Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Michelangelo and God's Brain

Now this is just about the coolest thing ever.  20 years ago, physician Frank Meshberger published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association which argued that Michelangelo's depiction of God in the Sistine Chapel - "The Creation of Adam" - was actually the human brain.  Was this, in fact, true?  Was the form of the brain subversively concealed?

Now another discovery has been made, by Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo in the May 2010 issue of the scientific journal Neurosurgery.  They argue that the image of God in another panel, "The Separation of Light from Darkness", conceals an anatomically perfect rendition of the human brain and brain stem:

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 odd 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.

Michelangelo was one of the greatest geniuses of the Renaissance, a master of anatomy and light.  What subversive message was he trying to impart?  What was his secret agenda?  Remember that study of human anatomy was forbidden by the Catholic Church at this time; there was also the matter of Copernicus' assertion that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and the Protestant Reformation was in full swing.  And Michaelangelo himself had an increasingly rocky relationship with the Church as he grew older.

It's exciting to think that, 500 years later, we may finally be unravelling Michelangelo's great subversive mystery.  And it will no doubt fuel debate over God and the brain - the mystics and the atheists will both see their beliefs confirmed in these paintings.

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