down, next to a plaque listing the names of 14 astronauts who sadly perished during space missions.
The thing is, there’s kind of a dispute surrounding the piece, the Reader’s Digest website notes. See, the artist Paul van Hoeydonck from Belgium created the lunar artwork in 1971 with the intention that it should represent all astronauts, and be called Space Traveler. But it was the crew of Apollo 15 who decided that the figure should be a memorial to the fallen ones and placed it lying down, rather than upright as van Hoeydonck had intended.
13. The Statue of Liberty, New York City, New York
The Statue of Liberty is probably the most famous landmark in the United States: as we all know, she stands on Liberty Island in New York Harbor. The neoclassical copper statue, a gift of friendship from France, was designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. It was officially unveiled in 1886.
Now, you might’ve wondered why Lady Liberty has those points on her crown? Well, Best Life notes that Bartholdi saw them as a sort of divine halo. After all, the statue supposedly depicts the Roman goddess Libertas. But according to the website of newspaper USA Today, the seven “rays” might also represent the seven seas and/or continents.
12. David, Florence, Italy
Undoubtedly one of the world’s most famous artworks, Michelangelo’s David is widely considered both a masterpiece, and a perfect representation of the male physique. But there are several important details of the statue that you likely won’t have noticed, hidden as they are, in plain sight. One is the fact that the figure may be holding a battle weapon called a “fustibal” in his right hand.
The iconic figure also has a bulging vein in his neck, indicating tension, according to cardiologist Daniel Gelfman via USA Today. And finally, his eyes look in different directions, to ensure maximum impact wherever the viewer is standing — proving that art really is in the eye of the beholder! This kind of attention to detail also reinforces why Michelangelo is generally held to have been one of the great masters.
11. The Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.
There are a bunch of rumors in circulation about the famous memorial to Abraham Lincoln. It’s been said, for example, that the face of Jefferson Davis can be seen in his hair. According to the National Park Service (NPS) website, some have also argued that Lincoln’s hands form the signs for his initials.
There is certainly no proof that the statue’s sculptor, Daniel Chester French, intended this to be the case. One thing we do know for sure though, is that the former president’s throne has symbolic meaning. The arm rests feature ‘fasces’ or “bundle[s] of rods ... bound by a leather thong,” according to the NPS. In ancient Rome, fasces symbolized “executive authority,” fitting for the great leader.
10. Jefferson Memorial, Washington D.C.
With its beautiful domed structure housing a bronze statue of the third American president, the Jefferson Memorial is another iconic D.C. monument. Evidently, an awful lot of planning and work went into creating such an impressive structure, which stands majestically on the National Mall’s Tidal Basin, surrounded by cherry blossom trees.
But there’s a clever detail hidden amid the monument to Thomas Jefferson — and you would have to be an expert in masonry to spot it. According to the NPS, the memorial is constructed from myriad types of stone, and for an important reason. Each kind of marble and other material hails from a different state, symbolizing the growth of the United States during Jefferson’s presidency.
9. Pietà, Vatican City, Italy
Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll be familiar with Michelangelo’s iconic piece of art. Pietà is the celebrated Italian artist’s famous sculpture of Mary cradling the body of Jesus. It’s housed in the home of the Pope, St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome’s Vatican City, adding to its prestige. The Renaissance artwork is made of marble and was created in the late 15th century.
“I made this!”
We like this story: according to Reader’s Digest, after Michelangelo created his masterpiece, he apparently got wind of it being passed off as the work of another artist. To put a stop to that, he added an inscription to the sash across Mary’s chest that translates as, “Michelangelo Buonarotti, the Florentine, made this.” It was the only work he signed, too!
8. The Statue of Liberty, New York City, (again)
Yes, we know we’ve already mentioned the artwork properly known as Liberty Enlightening the World elsewhere in this list. But the hidden message that we’re about to divulge is so important that we thought it worthy of a separate entry. That message concerns the shackles around Lady Liberty’s feet, which you may or may not know, are broken. The purpose of this isn’t just to symbolize freedom, though.
Abolition of slavery
As per the Washington Post, the Frenchman whose idea it was to gift the statue to America was an influential political writer named Edouard de Laboulaye. Now, Laboulaye wanted to commemorate the Civil War’s end and the abolition of slavery. This, in fact, was what the broken shackles were supposed to represent. But as discrimination and racial segregation continued, that meaning became unpopular and was forgotten.
