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. Sarah

    Maybe he meant that God is a creation of the brain stem.

    June 28, 2010 at 18:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. deeplantation

    so many of you are off-topic. don't you have a life – or thought about the article, itself?

    June 28, 2010 at 18:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Gomer Pyle

    This is probably the stupidest article I have ever read. Considering that this is CNN, that is really saying something.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. ChickenOrEgg

    Did god create the brain or did the brain create god?

    June 28, 2010 at 19:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Jeff

    This must be the same people that find the Virgin Mary in their cereal box.

    Good grief...get a grip folks.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sumpter

    I think it clearly male genitals and more likely to show that Michelangelo was against prop 8 than it shows he somehow A) knew the significance of the brain and B) knew what the stem looked like. Looking at the picture of the brain, and happening to know what male genitals look like, I cannot believe that anyone could look at this and see brain stem and not bat and balls or franks and beans. Could it be that these scientists don't want to say Michelangelo painted the family jewels in God's throat. Frankly, these academics should be looking to see if there is other evidence that Michelangelo was a closet atheist who used this forum to take a jab at the priests of the day.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jeff

    Are these the same people that will see the virgin mary in their bowel movements??

    Come on people...get a grip.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Sumpter

    Look's also like a large B or a smallish C-Cup. Together with the bat and balls in his throat, someone should really be upset over this transgender homoerotic depiction of god

    June 28, 2010 at 19:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Sumpter

    Over 6,000 years ago there were skyscapers taller than anything we could produce today. Unfortunately they fell apart and just look like sand now.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Mark

    The story is preposterous. It's a guys throat and nothing more. Exactly what you would see if you were looking up an another person who was "looking up" painting on the ceiling. What is most enjoyable here is reading all the responses from people trying to convince themselves that there is no God. They read these words thru their optic nerves, a system so complex and sophisticated that it could never have "evolved" from a simpler set of code. Inside you know, God created you, He loves you and He is waiting for you. It's time.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Wyley Hennick

      As an organ developed via the opportunistic twists and turns of evolutionary processes, the human eye is explainable. As an organ designed and created by an infinitely wise deity, the human eye is inexcusable. For unlike the invertebrate eyes ..., the human eye is constructed upon the foundation of an almost incredible error: The retina has been put together backwards! Unlike the retinas of octopuses and squids, in which the light-gathering cells are aimed forward, toward the source of incoming light, the photoreceptor cells (the so called rods and cones) of the human retina are aimed backward, away from the light source. Worse yet, the nerve fibers which must carry signals from the retina to the brain must pass in front of the receptor cells, partially impeding the penetration of light to the receptors. Only a blasphemer would attribute such a situation to divine design!

      June 29, 2010 at 10:04 | Report abuse |
    • Bob Bales

      How can you say that evolutionary twists and turns can explain the eye, when we cannot describe those twists and turns? What is the (a) path of known-to-have-occurred steps that would result in the eye?

      June 29, 2010 at 17:18 | Report abuse |
  11. Billybob

    You keep yer filthy science out of my religion you athyist bastirds.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Seriously....mankind

    Some people are so vain...why can't we just take it as something new to learn or dismiss and enjoy life? Stop the silly argument already.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. josh

    check it out!!!

    June 28, 2010 at 19:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Geoff

    This is so idiotic it hurts

    June 28, 2010 at 19:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. JR

    Really, and I believe I saw the image of the virgin Mary in my english muffin this morning. If the artist studied cadaver anatomy the logical explanation is that this painting depicts throat anatomy, nothing more.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Ivan

    LOL at people with imaginary friends.

    Nice painting though.

    June 28, 2010 at 19:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Ivan

    Look people, my god could kick your god's a*s. That's what he was trying to say. My god is the shiizznit, and your god is a douche.

    Takes another hit off of joint......lol....why doe he have man-tits?

    June 28, 2010 at 20:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. patrick

    Every art piece he did was to spark thought. At the time he painted this he hated the Pope. Essentially he was forced to paint. Maybe he painted the brainstem to NOT show God but that Man was behind the church. Implying that the Pope thought of himself as God. If there is a God, then he would not have nor need a Brainstem. I think this has some Politic in this. But at very least it evokes thought and conversation. But remember, from "God" to the painting is all interpretation. Nothing other than the actual painting is fact.

    June 28, 2010 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. mikey

    O.K., the brain, but, what about the image near the crotch? is that a fenis?

    June 28, 2010 at 20:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Bob the Builder

    Bob the Builder, can we fix it? Bob the Builder, yes we can! Ew, this is gross... By the way, I painted that picture and what you think is a brain stem is my leg.

    June 28, 2010 at 20:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. mikey

    BrichellPrincess posts at CNN too????!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

    June 28, 2010 at 20:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Bob the Builder

    Also, that "brain stem" *ahem* my leg would be rotting away by now...

    June 28, 2010 at 20:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. johnas

    Use the money for AIDS research! From the drawing of the scientists, I saw a kid showing his behind.

