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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.


Candidates misunderstand laws of Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics is an essential component of physics and chemistry: Science standards for thermodynamics

FactCheck.Org ran this analysis:

Ben Carson claimed that prevailing theories of how the universe began and how planets and stars formed violate the second law of thermodynamics. His comments represent a misunderstanding of scientific concepts. Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon and Republican presidential candidate, spoke at a rally on Sept. 22 at Cedarville University — an Ohio school that describes itself as a “Christ-centered, Baptist institution.” Carson began his discussion of science by explaining — correctly — that many studies have debunked the notion that vaccines cause autism. “That’s why we have science and scientific studies to look at these kinds of things,” he said.

He then went on to say “science is not always correct,” and claimed that the Big Bang theory is one such example (at the 1:03:13 mark):

Carson, Sept. 22: Now you’re saying, there’s a Big Bang, a big explosion, and our solar system and our universe come into perfect alignment. Now I said you also believe in the second law of thermodynamics, entropy, right? “Yeah.” And I said, that states that things move toward a state of disorganization, right? “Yeah.” I said, so, how is there a Big Bang and instead of things moving toward disorganization they become perfectly organized to the point where we can predict 70 years hence when a comet is coming. How does that work? “Well. We don’t understand everything.”

According to the Big Bang theory, that initial explosion represents the birth of the universe, about 13.8 billion years ago. The solar system that houses the Earth was born about 5 billion years ago.

SciCHECKinsertCarson talked about entropy, which is commonly thought of as a measure of order or disorder; increasing entropy essentially means an increasingly disordered state.

The second law of thermodynamics says that in any isolated system, the entropy of that system will increase or remain the same — not decrease.

Carson claims that the Big Bang theory violates the second law of thermodynamics, since the solar system has moved to what he calls a “perfectly organized” point, instead of becoming more disorganized.

But the two concepts aren’t in contradiction. A small part of a system can become more ordered, while the rest of the system sees a decrease in order in the process.

One good example of this is an ice tray in a freezer. The molecules in liquid water move into a more ordered state when they freeze into a solid. On its own then, water turning to ice appears to be a violation of the second law. But the ice in the freezer is not a closed system: The freezer also generates heat as it runs, which is radiated out into your kitchen. That heat increases entropy more than the water turning to ice decreases it.

Brian Greene, a physicist at Columbia University and author of several popular science books, gave us another easy-to-visualize example during a phone interview: the act of cleaning up a messy room.

Greene, Sept. 23: How do you take a messy room and make it ordered? That would seem to be decreasing the disorder – it was a mess, now it’s not a mess. It was disordered, now it’s ordered. How could anybody do that? It seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics!

But the answer is: you have to take into account all of the sources of order and disorder, including the body of the human who is cleaning up the room, the heat that they are generating, the fat that’s being burned as they undertake this exercise. And when you take into account everything – the molecules of air that get excited by the sweat forming on the brow of the individual doing the cleaning – when you take into account all of these features, the amount of disorder generated overly compensates – always – for the amount of order that’s being created in the room.

Moving outward to the solar system scale, the situation is the same. The increasing entropy is not violated by the formation of planets, stars and comets due to arrive in 70 years. All the factors that go into the formation of these celestial bodies work to increase disorder rather than decrease it.

As Greene told us: “The formation of a star is an entropically increasing phenomenon. It is not decreasing the amount of disorder, it is increasing the amount of disorder, even though it looks so darn ordered relative to, say, the swirling gas cloud from which it emerged.”

Planets and stars form when gases and dust in space slow down and begin to clump together, at which point gravity helps pull these clumps together and draw in more dust and gas, until those big objects are formed. “That process as we understand it is completely consistent with the second law of thermodynamics,” Greene said.

From a universe-wide perspective, the overall increasing entropy is measurable based on the leftover heat from the Big Bang, known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. According to the Big Bang theory, at the point of the initial explosion all the energy in the universe was concentrated in a state of very low entropy — an almost completely ordered state.

Ever since that explosion, that energy has been spreading out, a continually rising degree of disorder. The observed level of the background radiation is consistent with the predictions of modern cosmology. In short, Big Bang theory predicts the existence of and the specific amounts of background radiation as a result of the rising entropy of the entire system, and observations actually bear that out. “The calculations agree with the observations to fantastic precision,” Greene said.

Carson went on to claim that the presence of stars and planets is related to the existence of multiple Big Bangs that eventually might produce an ordered universe:

Carson: And then they go to the probability theory, and they say “but if there’s enough big bangs over a long enough period of time, one of them will be the perfect big bang and everything will be perfectly organized.” And I said, so you’re telling me if I blow a hurricane through a junkyard enough times over a long enough period of time after one of them there will be a 747 fully formed and ready to fly?

That is not an accurate reflection of the Big Bang theory. Though some theories of the origin of the universe suggest that the Big Bang was only one of many such explosions, these theories do not state that the currently ordered existence is a spontaneous result of one of these repeated Big Bangs.

Greene called this a “red herring,” and said the concept of multiple Big Bangs has nothing to do with how stars and planets form in this current universe. Instead, those theories involve the idea that the universe goes through cycles over many billions of years: Big Bang, expansion, contraction, “Big Crunch,” followed by another Big Bang. How the stars and planets form between each of those bangs and crunches is a separate issue.

Although there is still much to be learned about the origins of the universe, the fact is science has extremely thorough explanations for how planets and stars form, and they mesh perfectly with the laws of thermodynamics.

Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation. – Dave Levitan.  Original article : Ben Carson rewrites the laws of thermodynamics

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