June 28th, 2010
12:52 PM ET

Michelangelo hid brain image in chapel, scientists say

Some of Michelangelo's best known works may bear hidden messages suggesting that the human brain is among God's greatest creations,    scientists say.

The great Italian Renaissance artist dissected cadavers to familiarize himself with the human body, so he could better paint it. And, according to a new analysis, he included a representation of the brainstem in his representation of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which he painted from 1508 to 1512.

Neurosurgeons Dr. Rafael Tamargo and Ian Suk of Johns Hopkins University looked closely at Michelangelo's painting "Separation of Light From Darkness," which depicts the beginning of the universe. They found that the neck of God in this painting appears to contain the human brainstem.

"He recognized that the brain was an important structure, and I think he included it in the creation of the universe because he recognized that this is one of the most magnificent things that God had created," Tamargo said.

The brainstem is the most primitive part of the brain, through which all signals traveling to and from the brain must pass, Tamargo said.

In the image above, on the left, you can see a comparison between the neck of God in the painting and a real brain stem. On the right, notice the different angles of light on the figure, which was uncommon for Michelangelo.

It was not uncommon in the Renaissance for artists to do dissections for the purpose of creating more accurate works, he said. Leonardo da Vinci, 23 years older than Michelangelo, documented his brain dissections and did experiments on the brainstem.

The neck of the figure of God in Michelangelo's painting, zoomed in above in image G, is abnormal anatomically. This is curious because the artist's other works show a fine understanding of what the neck looks like, as shown in images A-D above (E is by Leonardo,  F is by Raphael). This suggests that Michelangelo wasn't "just having a bad day," Tamargo said.

Tamargo and colleagues are not the first to propose that Michelangelo hid brain anatomy in his paintings. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1990 by Dr. Frank Lynn Meshberger suggested that the Renaissance master's "Creation of Adam," another fresco from the Sistine Chapel, depicts the human brain.

Michelangelo probably didn't know the functions of the various components of the brain, but he understood it was an important structure, Tamargo said.

"Separation of Light From Darkness," located above the altar of the Sistine Chapel, is too high for people of Michelangelo's time to have been able to see details such as the brainstem, and telescopes did not yet exist. But the artist probably knew that someday, someone would notice, Tamargo said.

"I think he put a message there for the future, to let people know that he knew anatomy, and probably to enhance the meaning of that fresco," Tamargo said.

Check out the full study online here.

soundoff (599 Responses)
  1. StrummersGhost

    Typo in my previous post: Nothing a " Renaissance painter might have believed gives any insight into actual events that may or may not have happened ** 1500 ** years before they were born."

    June 28, 2010 at 15:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. larry

    It's not a brain stem! He drew a larynx – so he could visualize the light falling across the topography of the neck. Many artists draw the underlying (skeletal) structure so they know how to render the overlying skin or cloth.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TMM

      That's what I thought! As an artist myself, I draw the underlying muscular definititions as well as tendons and ligaments. There's really no need to overanalyse something that looks unusual just because Michelangleo was painting a subject under an odd light source!

      June 28, 2010 at 21:54 | Report abuse |
  3. Dr.Tong

    Mike was hired to paint and sculpt for a religion that chose to have him carve an 18 foot tall statue of naked teenage boy for it's main building's lobby. No wonder he was a little freaked out.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. karek40

    Yes jesse, and it is coming again only this time Islam will be doing the beheading if you will not accept their way.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Sarcasmo

    Oh look, yet another 5 million-page comment section about God and religion. We really broke some new ground with this.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brad

      And you're here too, Sarcasmo.

      June 28, 2010 at 15:54 | Report abuse |
  6. Petronius Jones

    I don't see it. It looks to me like a strange looking frog with its tongue sticking out. God's got boobs and the lips are clearly female genitalia. I'm convinced that Michelangelo was trying to tell us that God is a female amphibian.

    I saw this once before on tthe burned crust of a grilled cheese sandwich.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Bigo

    "human brain is among God's greatest creations, scientists say." Scientists should know that humans are only %10 evolved.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mark

      Hey Bigo, your "Evolv-ometer" may be set on 10% but mine is set much higher. Here is my question. If scientists should know that 10% thing, why don't they? And since you do know it, does that mean you are no scientist? And where did you get that anyway? Was it running around loose in your other empty 40%? I would have said 90% if I were talking to someone else but you clearly have "half a brain" and so you only have 40% left. You can reply anytime...I already know what you typed.

