The Convergence of Art and Science

Mystical secrets encoded in the past—hidden in architecture, crumbling  in manuscripts, and still visible in centuries-old art that inspires on many levels. It’s the stuff of a summer blockbuster. Or is it the stuff of science?

The odd depiction of God's neck in "Separation of Light From Darkness" (A) bears a striking resemblance to a brainstem, seen in tissue from a cadaver (B) and outlined in the painting (C). Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins Neurosurgery

Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon Raphael Tomargo argues the latter. His May article in Neurosurgery brings an anatomic perspective to a panel of the Sistine Chapel whose odd artistic perspective has always puzzled historians.

Scholars have often viewed as “The Separation of Light from Darkness” as the chapel’s most significant panel. The last to be created, it hovers over the main altar with an unmatched majesty, showing a powerful God spinning a vortex of light with one arm, and congealing dark with the other.

Now Dr. Tomargo and his colleague Ian Suk, B.Sc., B.M.C., a medical illustrator and associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Neurosurgery, have given us a new look at this 500-year-old masterpiece and, perhaps, some insight into the mind of the man who created it. The physicians contend that the odd lumpy contours of God’s neck, seen in no other Sistine representation of Him, are not a goiter as some have previously theorized.

Instead, write Dr. Tomargo and Mr. Suk, the interplay of shadow and light outline a ventral view of the brainstem, as well as the perisellar and chiasmatic regions.

Given the fact that these scientists have devoted their lives to understanding human neuroanatomy, can we put their observations down to the phenomenon of clustering illusion—the tendency of humans to see patterns where none exist? Perhaps their perception is as common as a shepherd seeing flocks of grazing sheep in the clouds, or a devout Catholic cook seeing the face of Jesus in a tortilla.

The authors put forth a compelling argument, bolstered with a superimposition of cadaver photos onto Yaweh’s strangely lumpy neck. And when those observations combine with what we know about Michelangelo’s all-consuming curiosity about the human body, the persuasive power increases.

“It is unquestionable that Michelangelo performed cadaver dissections and that he had an intense fascination with human anatomy. It follows that, like Leonardo, Michelangelo probably explored gross neuroanatomy and developed an understanding of the brain’s important function,” Dr. Tamargo wrote.

Since at that time the Church strictly forbade those activities, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that this unconventional artist would hide subtle clues of his studies—and perhaps his philosophy about the relationship between God’s creative power and Man’s intellect.

This is not the first time physicians have pondered Michelangelo’s merging of art and science. In 1990, obstetrician Frank Lynn Meshberger opined that the cloud supporting God in “The Creation of Adam,” is a sagittal view of the human brain. The figures of God and his attendant angels outline, among other structures, the lateral cerebral fissure, the cingulate gyrus, the pituitary stalk and gland, according to Dr. Meshberger.

In 1990, Dr. Frank Lynn Mershberger suggested that the cloud God reclines upon in "The Creation of Adam," represents a saggital view of the human brain, complete with the sulcus singuli extending along the hip of the angel in front of God, across God's shoulder and down his left arm, and the vertebral artery depicted as the flowing green sash. Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Austinitecowboy's

Which brings us to the question: What does it mean? Was Michelangelo trying to tell us that the spark passed to Adam represents all that the human brain encompasses—memory, executive function, the perception of mortality, the idea of afterlife, the understanding of good and evil?

Or was it his esoteric way of flipping the bird to the Church, getting his anatomical studies published despite the prohibition? After all, look at what Michaelangelo did to one of his most vocal critics, Father Biagio Da Cesana, who complained about all the ceiling’s cavorting nudes. The artist tucked this kill-joy away in a corner behind the altar, decked out in donkey ears with a serpent devouring his genitals.

The artist himself described his own creativity as a deep connection with a spiritual force, one that he did not name as “God,”  but as a channel to the divine inspiration that brings thought into reality. Perhaps in his sonnet Michelangelo described his own creative spark, received from the finger of his Muse, whoever or whatever that was.

After the divine part has well conceived
Man’s face and gesture, soon both mind and hand,

With a cheap model first at their command,
Give life to stone, but this is not achieved by skill.

In painting, too, this is perceived:
Only after the intellect has planned the best and highest,

Can the ready hand take up the brush
And try all things received.

—Michele G. Sullivan (@MGSullivan on Twitter)
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