The Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo’s sublime ceiling to the Sistine Chapel in Rome has been fascinating scholars for centuries, both because of its artistic merit and because of the plentiful hidden messages that the painter appears to have embedded within it. For a start, there’s the theory that the depiction of God reaching out to Adam doubles as a cross-section of the human brain. Even better, though, is the depiction of the prophet Zechariah, to whom Michelangelo gave the face of the Pope of the time, Julius II. The thing is, however, that the angelic cherub behind the prophet is making a rude gesture at him — and thus, by insinuation, insulting the pope. Clearly, doing such a thing in the 16th century wasn’t good for your long-term health, which is probably why Michelangelo made the gesture so subtle. And he got away with it. Nicely done.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, eh? There’s a long and proud history of songs managing to bypass censorship because those in authority simply didn’t understand them, but even so, we can’t believe that no one picked up on the not-so-hidden subtext of this 1992 UK chart-topper by Scots trio The Shamen. The verse’s lyrics about a cheerful fellow who livens up the party were amusing enough, but the chorus — “E’s are good! E’s are good!” — made it pretty clear that this song was a paean to the joys of taking ecstasy. Eventually, of course, the British tabloids picked up on the song’s meaning and worked themselves into their usual state of righteous outrage, forcing the single to be withdrawn — but by then, the song had hit #1 and The Shamen were laughing all the way to the bank. Naughty, naughty, very naughty.
“Walk on the Wild Side”
In a similar vein, here’s Lou Reed’s one and only chart hit. Despite being pretty frank in its depiction of transsexual hookers in New York, the song — as popular legend has it, anyway — sailed happily past censors and conservative radio station managers alike, mainly because none of them knew what “giving head” actually meant.
I mean, come on.
The Little Mermaid
The story goes that the artist who worked on this notorious poster was about to be fired and, ahem, slipped in the decidedly suggestive spire as a way of pissing in the punch on his way out of the party. Sadly, according to Snopes, this is not true — but either way, we can’t believe that no one at Disney noticed the Little Mermaid was sitting in front of a large golden penis. It took someone at a church group to point it out, apparently — a fact about which you are welcome to draw your own conclusions.
The Massa Marittima mural
While we’re on unexpected phalli, let’s have a look at the mural that adorns the 13th-century cathedral in the small Tuscan town of Massa Marittima. The tree depicted is notable because, well, it’s covered in cocks. You’d probably miss them unless you looked closely, but once you see them, you most definitely can’t un-see them. Quite why they’re there, no one really knows, although there are some interesting theories here and here.
Brass Eye, generally
Chris Morris’ masterwork Brass Eye was all kinds of genius, pulling absolutely no punches in its satirical depiction of the British media’s depiction of “issues” like drugs, crime, pedophilia (the last of which memorably led the Daily Mail to call Morris “the most evil man in Britain”). The roll call of things we can’t believe he got away with is a lengthy one — convincing various celebrities to spout nonsensical PSA messages (like getting Phil Collins to wear a hat with the slogan “I’m Talking Nonce Sense”), getting a question about non-existent drug “cake” into British Parliament, inventing a part of the brain called “Shatner’s bassoon”… Perhaps most memorable of all, however, was the fact that Morris managed to sneak a single frame with the words “GRADE IS A CUNT” into one episode, a reference to Channel 4 controller Michael Grade, who tried to impose edits on Morris’ work. They just don’t make TV like this any more.
The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece is hilarious whichever way you read it, but apparently it’s several orders of magnitude more hilarious if you happen to have lived in the former Soviet Union. By all accounts, Bulgakov’s satire of Stalin’s regime was as razor-sharp as it was subtle, and the Soviet authorities certainly didn’t see the funny side — 12% of the book was removed on its first publication, but this apparently didn’t make the satire any less effective. It took until 1973 for the full version to be published, by which point the book was already being (rightly) hailed as one of the best novels of the 20th century.
What, you thought Brokeback Mountain was the first gay cowboy movie? Oh, no. No, it wasn’t. And that line about “a woman from anywhere” isn’t fooling anyone, either.
We touched on Shakespeare’s less highbrow side a while back, and there are plenty of dirty jokes hidden throughout his work. But we still struggle to stifle a giggle every time we see Malvolio study a letter written by his wife and proclaim, “This is my lady’s hand! These be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her great P’s.” Go on, read it out loud. We’re sure it went down a storm at the Globe, too.