Brain of the Sistine Chapel

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    Michelangelo Simoni, a key Italian Renaissance painter, is known to have been fascinated by anatomy and spent a great deal of time dissecting corpses in attempts to better understand the human form. But, in his most famous work, would a juxtaposition of God with the human brain be considered sacrilege? I opened up Photoshop and created this image composite in order to illustrate the story...

    The Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, is one of the world's most renowned artworks. The most famous segment is a scene called The Creation of Adam, in which God reaches from the Heavens and gives the spark of life to man. It has been reproduced countless times and is acclaimed as a masterpiece.

    In recent years, critics studying these works claim to have found hidden anatomical illustrations, cleverly concealed from the eyes of Pope Julius II and countless religious worshippers, historians, and art lovers. The most pronounced of these is the background of figures and shapes around the figure of God. An article written in the Journal of the American Medical Association describes the shape as an anatomically accurate picture of the human brain, including the frontal lobe, optic chiasm, brain stem, pituitary gland, and the major sulci of the cerebrum. See this document for further discussion of the details.

    It is no secret that Michelangelo’s relationship with the Catholic Church became strained during this time. The artist was a simple man, but he grew to detest what he saw as the opulence and corruption of the religious establishment. The Pope once had him beaten for not working on the Sistine fast enough, and Michelangelo threatened to leave the job unfinished if the Pope did not apologise. Remarkably, this ultimatum forced the Pope's apologies and brought a substantial financial peace offering. However, the artist's relationship with the church remained on unsteady terms and, like da Vinci, he used some of his work to play with symbolic connotations over which his employers had no control.

    Some say the meaning of the brain in the Sistine Chapel is not of God giving intelligence to Adam, but rather that the intelligence and observation of the human brain lead directly to God without needing a Church at all. Others interpret it as a metaphor for atheism: God is an invention of the human mind, and it is actually mankind that is giving life to his imagined "creator". Opponents of these viewpoints claim that such theories are just another example of Pareidolia - the tendency to recognise shapes in any random collection of objects.

    The truth may never be known, but it is fun to guess at symbolic hints left by a man who skilfully combined the worlds of religion, science, and faith in a provocative and awe inspiring work of art. And if you made it all the way to the end of this rambling monologue, I am impressed - thanks for reading!

    FiascosofFrank, sinister pictures, and 25 other people added this photo to their favorites.

    1. sinister pictures 47 months ago | reply

      I believe god exists in the temporal lobe area of the brain in some people.

    2. tj.blackwell 47 months ago | reply

      It's an interesting point. Many saints and other religious figures have been suspected of having had temporal lobe epilepsy. It's all conjecture, of course, but there have been some intruiging academic papers written on the subject.

    3. Melisenda2010 47 months ago | reply

      The thesis of Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo is very intriguing but has it real foundation?
      Years ago some scholars saw in Il Giudizio Universale of the altar wall (The Last Judgment, Cappella Sistina) the profile of Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet whom Michelangelo admired; others saw a naked woman in the drapery of Virgin Mary's dress of La Pietà... I think is just pareidolia.
      Brain as a metaphor for atheism? Michelangelo's poetry (he was even an interesting, difficult poet) is deeply religious... I quote some lines ( the two final tercets) of a sonnet that the old Michelangelo sent to Giorgio Vasari in 1552-54:
      "Gli amorosi pensier, già vani e lieti,
      che fien or, s'a duo morte m'avvicino?
      D'una so 'l certo, e l'altra mi minaccia.
      Né pinger né scolpir fie più che quieti
      l'anima, volta a quell'amor divino
      c'aperse, a prender noi, 'n croce le braccia."

    4. tj.blackwell 47 months ago | reply

      Whilst I think The Sistine Brain serves as a neat metaphor for atheism, I agree with you that such an inference was not Michaelangelo's intention - he was undoubtedly a religious person. Christian imagery does persist throughout his work but much has been written of how he subscribed to notions of Spiritualism in later years, for which he was condemned by Pope Paul IV.

      The basis of Spiritualism is that the Church is an invalid medium for the divine: people should have their own understanding of God without direction from worldly religious establishments. Why bother with a 'middle man' if your God is a panentheistic one, where He is synonymous with the world around you? (That's where the philosophical debates about the definition of God, and thus Atheism, get started!)

      That's a beautiful quotation you used, by the way, and one which supports your point very neatly. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment :-)

    5. tj.blackwell 47 months ago | reply

      Melisenda's quoted sonnet in full, for English readers like me:

      Well-nigh the voyage now is overpast,
      And my frail bark, through troubled seas and rude,
      Draws near that common haven where at last
      Of every action, be it evil or good,
      Must due account be rendered. Well I know
      How vain will then appear that favored art,
      Sole idol long, and monarch of my heart ;
      For all is vain that man desires below.
      And now remorseful thoughts the past upbraid,
      And fear of twofold death my soul alarms, —
      That which must come, and that beyond the grave.
      Picture and sculpture lose their feeble charms,
      And to that Love divine I turn for aid
      Who from the cross extends his arms to save.

    6. Neil Aiston 40 months ago | reply

      Fascinating. Your use of links to further information is excellent. Thought provoking ideas or wishful thinking? Either way, keep questioning!

    7. xeni 39 months ago | reply

      Thanks for adding it to the BB Flickr Pool! We put it to good use today. :)

      www.boingboing.net/2011/01/24/should-employers-be.html

    8. tj.blackwell 39 months ago | reply

      I'd noticed an increased number of views on this image today - thanks very much, Boing Boing! It's a true pleasure to be associated with an article by Richard Dawkins. In recent years his work has been responsible for shaping my understanding of the world, along with other inspirational scientists like the great Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman. Besides sharing atheist sympathies, I also found his talk at the T.E.D Conference in 2005 to be one of the most thought-provoking speeches I ever had the pleasure of listening to.

    9. Jules Manson 34 months ago | reply

      This is beautifully done. May I suggest another photoshop project for you? Perhaps having Adam touching the sun (a real NASA image showing sun spots), an atom or molecule, or something else that represents science.

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