      June 28, 2010 at 19:16 | Report abuse |
  8. Jesus

    I told dad to be careful posing for this guy or it will get very controversial but he never listen.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. JHead01

    Why is it there so much animosity and hatred displayed towards people on this forum who say they believe in God? Isn't it our right to believe, just as it is yours to not believe? No one is forcing you to believe. Not even God. He made us to have free will. So, if you want to have a lively debate, great. Religion and science aren't mutually exclusive. But it's childish to resort to name-calling and simply because you disagree with someone else's beliefs.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Michelangelo

    Come on guys, have some sense of humor at least... It was not easy living in the Renaissance.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Ed Hernandez

    HE used it as a measuring device. Some artist draw structures underneath their painting to help them properly draw in perfect ratio.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. rob

    I don't see anything but Michaelanglo's nasty side coming out in the painting. I see a cucumber (as a c0cI<), and a pair of tomatoes (as a pair of te$t!e$). The direction in which it is going, well that you would have to ask Seka or Mrs. Jones.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Michaelangay

    @Chicago= "Some people think God is an out sized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others—for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein—considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws."~Carl Sagan

    June 28, 2010 at 15:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. katherine :)

    either way its beautiful art and im pretty sure thats all that matters. mr michaelangelo was just trying to express himself. thats all.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Agnostic

    The entire cloud that includes God, Angels and a cloak, also looks like a brian; which might suggest that Michaelangelo was suggesting that God was a creation of the human mind; or it may be a reference to Plato's philosophy of God being Nous (philosophical term for mind or intellect), which may indicate an almost Gnostic belief by Michaelangelo. The brain stem being repeated again within the dipiction of God, could simply reinforce this.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Enlightened

    Ok, so god is wearing a pink dress, has boobs, and has some sort of object deep in his throat...hmmm....

    June 28, 2010 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Cheryl Crichley

    The point is not whether God exists or not, or whether someone is trying to make anyone else believe or not. It is simply that a brilliant and endlessly creative person from long ago sent us a sort of secret message buried in his work. I find this to be very interesting and important. Apparently others do not agree, but the discussion seems to have gone way off into other directions. Being able to see a brain and being able to use our own are two differenct things.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Natick

    Wow! And all this time I thought old brother Michelangleo was a guy interested in the other organ of the brain! Thanks for the insight CNN!

    June 28, 2010 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Babyfacemagee

    This is like seeing jesus on a piece of toast or moses in the shadows on clouds. It's ridiculous. If I look at an ink blot long enough I'm sure I could rationalize myself into seeing marilyn monroe's ass...but it doesn't mean the ink blot intentionally was respresenting her behind. People want to believe in things as it helps give life meaning and mitigates our fear of the unknown. Religion, Conspiracy Theories, False Prophets and Gods. That's what self-delusion is all about...and that's exactly what these scientists are doing...showing themselves to be human and deluding themselves.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Cello

    Some people don't appreciate the arts. I think it's a wonderful implication that a great artist could achieve in their work. Mysteries are in all part of lives, some people are too stubborn, ignorant and lazy to look past their lives for something greater. God Bless America I say to them.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DanW

      And sometimes pseudo-intellectuals look for things that aren't there, so that they can appear more intelligent. To you, I say, God bless you as well.

      June 28, 2010 at 16:30 | Report abuse |
  21. Brad

    For they indeed have gone astray perhaps, though they seek God and wish to find him.
    For they search busily among his works, but are distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair.

    Wisdom 13:6

    June 28, 2010 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. bailoutsos

    Just like the face of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich or the Virgin Mary in a water drip on wall in a tunnel. The mind will see what it wants to see.

    June 28, 2010 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Canadian Jim

    I don't know what those guys are seeing, I see a vagina. I guess I red the Da Vinci Code one too many times.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. bgoodnowlittlekids

    duh, same people see christ in a slice of pizza, does that mean the pizza maker thought god liked pepperoni?

    June 28, 2010 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. curious

    I thought this painting was cleaned up a while ago. Is it possible that some of the paint was lifted off or brightened, giving this odd appearance?

    June 28, 2010 at 16:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Gaucho420

    Interrsting article. Too bad some of the people on here don't have the intellect to get it. But I guess that's the whole point.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DanW

      Thanks for the observation, professor, but sometimes it's not the unwashed who "don't get it." Sometimes intelligent people are actually duped and led astray by their need to be recognized as intellectual and end up believing that the Emperor is wearing clothes.

      June 28, 2010 at 16:26 | Report abuse |
  27. emblom

    Gestalts are everywhere in daily life. I recall a pattern in wood grain on the floor of may parents house growing up and seeing a butterfly in it. And what was the significance there? It had special meaning to me. That is why the butterful existed. It is the human condition as well as a survival function to be able to observe and draw assumptions based on limited sensory knowledge/input. In all reality who cares if the addtion of a brainstem to the painting is purposful of incidental. What is important is that it can be recognized and discussed.

