bioephemera

God is more than a flying brain

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Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam
From Paluzzi et al., Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2007

For a few years, Nature Reviews Neuroscience stuck to a humorous theme in its cover art: everyday objects that mimic brains. A dandelion, spilled wine, a rock, a cave painting: if you know what features to look for, a surprising number of things resemble brains. We are a species that sees faces on the Martian surface and the Moon; we’re very good at pattern recognition, and it’s probably evolutionarily better for our brains to err on the side of “recognizing” something that isn’t there, than vice versa.

That’s why I’m skeptical of a recent paper by four UK scientists, resurrecting an idea nearly two decades old: that Renaissance painters planted hidden neuroanatomical imagery in their paintings.

This idea apparently originated with gynecologist Frank Meshberger. In 1990, Meshberger proposed that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, The Creation of Adam, represents a midsaggital view of the human brain. He argued that the prominent violet oval of God’s billowing cloak outlines the cerebrum, the bump in the front is the Sylvian fissure, and the dangling angels’ legs depict the pituitary and spinal cord. The foot of the frontmost angel is strangely shaped – Meshberger calls it “bifid” – which is consistent with a bilobed pituitary.


The thesis is attractive because it fits the message of the painting: God is giving the divine spark of life to Adam. Couldn’t that spark be wisdom, or intelligence? Meshberger thought so: “the larger image encompassing God is compatible with a brain. Michelangelo portrays that what God is giving to Adam is the intellect.” We know Michelangelo was fascinated by human anatomy; like Leonardo da Vinci, he dissected cadavers, and could plausibly have made and studied a midsaggital brain section. Meshberger’s original paper includes a series of striking figures where he pairs tracings of modern anatomical illustrations (by the renowned Frank Netter, on left) with tracings of the fresco, on right:

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from Meshberger, FL, JAMA, 1990

The resemblance is obvious. But is it intentional?

In December, a group of UK-based neuroscientists led by Alessandro Paluzzi extended Meshberger’s hypothesis to two other Renaissance paintings: Rafael’s Transfiguration of Jesus and Gerard David’s Transfiguration of Christ. To my eye, the Rafael bears no resemblance to a brain whatsoever; even the authors note, “[the resemblance] may not be immediately obvious at first sight (and perhaps it was not meant to be).” But the David is strikingly similar to a midline coronal section of the human brain, cropped just right, with Elijah and Moses perched in the ventricles. Judge for yourself:

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David, Transfiguration of Christ; coronal section of human brain
From Paluzzi et al., Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2007

Is it wrong that Elijah and Moses remind me of Statler and Waldorf?

Despite my skepticism, Paluzzi and colleagues aren’t alone in finding Meshberger’s point of view alluring. In 2006, Michael Salcman revisited Meshberger’s hypothesis, citing putative anatomical influences in other works by Michelangelo, including another part of the Sistine Chapel fresco that he says resembles a “bisected right kidney.” However, Salcman also admitted, “a cynic might suppose that neurologists and nephrologists are prone to discover brains and kidneys everywhere.”

What can I say – I’m just such a cynic. As far as I’m concerned, a 1990 NYT article by Natalie Angier (she’s had the science beat for a long time) says it all too well:

‘I certainly see how he had the idea, but I think it is a retrofit of his own modern knowledge onto Renaissance culture,” said Dr. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of fine arts at New York University and a consultant for Renaissance art at the Vatican Museum.

”All the elements in the image have profound traditional roots in the visual culture of the Renaissance and Middle Ages. God is more than a flying brain.”

Wouldn’t it be cool if God were a flying brain? (Or a flying spaghetti monster? But I digress.)

Unfortunately, no matter how intriguing these resemblances, we have no explanation for why master artists of the Renaissance would have concealed brain imagery in their work. Paluzzi et al. don’t claim to have an answer, although they suggest “perhaps this was a tongue-in-cheek send-up of religious themes, unbeknownst to the commissioners of the paintings, or maybe just the product of a new philosophical climate where a revitalized passion for life sciences was permeating all aspects of society, including art.” An in-joke/symbol that only a handful of self-educated anatomist-artists could appreciate? That’s a little too Da Vinci Code for me. Still. . . wouldn’t it be cool if it were true?

References

Angier, Natalie, “Michelangelo, Renaissance Man of the Brain, Too?” NYT, October 10, 1990.
Meshburger, FL, “An Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy”, JAMA, Vol 264, October 1990. Pubmed
Paluzzi et. al, “Brain ‘imaging’ in the Renaissance”, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 100, December 2007. Pubmed (subscription) (Via Street Anatomy)
Salcman, Michael, “The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)”, Neurosurgery, Vol 59, December 2006. Pubmed

Comments

  1. #1 Ronald
    February 14, 2008

    Your article is very interesting. I have always wondered why my art resembles biological forms. I am drawn to biomorphic forms and they spontaneously appear in my work. Even the spontaneous titles have a relationship to biology.

    I look forward to more blog postings.

  2. #2 Kevin C.
    February 14, 2008

    Pareidolia at work again.

  3. #3 Henry
    February 17, 2008

    In my opinion, The creation of Adam resembles more a crossection of a heart than the brain, check it out and see.

    H

  4. #4 Jessica Palmer
    February 18, 2008

    Henry – I’ve thought it resembles a brain for years – I wonder if I was exposed to this theory in the 90s, or if I came to the conclusion on my own. So although I don’t see the heart, I may be too heavily biased toward a different interpretation.

  5. #5 Elliott Jempty
    February 19, 2008

    Absurd.

  6. #6 Jon H
    February 19, 2008

    I’m afraid the Transfiguration of Christ could also be, shall we say, meat, two veg, and the bladder at the top.

  7. #7 Jessica Palmer
    February 19, 2008

    Jon, you are the best.

  8. #8 Mama Sue
    August 7, 2008

    I found this to be a fascinating article.

  9. #9 Esmeralda
    March 11, 2009

    Oh, lord. People really can’t separate their own desire to make connections where there aren’t any from reality.
    It’s not as bad as the moon-landing-conspiracy, but it’s just as silly.
    Ahem:
    http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y206/ebatt/1223544894341.jpg

  10. #10 Daniel
    April 25, 2009

    I dunno. Artists of many stripes are prone to inserting metaphoric imagery for a plethora of reasons, the least of which is to be funny.

  11. #11 Skinner
    March 10, 2010

    I find it funny that nobody proposed another interpretation of the resemblance. If we accepted the brain-like figure that god and the angels compose, we would have to conclude something quite different from some intellect gift passed from God to Adam. First of all, God and the angels are inside the brain-like figure. Secondly, the two touching fingers suggest a symmetrical relationship with doesn’t allow to tell who is creating who. But actually Adam is placed to the left, and to the observer -and this is a well known fact – he has the priority, since we observe paintings and texts starting from the left. And finally Adam seems to be in a leisure attitude, and in those moments people tend to imagine stuff. So the correct conclusion is not that God is giving Adam the intellect, that is an extremely soft conclusion. The truth is that God is in Adam’s head, in his brain, God is the Creation of Adam by his imagination. Men invented God. That’s the true profound philosophical conclusion that you should achieve.

  12. #12 Elaine Schattner, M.D.
    June 23, 2010

    Very interesting; I wasn’t aware of the oldness of this interesting story. (Thanks!)

    To my eye the Sistine Chapel work seems close to the anatomy, and it’s plausible that Michelangelo was familiar with that. I agree that the Rafael and David images are less convincing.

    Maybe the answer’s not uniform: perhaps Michelangelo’s painting really does draw on knowledge of neuro-anatomy, but the other artists’ works don’t.

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