7. WWII Memorial, Washington D.C.
The American capital’s WWII Memorial is stately and sobering in equal measure. It was designed by the eminent architect Friedrich St. Florian, and dedicated in a special ceremony attended by U.S. veterans on Memorial Day weekend in 2004. With his design, St. Florian sought to honor the troops fighting on both sides of the world.
The monument is imbued with poignant symbolism of course, but there is a rather nice, informal touch to be found, if you look closely. Etched into the corners of both the Atlantic and Pacific ends, are the words “Kilroy was here” — a piece of graffiti that was popular among American troops. According to the NPS, Kilroy was believed to be an American spy, who was adept at infiltrating the German army.
6. Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri
You’re probably familiar with the Gateway Arch, but did you know that it’s the world’s tallest structure of its kind? Some people believe it might even be the tallest man-made monument in the Western hemisphere. The stainless-steel wonder stands at a jaw-dropping 630 feet high, and was built in 1965 as a “Gateway to the West.”
What you won’t be able to tell though, while gazing up at that mighty structure, is that it has a cleverly-concealed secret. And that is in the form of a time capsule, welded to the top of the arch. The capsule contains over 700,000 signatures of St. Louis residents and, according to Best Life, is intended to represent the city’s people.
5. National Archives Building, Washington D.C.
You’ll have noticed quite a few D.C. monuments with secrets cropping up on this list, and with good reason — the U.S. capital is full of them! Yet another one for this line-up is the National Archives Building: a magnificent piece of neoclassical architecture. According to the National Archives website, the design throughout was inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans, with an emphasis on allegory and mythology.
The ornate sculpting of the building’s north pediment was the work of Adolph Alexander Weinman, entitled Destiny by the artist. That title is personified by a man seated on a throne, with other symbolic figures around him. On closer inspection, you’ll notice two fearsome-looking griffins — mythological half eagle, half lion creatures — at each end, which Weinman called the “Guardians of the Secrets of the Archives.”
4. Washington Monument, Washington D.C.
It doesn’t get much more iconic than this, of course. Washington’s mighty obelisk, as we already know, commemorates president George Washington. It’s the world’s tallest mostly-stone column at over 500 feet tall. So you’re familiar with the monument and its D.C. location — but we bet we could surprise you with some of its hidden details.
Super-hard to spot
You would need Superman vision to spot one such detail — the words Laus Deo, Latin for “Praise (be) to God” — engraved on the pyramid-shaped tip, according to the NPS. And in the lobby, close inspection will reveal some graffiti etched into the wall. It reads “David C. Hickey”, who the Washington Post tells us was a Union soldier who used the obelisk as a fort during the Civil War.
3. The White House, Washington D.C.
The White House is as American as they come, right? It’s probably the most famous building in the capital, and the home of every American president for generations. Interestingly though, the design was by Irish-born architect James Hoban, who actually took Leinster House in Dublin as his inspiration; adding the columns to create that stately, neoclassical design.
But the White House architect isn’t the building’s only Gaelic connection. No indeed; the stonemasons who created those magnificent columns and porticos hailed from Scotland. And to honor their heritage — according to the NPS — they carved a feature known as the Double Scottish Rose into multiple locations on the White House exterior. So there we go; it’s not as all-American as folks might think!
2. Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
Mount Rushmore is of course up there with the Statue of Liberty among the most instantly recognizable and iconic American monuments. As we all know, it depicts four hugely influential U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. But did you know that a secret chamber is concealed behind those 60-feet high granite faces?
Yup, the sculptor Gutzon Borglum built the hidden room just behind Lincoln’s hairline, and intended it to be a “Hall of Records,” according to the NPS. And the History website quotes Borglum as writing, “On the walls of this room should be cut the literal record of conception of our republic.” In other words, it should document America’s history. But sadly, the chamber was never finished and remains closed to tourists.
1. National Cathedral, Washington D.C.
We complete our tour of the iconic D.C. monuments in this list with the National Cathedral. And it’s for a very good reason, as the hidden detail that we’re about to reveal is a doozy! To give you some background, the church originally dates back to the early 20th century, and is modeled on similar English neo-gothic designs.
So what you wouldn’t expect is a gargoyle of Darth Vader to feature in the stonework! That’s right; the heavy-breathing Dark Side leader from the original Star Wars trilogy was integrated into the cathedral’s façade following a children’s design-a-carving competition. The Vader gargoyle can be found on one of the west towers, according to the Cathedral website — but you might need binoculars to spot him!