Michelangelo and Neuroanatomy

In 1990 Frank Meshberger published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association claiming to see something unusual in the depiction of God in the central panel of Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel.

Specifically, Meshberger thought he saw a brain.

Dr. Meshberger wrote up his observations in an article entitled An Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy. In the article Meshberger has us consider cross-sections of the human brain:

And compare these cross-sections with the shape behind Michelangelo's depiction of God:

Can you see it? If not, Meshberger traces the shape for us:

What's going on here?

Well, apparently, like his contemporary and rival Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo was also an anatomist who dissected human cadavers. Presumably for artistic explorations into human anatomy. This activity, however, was condemned by the church and generally involved grave robbing. So both Da Vinci and Michelangelo did this work in the greatest of secrecy.

Suddenly, in light of this revelation and Meshberger's article, the race was on to find other anatomical drawings in the Sistine chapel.

Just this month Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo, in the scientific journal Neurosurgery, have published another discovery. Suk and Tamargo believe they see in the panel The Separation of Light from Darkness, leading up from the center of God’s chest and forming his throat, a precise rendering of the human spinal cord and brain stem. Here is the panel The Separation of Light from Darkness:

Here is a closer look at God. You might want to click on it to make it larger. Can you see the brainstem around the throat area?

If you can't see it, here is the relevant image from Suk and Tamargo:

Now the question is, if these images are anatomical images, what was Michelangelo up to? There are two schools of thought about this. The positive view was that Michelangelo saw the handiwork of God in the human body. Thus, these anatomical references represent a fusion of the physical and the spiritual. A more cynical view is that Michelangelo was painting these bits of anatomy as a form of protest or defiance against the Catholic church. In this version Science is protesting against Superstition.

But who can say? Regardless, it's an interesting way to learn some brain anatomy and art history at the same time.

A Virtual Tour of the Sistine Chapel can be found here. Look around, maybe you'll see something interesting.

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4 thoughts on “Michelangelo and Neuroanatomy”

  1. And if they're not anatomical images we're in Jesus-on-a-grilled-cheese-sandwich territory.

  2. On the positive side is that Michelangelo had seen the work of God in the human body. Therefore, these anatomical landmarks to represent the physical and mental integration.

  3. What evidence do we have that this isn't just a clever application of some silly pareidolia? Seems a bit iffy to me. But hey, maybe. :P

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