    June 28, 2010 at 20:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Ah-Bin Laid Off

    looks like a guy that swallowed an iPhone

    June 28, 2010 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Bob the Builder

    This forum is freaken huge!

    June 28, 2010 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Adam

    God created the heavens and the earth. He can do as he wishes. Whether you believe in Him or not is up to you. As far as the brain stem in the painting, maybe it is, maybe it isn't. If you believe there is a hidden message, that's great. If not, that's great too. I personally think it's a beautiful painting depicting the close relationship that God want's with all of us. If you do to, that's awesome. 🙂

    June 28, 2010 at 20:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. rachel

    ummm really dont think its a brain-stem...pretty obvious its his throat, or more specifically adams apple or larynx

    June 28, 2010 at 20:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. seattlite

    The real message is that God exists entirely inside human brains.

    June 28, 2010 at 20:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. seattlite

    God exists entirely inside human brains.

    June 28, 2010 at 20:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. The Crypticum Keeper

    Interesting idea. Too bad the article comments are so polluted with trolling...

    June 28, 2010 at 21:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. OK

    God is an entity and has no human features IMO and it looks like Mikey was trying t paint him WITHOUT A FACE. He doesn't even have eyes in the pic and look at the 'nose' it looks more demon than human. He painted him that way for a reason and I doubt it was to show people he knew what a brain stem looked like.

    June 28, 2010 at 21:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Scott

    I find it very strange and troubling that men of science, such as Neurosurgeons, would talk about the "creations of god". I would think their intellect would put them beyond such nonsense. Michelangelo I can understand, because he was a man (albeit a very intelligent and creative one) from a time before technology and enlightenment. But modern men of science should know better than to entertain such outdated mythology.

    June 28, 2010 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bob Bales

      There is not one thing in modern science that indicates that God is "nonsense."

      June 29, 2010 at 16:05 | Report abuse |
  33. JT

    actually, the painting looks more like the female reproductive system than it does the brain stem...to me anyway.

    June 28, 2010 at 21:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Alexander

    I have never known an artist who hacks up cadavers to enhance his talent at painting the human body, but here in Los Angeles nothing would surprise me.

    June 28, 2010 at 21:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Balls McGinty

    That's not a brain stem–that a pair of NUTS ON HIS CHIN.

    June 28, 2010 at 21:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Vedran

    What a stupid spin. It clearly shows that God and all his angels are in the mind. In the brain. Imaginary.

    June 28, 2010 at 21:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • seattlite

      Right, but heresy at the time.

      June 29, 2010 at 07:52 | Report abuse |
  37. Polo

    Yeah, I once looked at a cloud in the sky and saw Abraham Lincoln's profile.

    June 28, 2010 at 21:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Kummin

    As usual, this kind of article brings out every atheist, agnostic and religion hater out there. They get so tiresome. . . . .

    June 28, 2010 at 21:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Polo

      Relax, my dear Kummin, we're just making fun of the those who see the busy hand of God in paintings, but ignore that busy hand's absence when people are dying, starving, and suffering all over the world. Yes, Jesus grants you the good parking space at the mall, but can't seem to help the young girl terrorized by a gang rape in the same parking lot that night. People see, and believe, what's easy and convenient. That's religion.

      June 28, 2010 at 23:06 | Report abuse |
  39. Greg

    The journey of the greatest minds in human history from the childish superstitious nonsense of god-belief to the enlightenments of electricity (Franklin, Edison, etc), the origin of man and all other species (Darwin), The nature and properties of DNA and genes (Miescher, Watson & Crick, etc), the origins and workings of the Universe and Cosmos (Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Sagan, Hawking, etc) may or may not have not happend entirely in each individual listed (and not listed) above, but these men and women laid the foundation for the advancement of the entire Human Race. Indeed ALL the men and women who have made the great advances in science that propeled us forward into enlightenment and reason did so by understanding the natural world, not by affixing explanations of magic or the behavior of gods or demons to it. Those who do that; those who preach that their magic man in the sky is responsible for all that is unknown must make up new rules as the unknown becomes the known. Religion and god-belief leads to exclusion and hate, not unity and love. There is no one true religion, no one true faith because ALL of them are wrong.
    (Logically, when one takes into account all the various religions and each of their splintering sects that exist today and have existed through all of recorded human history, and each purporting to be the "one true faith", there are only two possibilities. Either all of them are wrong except one very specific sect of one very specific religion or spiritual viewpoint, or, flatly, all of them are wrong. Period. Michelangelo took some of the steps of discovery in his dissection studies of human cadavers. He may not have gone all the way to shedding his mind of theistic thinking, but that IS the logical and inevitable conclusion of the journey he and so many others began. Of course there will be many, many people who passionately disagree with what I have typed here. Of course! But ask yourself when you read their rebuttals, who has made the stronger argument? What are the merits of the few words I've typed here, and those others will type in response?
    The mind of the zealot will never allow for the possibility of error or the validity of anythign outside the dogma of his or her theistic worldview. If they could do that, they wouldn't be believers in their faith after all, would they? 😉

    June 28, 2010 at 21:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Gary

      Thank you for portraying the issue so logically and sound and concise. Exactly my reflections in a nutshell.