    There is likely only one person who knows if this part if the painting was intentional, and he has been dead for 450 years.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. LDopa

    What's striking to me is how this image of God reflects female proportions and physical attributes. For example, the pronounced breasts, and the pronounced hips and hip-to-waist ratio (roughly 1:1.6, from my estimates)....I wonder if Michelangelo also hid the Golden Ratio inside this painting (1.610339887...). Pretty neat guy, this Michelangelo fella.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Jim

    Man created his concept of God in man's image. Then man created Santa Claus in God's image.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. 1jimmyhoffa


    June 28, 2010 at 16:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. 1jimmyhoffa


    June 28, 2010 at 16:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Milton

    I see ponies and turtles when I look at clouds. Abraham Lincoln on my cheese curls, and the Virgin Mary on my burnt toast. Sorry but this is a real stretch guys.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. V Saxena

    That's fascinating.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Rob

    What is God? Unless he or she grasps all of existance, you, me, all living creatures, thoughts, feelings, the planets and stars, good, evil, love, hate, war, peace, incorporating all time, from the beginning of time to the end of time, it is a futile endeavor.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. COL Kurtz

    It looks like a Tooter to me. maybe God thought that the Tooter was the greatest invention.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. COL Kurtz

    It looks like a Tooter to me.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. me

    Maybe he was just bad at painting beards and so the neck looks funny. juseally bad at paintjus

    June 28, 2010 at 16:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Carl

    He was really saying that God is a creation of man's brain, and when we look to the idea of God, we are really using our own imaginations. Look at the way the face of God is essentialy flowing out of the brain stem.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Melissa

    This is the worst painting to use for that. He does use the image of the brain in many of his paintings, one of the most obvious is the Creation of Adam. It's basically just a big brain. I don't know why they used this one in the article though. And it's not like this is NEWS, it's been known for a while. It reminds me of when the news said "OMG Lisa Giaconda is the person in Mona Lisa!". No REALLY? I wonder why it's called La Gioconda as well as Mona Lisa? Sometimes the news can be so stupid...

    June 28, 2010 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. boundsdh

    That's nothing. They found a picture of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny that show they also had a brain.
    Maybe they will do the Scarecrow next...

    June 28, 2010 at 16:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Name Witheld

    Staring at that picture, I feel like the person who stares at the picture, waiting for the hidden picture to pop out. Still waiitng to see the brain. Just don't tell the zombies. They may try to raid the place 😛

    June 28, 2010 at 16:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. David

    I want a taco.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Canadian Jim

    Personally I see female body parts, I tried typing the V-word but it didn't post. I guess I read the Da Vinci code too much and the censors, didn't read it at all. How man understands and fears his own sexuality and that of women has always played into his concept of God via virgins and witches. We still see it today in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Trish

    Enough with this nonsense already.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Rob

    What is God? Unless the whole of existence is grasped, incorporating you, me, all creatures, the planets and stars, the universe, thoughts, love, hate, happiness, sadness, war, peace, for all time, from the beginning of time to the end of time, the endeavor to define is a futile one.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Jesse Santa Rosa, CA

    It looks more like male genitalia to me. Maybe he hid a shlong and a sack in the throat of God. Now that would be a real zinger!

    June 28, 2010 at 16:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Chet

    This gives new meaning to the title of his piece, "Separation of Light from Darkness". One can now interpret that he was skillfully referring to the dawn of the human brain as the "light", or evolution of humanity while receiving approval from those around him at the time that it was the "creation of the Universe". Sheer brilliant and masterful.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Joe G

    That is obviously a broccoli people! DUH

    June 28, 2010 at 16:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Enlightened

      I like brocolli. Especially with cheese. 🙂

      June 29, 2010 at 06:49 | Report abuse |
  49. RSB

    Stem represents the path to God. The next thing to find out is "How to get connected to the Stem?". And as long as we do NOT stop thinking in physical dimensions, we are NOT going to solve this problem. We are spiritual beings rather than physical beings....

    June 28, 2010 at 16:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. RBN

    I'm going to prove there's no God. If God exists, strike me dead right now!

    June 28, 2010 at 16:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Colby

      God doesn't strike people dead just because they don't believe in him. He just feels sorry for them that they are lost and blinded by the what they believe is the truth. He allows the human to make the mistake and believe what they want to believe. He could force you to believe in him, but he doesn't. No TRUE religion does. Your choice in your faith is your own path to take. But God is always there for you when you need to fall back on him.

      June 28, 2010 at 18:10 | Report abuse |
    • Enlightened

      Really?! Tell that to all the religious heads in the world Colby. Seems like, unless you follow them, according to their word, you are doomed to burn unless you follow their ways. Sorry, but I am not a sheep and can think and act for myself. I grew up knowing right from wrong and have had no problems with not having any faith in a "higher intelligence." I'll live my life and let you live yours. Just don't go cramming your religion down my throat telling me I am doomed unless I follow your ways.

      June 29, 2010 at 06:54 | Report abuse |
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