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. Mike

    OMG, and I see a portrait of the Pope hidden in the cloth folds! Really, I took anatomy as an artist and this looks exactly like has been stated above – an indication of the underlying muscle and larynx in order to help accurately portray the anatomy. I hope I don't have these docs examine my MRI scan.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. RBN

    Whoops! I'm still on the air! So much for the all knowing, all seeing, all powerful God. Now you believers can commence with all of the excuses as to why I'm still here.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Inyourdreams

      Oh that's really logical! NOT. How about this? If God doesn't exist, then strike me dead right now!

      June 28, 2010 at 17:09 | Report abuse |
    • Inyourdreams

      Whoops! I'm still here so God must exist.

      June 28, 2010 at 17:10 | Report abuse |
  3. bobofett

    looks like c-o-c-k and balls to me, perhaps mikey was thinking of something else whilst painting the sistine chapel

    June 28, 2010 at 16:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Inyourdreams

    This is almost as stupid as the Dan Brown Novel "Da Vinci Code". So a couple of doctors think this neck looks something like part of a brain, therefore we postulate some theory to go along with it. If a gynocologist thought it looked like a vagina, they'd come up with a completely different theory, such as the reproduction and fertility of God's creation. Personllay I think it looks like a big elephant with a swollen trunk symbolizing the boldness of God's creation to think all sorts of weird things.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. LT

    I think it's incredibly ironic that these neuroscientists basically used the tenets of ID (i.e. specified complexity) to make this discovery.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sniffit

    "Who cares really? "

    I do. Anything that might drive the religious freaks even more crazy is a good thing in my book.

    June 28, 2010 at 16:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Sniffit

    "get SERIOUS!!!! they did not know what a brain stem was 400 years ago!!"

    Ummm, get educated, because yes they did. You think the top scientists of the day weren't chopping people up in an attempt to understand how we work? They might not have had fancy MRIs, PET scans, etc., to help them understand what the brain stem and medula oblongata control and what their primary functions are, but they certainly had SEEN them before...and all you need is to SEE it to paint it.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:01 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jeff S

      In fact, Sniffit, Michaelangelo was one of those many people who were studying cadavers. It amazes me that there are people with the ability to switch on a computer and read this article who are not aware of that.

      June 28, 2010 at 17:11 | Report abuse |
  8. MySoulRefuge

    Can Anyone Tell Me Why The Second Commandment was ignored here?

    June 28, 2010 at 17:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LT

      heh, good call 🙂 did you hear about the Jesus statue that was struck by lightning a few weeks back? I mean, I guess this wasn't an object of worship per se, but yeah ... good call still

      June 28, 2010 at 17:30 | Report abuse |
  9. yogleX

    I can't stand the comments of all these ignorant God haters on topics like this.
    Can't you see that for science+reason you don't even exist? You have no free will, there is no sign that you are conscious at all apart from the fact that you continually "say so".
    Science will desintegrate you into a collection of deterministic mechanisms.
    Wake up to yourself...
    Ask yourself: What are YOU actually involved with?

    June 28, 2010 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Sniffit

    "Michaelangelo makes many anatomically correct references in his work."

    Which is what makes this interesting because it's anatomically INcorrect.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. John Smith

    oh .. too bad i will miss in 500 years or so when jebus's existence is scientifically proven(think something like time traveling, and taking pics, videos and whatnot) .... OR ..... our mind overlords will stop by, telling us to grow up and stop believing in myths and to being harvesting humans for sacrifices....

    that ougtha shut up more than one around here.. but way then.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Jeff S

    LOL – to the people like monetlks who think this is ridiculous – You are aware that Michaelangelo was as much into anatomy as he was into art, carving up cadavers himself, right? Maybe YOU are the one who is ridiculous for not knowing that little piece of knowledge I had before I was 12 years old.

    And Dean – with your diatribe about not believing in God because you think its not possible because the world is imperfect. Nowhere in any religion I've ever heard of does anyone even for one second consider the Creator (whomever it may be in any particular religion) to be a being who creates and maintains a perfect world where everything is perfect all of the time and humans behave perfectly all the time. But, in your own little athiest fairytale, I know that is what you believe. So, contrary to your claims, if disbelief is what gives you comfort, so be it.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. yogleX

    I don't think daVinci depicted a brain stem. I think people mistake daVinci for Dali – where you can find these effects of Surrealism exploited to the max. People who read all this into daVinci are imho. wasting their intelligence.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. John Smith

    god's made some pretty fugly women. it needs more practice. also they need to have a sammich manual included and a mute button

    June 28, 2010 at 17:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. John Smith

    here children. educate yourselves.

