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Michelangelo’s Secret Message in the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo’s Secret Message in the Sistine Chapel: A Juxtaposition of God and the Human Brain

Scientific American, R. Douglas Fields on May 27, 2010

At the age of 17 he began dissecting corpses from the church graveyard. Between the years 1508 and 1512 he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Michelangelo Buonarroti—known by his first name the world over as the singular artistic genius, sculptor and architect—was also an anatomist, a secret he concealed by destroying almost all of his anatomical sketches and notes. Now, 500 years after he drew them, his hidden anatomical illustrations have been found—painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, cleverly concealed from the eyes of Pope Julius II and countless religious worshipers, historians, and art lovers for centuries—inside the body of God.

Michelangelo Light Darkness First_Day_of_Creation

This is the conclusion of Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo, in their paper in the May 2010 issue of the scientific journal Neurosurgery. Suk and Tamargo are experts in neuroanatomy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1990, physician Frank Meshberger published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association deciphering Michelangelo’s imagery with the stunning recognition that the depiction in God Creating Adam in the central panel on the ceiling was a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section. Meshberger speculates that Michelangelo surrounded God with a shroud representing the human brain to suggest that God was endowing Adam not only with life, but also with supreme human intelligence.

Now in another panel The Separation of Light from Darkness, Suk and Tamargo have found more. Leading up the center of God’s chest and forming his throat, the researchers have found a precise depiction of the human spinal cord and brain stem.

Michelangelo 1

Is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel a 500 year-old puzzle that is only now beginning to be solved? What was Michelangelo saying by construction the voice box of God out of the brain stem of man? Is it a sacrilege or homage?

It took Michelangelo four years to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He proceeded from east to west, starting from the entrance of the Chapel to finish above the altar. The last panel he painted depicts God separating light from darkness. This is where the researchers report that Michelangelo hid the human brain stem, eyes and optic nerve of man inside the figure of God directly above the altar.

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.

Michelangelo 2

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 [see images at right].

There is something else odd about this picture. A role of fabric extends up the center of God’s robe in a peculiar manner. The clothing is bunched up here as is seen nowhere else, and the fold clashes with what would be the natural drape of fabric over God’s torso. In fact, they observe, it is the human spinal cord, ascending to the brain stem in God’s neck. At God’s waist, the robe twists again in a peculiar crumpled manner, revealing the optic nerves from two eyes, precisely as Leonardo Da Vinci had shown them in his illustration of 1487. Da Vinci and Michelangelo were contemporaries and acquainted with each other’s work.

The mystery is whether these neuroanatomical features are hidden messages or whether the Sistine Chapel a Rorshach tests upon which anyone can extract an image that is meaningful to themselves. The authors of the paper are, after all, neuroanatomists. The neuroanatomy they see on the ceiling may be nothing more than the man on the moon.
But Michelangelo also depicted other anatomical features elsewhere in the ceiling, according to other scholars; notably the kidney, which was familiar to Michelangelo and was of special interest to him as he suffered from kidney stones.

If the hidden figures are intentional, what do they mean? The authors resist speculation, but a great artist does not merely reproduce an object in a work of art, he or she evokes meaning through symbolism. Is Separation of Light from Darkness an artistic comment on the enduring clash between science and religion?

Recall that this was the age when the monk Copernicus was denounced by the Church for theorizing that the Earth revolved around the sun. It was a period of struggle between scientific observation and the authority of the Church, and a time of intense conflict between Protestants and Catholics.

It is no secret that Michelangelo’s relationship with the Catholic Church became strained. The artist was a simple man, but he grew to detest the opulence and corruption of the Church. In two places in the masterpiece, Michelangelo left self portraits—both of them depicting himself in torture. He gave his own face to Saint Bartholomew’s body martyred by being skinned alive, and to the severed head of Holofernes, who was seduced and beheaded by Judith.

Michelangelo was a devout person, but later in life he developed a belief in Spiritualism, for which he was condemned by Pope Paul IV. The fundamental tenet of Spiritualism is that the path to God can be found not exclusively through the Church, but through direct communication with God. Pope Paul IV interpreted Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, painted on the wall of the Sistine Chapel 20 years after completing the ceiling, as defaming the church by suggesting that Jesus and those around him communicated with God directly without need of Church. He suspended Michelangelo’s pension and had fig leaves painted over the nudes in the fresco. According to the artist’s wishes, Michelangelo’s body is not buried on the grounds of the Vatican, but is instead interred in a tomb in Florence.

Perhaps the meaning in the Sistine Chapel is not of God giving intelligence to Adam, but rather that intelligence and observation and the bodily organ that makes them possible lead without the necessity of Church directly to God. The material is rich for speculation and the new findings will doubtlessly spark endless interpretation. We may never know the truth, but in Separation of Light from Darkness, Michelangelo’s masterpiece combines the worlds of art, religion, science, and faith in a provocative and awe inspiring work of art, which may also be a mirror.

