Two researchers from Johns Hopkins University believe they may have finally solved a mysterious abnormality in a depiction of God on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Their study now reports that the master painter and skilled anatomist may have hidden an image of the human brainstem and spinal cord in the oddly lumpy underside of God’s neck.
For years, art historians have debated the meaning of this anatomical peculiarity in the portion of the painting known as “Separation of Light From Darkness.” A simple misunderstanding of anatomy did not seem like a possible explanation in a work by Michelangelo, who began dissecting cadavers as a teenager.
“Michelangelo definitely knew how to depict necks—he knew anatomy so well,” says Rafael Tamargo, M.D., a professor in the department of neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “That’s why it was such a mystery why this particular neck looked so odd.”
Tamargo enlisted the help of his colleague Ian Suk, B.Sc., B.M.C., a medical illustrator and associate professor in the department of neurosurgery. Together they determined that the irregular shape on the underside of the neck bore a striking resemblance to a view of the underside of the human brainstem.
“It's an unusual view of the brainstem, from the bottom up. Most people wouldn't recognize it unless they had extensively studied neuroanatomy,” says Suk. Given Michelangelo’s extensive study of the human body, this explanation makes more sense than an anatomical blunder.
This proposition may also explain another interesting aspect of this image. The robe clothing the figure of God is split down the middle by an interesting tubular shape. Though God wears this same robe in several different sections of the painting, the tubular shape is only present in this particular depiction, leading Tamargo and Suk to believe that the placement and curvature of the tubular shape suggest a spinal cord. If their conjectures are correct, the hidden image may be a complete representation of the brainstem connected to the spinal cord, as seen from underneath.
Tamargo and Suk’s study is not the first to suggest the presence of anatomical studies hidden in the paintings on the Sistine ceiling. Frank Lee Meshberger, an obstetrician based in Indiana, published a paper in 1990 proposing that the shroud surrounding God in the famous image of the Creation of Adam is an anatomically correct depiction of the human brain.
“It looks like the central nervous system may have been too good a motif to use only once,” Tamargo says.
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