    THE GREATEST MYTH EVER TOLD! - fun part starts at 11:50 ish


    June 28, 2010 at 17:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Inyourdreams

    Did you ever notice how the Washington Monument looks like a rocket. Do you think that our forefathers must have known that we would develop rocketry. I believe the little window at the top is symbolic of the windshield of the space shuttle, and the fact that they placed it in Washington, D.C. means they knew the beltway bandits of government contractors would flock to WDC. Yes I have just rewritten history to suit my hypothesis.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. reality check

    What a totally ridiculous notion. He had no idea what the brain stem did and had absolutely no reason to hide an image of it anywhere – let alone in God's throat of all places! As mentioned before this image of god has a great rack – huge boobs – clearly that is more worth of note than some smudges in a throat area! Silly article, silly people, silly theories.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. anobody

    Yeah and from the look of things he hid something that will need a brassiere under that robe.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. JPnoir ^_^

    Its look likes a symbol, Brainstem in neck of God as he look looking upward; it shows that God is a stem between universe above and Man below. Lightness above and the darkness below. Enlightenment, knowledge, and what have you is above. We imaged our God to be a man so it’s easier on our mind. But in fact God is a stem of pure energy above.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. anobody

    Such a great artist I'll bet he built his creations on the canvas from the inside out to give them true form.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Hand

    People new how important the brain was because when these civilizations when to battle some back was broken and they couldn't walk anymore. Or someone got bashed in the head and they couldn't talk anymore. Common sense people

    June 28, 2010 at 17:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Abd al-Latif

    First of all, if Michelangelo put the brainstem there, it's in the wrong place. The brainstem is posterior, toward the back of the neck. Second, not only does God NOT have a human-like body or ANY body, it would be terribly ironic if Michelangelo painted a figure alleged to represent God, and emphasized the brainstem of all things. The brainstem is the most primitive part of the brain, and the least "intelligent" if you will. This article is so naive from many viewpoints: religious, anatomical, and evolutionary.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. albus

    Man created God in his image so that he could try to understand that which he does not really have the ability to.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mark

      Really Albus? You're betting all of eternity on that one? It's not even clever. But let's say, just for the moment that it was clever, It's still not sound, or unassailable logic. It's so twisted...Is this what you are saying? There is something out there that I cannot explain or understand. In an effort to understand this real thing, I will make up something completely fake and false and then I will understand the real thing that I know is out there. is that what you are saying? I like your idea more when I describe it...it's still wrong but I like it better.

      June 28, 2010 at 18:52 | Report abuse |
  24. God

    Dear Idiot Children,

    None of you have any idea what exactly Michelangelo did or didn't know when he painted anything. Why? Because you were not alive 500 years ago... and more specifically, you were not inside of his mind. Is it such an implausible leap of logic to believe that maybe he had access to a cadaver or two? Maybe, like generations of smart men before him, he just cut open a brain and looked it. I know, I know: you are probably thinking, but God, how can we possibly know that... he did not tweet about it! Well children, if the evidence, which has been analyzed by neurosurgeons and accredited art experts (who may understand the subject slightly better than you), points to the fact that he hid images within frescos, then you should probably judge that evidence on its face and not on what you "think/feel" is going on. Also, "intelligent" debates about My nature probably don't belong in a discussion about whether a man, whom none of you knew, painted a picture a certain way. Please stop embarrassing Me.

    Your disappointed Creator.

    PS. Seriously, most of you are in no way qualified to comment on this issue. Having a computer doesn’t make you an expert on anything.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Michelangelo

    I've waited centuries for you dumb people to figure this out. After 500 years finally someone did. Now, can anyone tell me why I painted it on God's throat?

    Yours truly,

    June 28, 2010 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Tim

    There is no brainstem there.
    This is no different that people who see the Virgin Mary on a tortilla. The human mind is great at finding recognizable images in random places.
    Stare at your carpet for long enough and you will begin to see images, too.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. RBN

    @inyourdreams – how exactly does a god, that doesn't exist, striking you dead prove there's no god? Wow, that's logical – NOT!

    June 28, 2010 at 17:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Bakoo

    What he more likely meant, if this is a brain, is that our brains are God. Think about it!

    June 28, 2010 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Anon4242

    "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,".
    Perhaps he was saying since we perceive the universe through our brains, perhaps our brains create God, and not the other way around.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Charles

    As a student minister I was taught not to read things into the Bible (or in this case, old art) but to let them tell the message intended by the original writer or artist. This so called brain stem is no0thing more than a Renaissance artist rendition of the musculature of the throat. This error is similar to the perception that a church's portrait of Christ showed a giant penis, which was in fact that era's way of rendering the abdomen. It's plastering over the clear intention of the past with the missed perceptions of the viewer's own generation. There was no penis, it was his abs. There is no brain stem, it's his throat.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bioartchick

      I challenge yo to study the anatomy of the throat.

      June 29, 2010 at 14:25 | Report abuse |
  31. Squeeker

    All I can say is God has one rockin' hot body!!! YUMMY!!!!

