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Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Michelangelo Hid Anatomy Lesson in the Sistine Chapel: Human Brainstem is Depicted in the Image of God"

In May of 2010, medical illustrator Ian Suk and neurosurgeon Rafael Tamargo came out with an astonishing revelation in Neurosurgery: that the painting of God creating Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel --

-- in fact contains a detailed, anatomically correct representation of the human brain:

Michelangelo frequently dug up corpses from local cemeteries and dissected them, starting at age 17, so had an intimate familiarity with the human body.

There are two schools of thought about Michelangelo's message here. One is that he was celebrating God's greatest gift to Adam, the human brain. The other interpretation is that he was saying that God is merely a creation of the human brain, not the other way around.

Most people seem to have assumed that Michelangelo, often described as a deeply religious man, was sending the former message: that God had endowed Adam with a special brain because He favored humans.

I lean toward the latter interpretation. If Michelangelo had felt that God's greatest gift to Adam was a human brain, why would he not have said so more straightforwardly, rather than putting it in "code," so to speak. Plus, it is God, not Adam, who is contained within the brain, suggesting that it is He, and not he, who is a figment of the imagination.

Michelangelo lived from 1475 to 1564. The Vatican had been established in Rome in 1377, the Spanish Inquisition had its heyday in the late 1400's, and Italy had its own version starting in 1542. In Michelangelo's time, the church had far more power than it does today, and a public declaration of atheism would not have been wise for an ambitious artist.

Michelangelo, as a homosexual, undoubtedly felt himself outside the mainstream, which probably predisposed him towards a different way of viewing many things. (A grandnephew, who published Michelangelo's sonnets in 1623, felt obliged to change the gender of the pronouns in the homoerotic poetry.)

And desecrating the bodies of the dead would certainly not seem to be the act of an instinctively pious man.

Michelangelo must have been confident that people of his time would not recognize the shape for what it was, and that his message -- whatever that was -- would be discovered after his lifetime. And if anybody did happen to recognize the shape, he had plausible deniability: he could just say any perceived resemblance was unintended.

Of course, there is a third interpretation: that Michelangelo had not intended any message, and that the brain shape was merely a lark, a flight of fancy. But this seems unlikely in an era when religion so saturated public life and thinking.

Whatever Michelangelo's intent, it's awe-inspiring that the huge brain -- in effect, the artist's brain -- sat there for half a millennium, gazed at by millions but not truly seen until 2010.

(Would Michelangelo have been surprised at how long it took?)

I find myself shivering in an almost religious rapture at the thought of his overwhelming genius.


Dave Moriarty said...

Mike was clever. And probably enjoyed the idea that there was a picture within the picture, that no one else knew he tucked in there. Sony ought to hire him today . even dead for 500 years he still has better ideas than most

John Craig said...

Dave --
Ha! Yes, that concept was just breathtakingly ingenious. Can't remember the last time I was so wowed by an idea.

Anonymous said...

Another interpretation: whoever created Man must have had one incredible brain.

John Craig said...

Anon --
That's possible too.