Brain Depicted in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling?

I’ve heard people joke that the Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam scene (Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508-1512) looks like it displays a cut-away section of the human brain (with the oval-shaped cloth depicting the shape of the brain, and all of the heads and bodies suggesting brain matter). You can imagine how surprised I was to learn that scientists are currently arguing that there is a connection with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and depictions of the brain, although not with the Creation of Adam scene.

Instead, Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo argue that the scene Separation of Light from Darkness contains a depiction of a human spinal cord and brain stem. You can read the Scientific American article about these findings here. And take a look at this image:

I think this is an interesting connection, but I do have some doubts.  Michelangelo often made his figures extremely muscular and bulky (almost overly-idealized, in my opinion), and this detail of God the Father’s neck could just indicate the artist’s penchant for muscles and chiaroscuro/modeling.  But, like I said, this brain theory is still interesting. I’m not familiar with enough scientific or anatomical imagery to make a definite conclusion on this new argument, but it’s fun to consider.

  • Nicjor79 says:

    That's a very interesting observation, but I too believe it's probably a result of overanalysis. I also have my doubts concerning whether or not these details even existed before the restoration.

    Now as for the Creation of Adam, I had always assumed that the drapery surrounding God was supposed to resemble a brain (symbolizing divine intellect or something similar). Whether Michelangelo intended it or not, that similarity is far more difficult to ignore.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Although I am generally fond of the Michelangelo brain theory, even I found this one a bit of a stretch!

    Speaking as someone who has studied neuroanatomy, these structures mentioned are not so easily represented in a stylised manner, whereas the structure in 'The Creation of Adam' is plainly evident to anyone that has seen a brain, in particular a sagittal section of one.

    I included a picture of this in my article on this topic – No medical training required to see the similarity in shape!

    http://threepipeproblem.blogspot.com/2009/12/gods-arse-michelangelos-not-so-hidden.html

    Secondly, the allegorical nature of the Brain in 'The Creation of Adam' is profound, whereas hiding an outline in the throat of God in an image so far away from the grounded viewer does not make a huge amount of sense!

    cheers – Love your blog M!

    H Niyazi
    Threepipeproblem.blogspot.com

  • e says:

    I don't know, I kind of doubt that observation. I think it is fun to read about, but I don't think it is actually true.

    Then again, maybe I just don't like the theory, so that's why I'm rejecting it!

  • heidenkind says:

    Ummmm, I don't think so. In my experience articles with scientists analyzing art tend to be pretty kooky. I remember one in particular where a doc theorized La Fornarina had breast cancer. In the next issue, all these other doctors jumped all over him with "wft are you talking about?" response letters. lol Like you with this theory, I thought it was interesting, but not likely. They never seem to look at the painting in context–which can be useful sometimes, but in the case of this throat being a spinal cord, I don't think so.

    I think this theory just goes to show how grad school can warp your mind. :P Would anyone but a doctor ever see that? Probably not.

  • M says:

    Yes, Nicjor79 and H Niyazi, I agree: it is much easier to pick out the form of a brain in Creation of Adam. It appears to be much more intentional. Although Michelangelo did have smaller figures in the first scenes that he painted on the ceiling (it appears he didn't realize how small the figures would be when viewed from the floor), it's hard to think Michelangelo would have intentionally made such a small detail in God the Father's throat (which was painted during Michelangelo's last year on the project).

    Plus, if Michelangelo did intend to depict a brain, the composition of the Adam scene well supports the idea of divine intellect (and the humanistic ideal of Man's potential – especially with Adam mirroring the pose of God).

    And e, I don't know if I really like the theory too much, either. But yeah, it's fun to think about!

  • M says:

    I'm glad that you brought up the point about context, heidenkind. Yeah, I don't think that context was considered very much in this analysis…if at all!

    And I love that the soon-to-be-PhD-candidate mentioned that grad school warps your mind! Ha! Get psyched for your future mind warpings! :)

  • Todd Camplin says:

    He was known to cut up a few bodies to study in his day. And the symbolism of God and brain in one image would crack open all kinds of scholarship on Michelangelo's ideas on God.

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comment, Todd Camplin (and welcome to my blog!). Yes, if this image (and the possible cross-section of a brain in the Creation of Adam scene) really do depict brains, it does open the door for a lot of speculation on Michelangelo's thoughts regarding God, religion, the human brain, human intellect, etc.

    If anyone is interested in learning about the possible brain imagery for the Creation of Adam scene, the first theory was printed in 1990 by Frank Meshberger. This physician published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, arguing that the scene depicts the cross-section of a brain. A copy of this article (reprinted in another publication) is available online here.

    And thank you for including that link, The Ancient! I have seen that virtual tour once before, but it's nice to have that link saved on my site for future reference. Isn't it fun to see the Sistine Chapel in such great detail?

  • IMT says:

    Great article

    I read somewhere, in Edgar Wind I think, that the woman God has his arm around in the 'Creation of Adam' could be Eve. In other words, Eve and other figures could be seen as thoughts in the 'brain', or mind of God. Adam, now no longer a thought, has become reality. I find this mix of theology, neuroanatomy and art fascinating, but it's difficult to frame in an art history context.

    I suspect that Michelangelo scholars will consider the reading of God's brainstem about as plausible as the view that Dante's profile can be made out in the 'Last Judgment'

    There was a book on Michelangelo called 'Hidden Messages'. Has anybody read it?

    David- Art History Today

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comment, David. I also have read speculations that the woman in the painting is Eve (or Mary). I haven't read the "Hidden Secrets" by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, and I have to admit, I'm a little skeptical. Connections between Michelangelo and Judaism seem a little far-fetched to me, and I worry that the book might be a little Dan Brown-esque. However, I'd like to hear if any art historians have read this book. From what I have seen on Goodreads, people tend to either hate or love it.

  • ixoj says:

    Perhaps it would look more like a brain if we were all neurologists. I think I'm convinced. It makes sense to me that Michelangelo would want to sneak some evidence of his knowledge of internal anatomy…where better than God's neck?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.