A detailed analysis of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes reveals a secret that’s been hidden, in plain sight, for 500 years – an image of the human brainstem.
According to an article in the May issue of Neurosurgery, the concealed neuroanatomy is found in Michelangelo’s painting of the Separation of Light from Darkness. This panel is one of a series of nine showing scenes from the Book of Genesis.
History shows that Michelangelo was an avid student of anatomy, who performed cadaver dissections throughout his life. “We speculate that during his numerous dissections, Michelangelo possibly dissected the brain and spinal cord and that over the years he probably acquired a sophisticated understanding of gross neuroanatomy,” writes medical illustrator Ian Suk and neurosurgeon Rafael Tamargo.
The two were tipped off to the anatomical renderings by Michelangelo’s unusual approach in this painting of God, including a bumpy neck and bunched up clothing that cloaks the figure. In fact, they now think, the twists and turns of the fabric are actually depicting intricate neural networks and a spinal cord.
They aren’t the first to suggest that Michelangelo included images of the brain in his Sistine Chapel frescoes. In a 1990 paper published in JAMA, Frank Meshberger concluded that “The Creation of Adam,” concealed a meticulous anatomical rendering of the human brain.
“We speculate that having used the brain motif successfully in the Creation of Adam almost a year earlier, Michelangelo wanted to once again associate the figure of God with a brain in the iconographically critical Separation of Light From Darkness.”
Nevertheless, the authors acknowledge the perils of over-interpreting a masterpiece and that not all art historians will agree with their conclusions.
What was Michelangelo saying by constructing the voice box of God out of the brain stem of man? Is it a sacrilege or homage?”