Is that a Brainstem in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Fresco?
ARTICLE IN BRIEF
A new paper proposes that the artist Michelangelo introduced detailed images of brain anatomy into his Sistine chapel frescoes to highlight the importance of the brain to humans and also to mark the artist's obsession with the anatomy of the human brain.
When Rafael J. Tamargo, MD, looked up at the neck of God in one of the main frescoes painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti in the Sistine Chapel — the Separation of Light from Darkness — he observed snippets of brain anatomy that he sees on a routine basis. The neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was convinced that the artist, who was also a master anatomist, was telling a story that no one had seen before.
The panel depicts the beginning of creation and Michelangelo has rather subtly introduced a ventral view of the brainstem into the neck of God, according to the new observation that was published with detailed color renderings in May in the journal, Neurosurgery.
Dr. Tamargo said he suspects that the decision to introduce detailed brain anatomy into the panel and specifically into the neck of God may have been an attempt to highlight the importance of the brain to humans and also to mark the artist's obsession with the anatomy of the human brain.
Dr. Tamargo, the Walter E. Dandy Professor of Neurosurgery and director of the division of Cerebrovascular Neurosurgery, said that there is evidence from Michelangelo's two contemporary biographers that the artist was often given fresh cadavers to dissect so that he could intimately know the body inside and out. It was clear from his large body of work that he was a seasoned anatomist and this latest iconographic find suggests that he may have sifted through brain tissue to understand its many contours and regions.
“We speculate that during his numerous dissections, Michelangelo possibly dissected the brain and spinal cord and that over the years he probably acquired a sophisticated understanding of gross neuroanatomy,” Dr. Tamargo and his colleague Ian Suk, a medical illustrator, wrote in the study. “It is difficult to conceive that during his dissections of cadavers, he would not have explored structures deep to the musculoskeletal system, in particular the brain.”
A PAINTER'S EYE
Dr. Tamargo, who grew up painting and first became intrigued by Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel art when he visited it in high school, remembers reading a scientific paper published in 1990 by Frank Meshberger, MD, who saw in another fresco — God Creating Adam, also in the central panel — an illustration of a cross-section of the human brain. He wrote that he believed God was providing Adam with life plus a bonus: supreme human intelligence.
At the time, Dr. Tamargo remembers thinking that if Michelangelo used the image of the brain once he may well have done it again. And he started his search for any hints of the human brain. He began by studying the Sistine Chapel in fine detail. His job was made easier because the panels underwent careful cleaning from the 1970s into the 1990s. For the first time, there were detailed books released on the frescoes. At first, he saw nothing of substance.
Then he asked the medical illustrator Suk to also look at the fresco. “God's neck had an unusual anatomy,” said Dr. Tarmargo, “especially for a master anatomist.” Others had noticed this imperfection but chalked it up to a goiter. “But why would Michelangelo want to defile the image of God,” the neurosurgeon asked.
They looked closer and the image of the brainstem began peering out at them. “It was the way Michelangelo would have seen it in a cadaver,” he said. Further down in the chest he identified a tubular structure that looked like the spinal cord and the abdomen seems to hold a y-shaped structure that seemed to represent the optic nerves and the optic lobes. “The fresco is loaded with neuroanatomical illusions,” said Dr. Tamargo.
“It's too bad that artists don't complete their works with explanations,” he added. After he saw the images, he began asking his neurosurgical colleagues whether they saw anything in the fresco that was uniquely brain. When he pointed out the possibility, the neuroanatomical regions came to life. “There has been a lot of interest in this,” Dr. Tamargo said. And for now it's back to the drawing board to look for even more visions of the human brain.
‘A SOPHISTICATED STORY’
The vision of the brain anatomy is not obvious, and some may even believe it to be a figment of a neurosurgeon's imagination. But when medical art historian James Goodrich, MD, a professor of neurosurgery, pediatric plastics and reconstruction at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, read the Neurosurgery paper, not once but three times, he realized just how clever it was.
“It didn't just jump out at you. Even as a neurosurgeon, it took some thoughtful insight. It is a quite sophisticated story,” said Dr. Goodrich, who noted that he found the idea “farfetched” at first. “I thought they were pulling my leg,” he admitted. But as he went through it again and again and studied the drawings he realized that it was indeed a brainstem that was tucked within the neck of God.
The world knows Michelangelo for his keen skill in muscle anatomy. Leonardo Di Vinci, by contrast, left behind bountiful and beautiful drawings of the brain. His interest in brain anatomy was well known. But not Michelangelo. “He went deeper than anyone thought,” said Dr. Goodrich.
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