      July 6, 2010 at 15:51 | Report abuse |
  40. QED

    Interesting idea, but the point of fact is that these neurosurgeon need to review their basic anatomy (buy a new Netters please). The part of the neck they're referring to is at the level of C3 to T1 and is more apt to be the thyroid cartilage. This is more a case of cloud painting... or to quote Paul Simon, "All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. "

    June 28, 2010 at 21:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Greg

    Abd al-Latif wrote:

    "There is no "dumb matter"–even an atom has breathtaking beauty. And reflects intelligence"

    No. While I would agree with you that I and many other human beings perceive beauty in the quantum workings of an atom, it most certainly does not reflect intelligence. That implies a sentiet, intelligent mind creating the atom.
    None is necessary to do so.
    Read some books by Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan ... not the Koran, Bible, Talmud or Tora.
    You might actually learn some facts that way. Sorry to be harsh but don't allow yourself to see what isn't there for the sake of any of humanity's various gods or demons. You're not the first to fall into that trap, and you won't be the last.

    June 28, 2010 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Drew

    If the painting had been examined by urologists I wonder what they would think it was?

    June 28, 2010 at 21:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • randy

      to large for your anatomy

      June 28, 2010 at 22:04 | Report abuse |
  43. Steve

    I believe the old guy has one over on all of us! Can you really say that body part is even male?

    June 28, 2010 at 21:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Jason

    I guess he was saying God is all in our heads. He's right too.

    June 28, 2010 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Both sides are faith, not fact

    Say Bioartchick... you said "what exists is a result of occurrances prior, and that is all that can be said factually. To assert intention or design of the universe/nature is to speak without evidence...." I could disagree more completely. I think people would do themselves well to ask this simple question... how do I know what I know? What most will find, is that they have simply accepted the opinions, views, and interpretations of research from others, without really knowing how those conclusions were come to. When you get into those details, you realize believing there is no evidence for design is as much a faith statement as believing God created it all. Neither are provable, and those who would argue Darwinian evolution is provable, I would question how much of science they have actually studied and if they actually no how to do the research themselves. I'm not saying I have the answers, I dont, I'm saying neither side does,... either way it's taken on faith, period.

    Here's a website you check out and do some reading. http://www.detectingdesign.com/

    June 28, 2010 at 22:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bioartchick

      "believing there is no evidence for design is as much a faith statement as believing God created it all."
      I think this is merely a statement of convenience, to create the illusion that there is an equivalent counter argument, for which there is not. You must understand that I did not make ANY claim that stated there was no creator or designer, I merely said there was no evidence for it. This is a true statement. If there ever was evidence, I would have no choice but to believe. Those who do believe in a creator or designer would love nothing more than to be substantiated by science, as evidenced by the link you posted, so please tell me, if someone or something intentionally created the universe and humankind (note that this is a scientific claim), then where is the evidence? If legitimate evidence exists, then why are we debating?

      "...those who would argue Darwinian evolution is provable, I would question how much of science they have actually studied and if they actually no how to do the research themselves..."
      Scientists understand that when they make a claim, they must have evidence for it. Scientists are compelled to debate, and question findings, as it is the process of peer review and replication that weeds out mistakes. I suggest that instead of running around online, you go have a conversation with a biologist, or open any grade school biology textbook. The science is irrefutable. It can be seen in the laboratory over billions of generation in bacteria, in viruses, in the fossil record, in extant species all over the world. To deny evolution is to refute the entire premise of immunology, medicine, biology, and genetics to name a few. I suggest that the arrogant non-scientists, meaning you, have more to learn before you run around telling people they are misinformed and need to read up on things. It is mere wishful thinking.

      June 29, 2010 at 14:08 | Report abuse |
  46. randy

    how stupid!

    June 28, 2010 at 22:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. jeff

    Despite his dissections, its possible that Michelangelo never even saw an intact brain stem, . I recall from reading Carl Zimmer's book "Soul Made Flesh" that the brain was never attributed importance because, with lack of refrigeration and embalming, by the time a cadaver's skull was cracked open the brain had turned to goo.

    June 28, 2010 at 22:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. guest

    Actually, the spinal cord, brain stem, eyes, and optic nervers are all visable here. This was the last panel he completed in the chapel and one has to wonder if he purposely chose God's neck for this? Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Maybe the painter was conveying that true enlightenment, or being seperated from out of darkness and brought into light, comes from hearing the word of God? Just a thought.

    June 28, 2010 at 22:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Bruegel

    Barry Douglas, your facts needs clarification. St. Sebastian is not the figure in the ceiling fresco holding his flayed skin. That saint was Bartholomew. Sebastian died from drowning after being tortured with arrows shot throughout his body. Two different guys.

    June 28, 2010 at 22:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Hyperkinetic

    I see. No brain in God, yet Jesus on toast and the Virgin Mary in a tree stump. Makes *perfect* sense!

    June 28, 2010 at 22:33 | Report abuse | Reply
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