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.

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