Decoding the Sistine Chapel

You may have heard about the article published in the May issue of Neurosurgery by Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo — both neuroanatomy experts at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, here in Baltimore.

According to Scientific American,  back in 1990, a physician named Frank Meshberger published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association “deciphering Michelangelo’s imagery with the stunning recognition that the depiction in God Creating Adam in the central panel on the ceiling was a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section.” 

Meshberger speculated that Michaelangelo’s depiction suggests God endowed Adam with “supreme human intelligence,” and not simply life. Suk and Tamargo have now gone further… They claim that God’s chest and throat (in the Separation of Light from Darkeness part of the Sistine Chapel) is a precise representation of a human spinal cord and brain stem. 

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It would not surprise me that Michaelangelo painted anatomy into the Sistine Chapel. In addition to his many other talents, he was an anatomist, though he hid this by destroying most of his anatomical sketches and notes. What’s far more interesting to me is that 500 years later, we are still finding things like this:

Art critics and historians have long puzzled over the odd anatomical irregularities in Michelangelo’s depiction of God’s neck in this panel, and by the discordant lighting in the region. The figures in the fresco are illuminated diagonally from the lower left, but God’s neck, highlighted as if in a spotlight, is illuminated straight-on and slightly from the right. How does one reconcile such clumsiness by the world’s master of human anatomy and skilled portrayer of light with bungling the image of God above the altar?

Suk and Tamargo propose that the hideous goiter-disfigured neck of God is not a mistake, but rather a hidden message. They argue that nowhere else in any of the other figures did Michelangelo foul up his anatomically correct rendering of the human neck. They show that if one superimposes a detail of God’s lumpy neck in the Separation of Light and Darkness on a photograph of the human brain as seen from below, the lines of God’s neck trace precisely the features of the human brain.

It’s interesting to note that Michelangelo depicted other anatomical features elsewhere — apparently, there’s also a kidney in one piece (he suffered from kidney stones).

So are these all hidden messages? Do they reflect the conflict between Church authority and science at the time? Are they indicative of Michaelangelo’s strained relationship with the Church which grew worse after four years of working on the Sistine Chapel?

There’s lots of room for speculation, and maybe a Da Vinci Code-like movie to follow. 

(Ht: Azra Raza at 3Quarks)



  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in “Catholic Digest,” “Faith & Family,” “National Catholic Register,” “Our Sunday Visitor,” “Urbanite,” “Baltimore Eats,” and Zo

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