On the Anatomy in Michelangelo's Separation of Light From Darkness

Bondeson, Lennart; Bondeson, Anne-Greth

doi: 10.1227/NEU.0b013e31821787cc

Malmö, Sweden

Article Outline

To the Editor:

Recently, Neurosurgery published an article claiming that Michelangelo concealed a number of neuroanatomical features in his depiction of God in The Separation of Light from Darkness painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.1 Our interpretation of these features in the neck of God differs from the interpretation of Suk and Tamargo, as discussed in detail elsewhere.2,3 The structures in their Figure 4C marked as the pyramids of medulla oblongata with the upper spinal cord do, in our opinion, represent a multinodular goiter and a key element indicating that this image actually is an either deliberate or subconscious self-portrait of Michelangelo (known by his contemporaries as Il Divino, the divine one). Suk and Tamargo dismiss our interpretation summarily for 2 reasons, arguing that the structure in the neck does not look like a hypertrophied thyroid gland and that Michelangelo was deeply religious and would not defile the image of God with a goiter. We would like to make the following comments.

First, based on our joint 60-year experience in thyroid surgery and thyroid pathology, our view on what a goiter may look like differs from the opinion of Suk and Tamargo. In our self-portrait theory, a most important fact (not mentioned by Suk and Tamargo) is that Michelangelo describes himself as afflicted by goiter in a famous poem (his fifth sonnet), written while painting the Sistine Ceiling.4 In the same poem, he complains of being “harpy-breasted.” The mythological harpy was equipped with breasts like a woman, a feature having its parallel in the Creator's prominent gynecomastia in the image under discussion (ie, the same structures Suk and Tamargo interpret as the frontopolar cerebrum in their Figure 10B). A third parallel between the looks of Michelangelo and his image of God in this particular fresco is the shape of the Creator's beard (which Suk and Tamargo also point out as a peculiarity: “[it is rolled up] and has a midline depression”). Actually, Michelangelo was portrayed with a similar short and bipartite beard by his friend and pupil Daniele da Volterra.5 In addition to the anatomic details discussed so far, there is a fourth parallel between the poem mentioned and the image in question. Illustrated with a sketch in the margin of the manuscript,4 Michelangelo writes about his unwanted labor that he works with his back bent under the ceiling “with the beard skywards,” and he portrays the Creator separating light from darkness in the same stretched and twisted position as he himself has to work on his scaffold, an analogy having supporters among art historians.6

Suk and Tamargo state that Michelangelo was deeply religious and therefore would not defile the image of God with a goiter. However, Michelangelo was still in his so-called heroic period and not yet particularly troubled by his religiousness when painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.7 Actually, a self-esteem of the degree reflected by painting God in his own image is quite in line with his personality in those days, judging from psychoanalytic profiles based on his artwork and writings.8,9 As one analyst put it, “By creating Creation, Michelangelo is God incarnate.”9 There is a well-documented episode illustrating an obvious lack of religious inhibitions during his struggle with the Sistine Ceiling. When the impatient Pope Julius II hit him for not working fast enough, Michelangelo answered with an unheard-of effrontery, threatening to leave the job unfinished if the Vicar of Christ did not apologize (he got both the apology and a substantial peace offering in cash).5,10 At that time, he had already made a conspicuous statement on his Pietà of St. Peter's in Rome by carving in bold letters what means “Made by Michelangelo Buonarroti from Florence” right across the breast of the Mother of God.

In conclusion, it appears that the anatomy in Michelangelo's Separation of Light from Darkness can be interpreted in different ways, depending on which context the viewer applies. An endocrine surgeon reading poetry by the painter finds a goiter where a neurosurgeon sees a projected brainstem. Michelangelo had a love of ambiguous hidden meanings,4,11 and we suspect that he would have enjoyed such a difference of opinion.

Lennart Bondeson

Anne-Greth Bondeson

Malmö, Sweden

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