    June 28, 2010 at 17:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Colby

    Maybe back then God was male and female looking to people. We don't know what God looks like but maybe this was the way he was thought of then. We are made in his image but like every image we are flawed. We have to be. Thats why he made us this way. If we weren't, the world would be perfect and there would be no reason to have faiths or religions. There would be no reason to give birth because if we were made exactly like him we would never grow old, never have health problems. And to me I believe we take these people back then to lightly. I believe they were alot smarter than we believe. I mean look at the things they created and built. Look at the buildings that were made without the technology that we have today. I'm not trying to be a preacher or anything like that cause you can believe in God and all of that if you want. It's your own choice. The was it seems is that was Michelango's view in religion and in life.

    June 28, 2010 at 17:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Colby

      Woops messed up on last line. It seems like this was his view in religion and life.*

      June 28, 2010 at 18:00 | Report abuse |
  33. David

    And, he/she has a baseball cap.

    June 28, 2010 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. dogmai

    Since there is a lot of God talk without any definition of God, here is a thought...

    Who is loyal to you, gives unconditional love and forgives all your faults? Its the mirror image of GOD!DOG

    June 28, 2010 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. temetnosce

    So, um...we're going to try and paint Michelangelo with the same paintbrush as those who see the Virgin Mary in a slice of toast...or Jesus on a flapjack? Folks are going to see what they wish to see, and not to see what they find unpleasant. Distill this story down to it's bare components, and all you have is a couple of highly educated, accredited, letters-after-their-name individuals, who each share thier impressions of what they see. Or in other words: thier opinions. Though I have to admit, this is the first time I think I've heard of anything as magnificent as the Chapel painting reduced to not much more than a Rorsarch test...

    June 28, 2010 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Oda155

    WHAT! OMG... I just saw lil' John's image in my Pop-Tart, DAMN!

    June 28, 2010 at 18:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. vickie

    i just finished The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown and it explains a lot about the human brain in their and our connection to god through our brains. I know its fiction but it was definitely something to think about

    June 28, 2010 at 18:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. pokerplr44

    What I want to know is why is Adam's penis so freakin small?! Made in his image huh... say it ain't so.

    June 28, 2010 at 18:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • bambi

      maybe because we are talking about a not so s e x -crazed era as we live in today. If I think of God the last thing I want to have on my mind is a large penis.

      June 29, 2010 at 14:12 | Report abuse |
  39. Andrew Hook

    I personal take on this is that he is trying to say the God lives within man, that God exists as part of mans consciousness in the brain, the ultimately God is what mans brain makes him.

    June 28, 2010 at 18:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. leonard

    Looks like he painted boobs on God too.

    June 28, 2010 at 18:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. square pants

    NO, in not a frigging brain stem....anything for attention these days....whats next...Obama's face in Jesus beard? i can tell ya what i do see that absolutely visible...OIL in the friggin ocean...and on those beautiful beaches in Florida...does anyone else see that?????

    June 28, 2010 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Joseph lee

    A tour guide told me about the brain thing 2 years ago. Suddenly some doctor says it and it is big news?

    June 28, 2010 at 18:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Thomas

    If he did include the brain in this image it was most likely to say that god was a creation of mans imagination.

    June 28, 2010 at 18:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Wzrd1

    Michelangelo would laugh himself silly if he were here today and read this story.
    THAT many years for someone to notice!
    Keep looking, those masters of long ago left a LOT of little jokes at the expense of the church in their art.

    June 28, 2010 at 18:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. ihop

    it's a small wonder why the bridge to n0where leads directly to god, allegedly...

    June 28, 2010 at 18:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. ihop

    it's a small wonder why the bridge to nowhere leads to this, i once found a god like image in one of sir dali paintings...allegedly

    June 28, 2010 at 18:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. mejazzbo

    Leo! You little devil...

    June 28, 2010 at 18:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Neurosurgeon

    For those of us who operate on the brainstem and know the anatomy intimately...there is no question that the illustration is an accurate depiction of the brainstem. This is what it actually looks like from this angle.

    June 28, 2010 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Eric

    Wow this is really old. God is floating on a brain when creating Adam. Michelangelo intended to mean that God is in our minds.

    These revelations have come to light way before these scientists "discovered" it.

    June 28, 2010 at 18:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. ladrikius

    Am I the only one that noticed that God seems depicted as having a male's face but clearly female breasts?

    June 28, 2010 at 18:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • johnas

      As far as what I know of Michelangelo sexual orientation, I'd say Michelangelo would like to have God a man with female-like breasts. And as far as what I know of the Catholic church- Michelangelo's patron, I believe the Church loved to see God as Michelangelo portrayed as well. Maybe, the C church ordered him to do so. Let the scientists study more and find out for us.

      June 28, 2010 at 20:39 | Report abuse |
    • dogmai

      No, those are clearly Man Boobs!

      June 28, 2010 at 22:44 | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Leave a Reply to reality check


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.