Images from “Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo’s Separation of Light From Darkness in the Sistine Chapel,” by Ian Suk and Rafael J. Tamargo in Neurosurgery, Vol. 66, No. 5, pp. 851-861.

About the author: R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is author of Why We Snap, about the neuroscience of sudden aggression, and The Other Brain, about glia. Fields serves on Scientific American Mind’s board of advisers.


Related articles

Separation of Light from Darkness. Article on the painting from Wikipedia.


Music of the day

Music to study science by


The Boston Symphony Orchestra as caught in its incomparable native habitat, Symphony Hall.(c) Stu Rosner

Education in music and poetry is most important … because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that is someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful. But if not, then the opposite. And because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature.”
– Plato, The Republic III 401d-e.

Maxwell Blown Away Man Ad Sound

Steven Steigman

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor 4th Movement, “Ode To Joy”, English version, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”, at Royal Albert Hall, London, England


Ode to Joy – Flash Mob Started by One Little Girl: To pay homage to the town they love and to celebrate their 130 anniversary Sabadell Bank in Spain delighted the townspeople with an incredible symphony flash mob. Watch as they play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and sang Ode to Joy, filling up the town with joy and beautiful music!


Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor 4th Movement, “Ode To Joy” – Complete w/ Words and Translation – Long


Georges Bizet – Carmen – Overture

Frédéric Chopin, Minute Waltz, 1847
Full name: Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, No. 1, Valse du petit chien (French for Waltz of the little dog)

Franz Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 , 1847


W. A. Mozart, Symphony No. 40, 1st Movement “Allegro”


W. A. Mozart, Rondo Alla Turca. Known formally as Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major


Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)
Canon in D. Full name – Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo
Boston Pops Orchestra, Conductor John Williams.


Gioachino Rossini, The Barber of Seville (1816)

(link to be added)

Gioachino Rossini, LARGO AL FACTOTUM from The Barber of Seville

Gioachino Rossini, The William Tell Overture (1829)

Bedřich Smetana: Dance of the Comedians (1866) NOVA filharmonija
dirigent: Simon Perčič, Novoletni capriccio, Slovenska filharmonija, Ljubljana, 23.12.2013


The Blue Danube, Johann Strauss II (1825 – 1899)
André Rieu & his Johann Strauss Orchestra playing “The Beautiful Blue Danube” (An der schönen blauen Donau)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker Suite, 1892

Antonio Vivaldi – Four Seasons. 1723
Budapest Strings, Bela Banfalvi, Conductor

Richard Wagner, Overture from The Flying Dutchman (German: Der fliegende Holländer) ,  (1843)

Richard Wagner, Pilgrim’s Chorus, from Tannhäuser
Tannhäuser and the Minstrel’s Contest at the Wartburg”) 1845

Richard Wagner, “Ride of the Valkyries”
Act 3 of Die Walküre, the second of the four operas by Richard Wagner that constitute Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung)



Jan Peerce (Joshua Perelmuth) sings The Kol Nidre (Hebrew)



French National Anthem – “La Marseillaise” (French, with English translation)


Cymbal harmonics

Learning Standards

Massachusetts Arts Curriculum Framework


The Arts Disciplines: Music
5.1 Perceive, describe, and respond to basic elements of music, including beat, tempo, rhythm, meter, pitch, melody, texture, dynamics, harmony, and form

5.2 Listen to and describe aural examples of music of various styles, genres, cultural and historical periods, identifying expressive qualities, instrumentation, and cultural and/or geographic context

Arts in world history: The Age of Revolutionary Change (C. 1700 TO 1914)

Europe: The Classical Style (1750–1825)
Developing forms of music: Sonata, concerto, symphony, instrumental chamber music. Sonata allegro form used extensively in large forms. Emergence of the fortepiano over other keyboard instruments.

Composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Joseph Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Carl Maria von Weber, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Luigi Cherubini

The Romanticists (1800–1900) Developing forms of music: Great expansion of all major forms of music, especially the symphony and opera, as well as long solo works. Prominence of piano in chamber music. Descriptive program music. Emergence of
nationalism in composition, use of folk music.

Composers: Hector Berlioz, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi, César Franck, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Georges Bizet, Modest Mussorgsky, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Antonin Dvorák, Edvard Grieg, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Giacomo Puccini, Gustav Mahler, Jan Sibelius, Bedrich Smetana.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night

Physicist Werner Heisenberg said, “When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.” As difficult as turbulence is to understand mathematically, we can use art to depict the way it looks.

Natalya St. Clair illustrates how Van Gogh captured this deep mystery of movement, fluid and light in his work.

The unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

Van Gogh Art Turbulence

Natalya St. Clair, Educator
Avi Ofer , Animator
Addison Anderson, Script Editor