Field Notes: A lump in God’s throat

By Don Paoletta, professor of art history
Back in July, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” reported on two Johns Hopkins neurologists who believe Michelangelo hid an accurate depiction of a human brainstem within God’s neck in one of his Sistine Chapel frescoes.

Is their find legitimate? And, if so, what does it represent?

Click for Slideshow<br>(Photos courtesy of Web Gallery of Art) It’s true that Michelangelo studied anatomy to inform his art. While his interest in the brain would have likely been secondary to the bones, joints and muscles that directly relate to human form and movement, his knowledge of the brain’s structure is at least plausible.

We also know that Michelangelo was capable of remarkable visual metaphors, as when he painted his own face in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew in his Sistine Chapel Last Judgment, completed some 25 years after he painted the ceiling. He created this remarkable illusion as an aging man wanting to suggest that as he nears God he will shed his “carcere terreno,” his earthly prison, the prison of his flesh. We know he thought in these terms.

A couple decades ago a physician spotted a profile of the human brain in the billowing fabric painted in the ceiling’s Creation of Adam; it makes sense as a portrayal of God’s future plans following his construction of the first man. Other authors have found an umbilical cord and a uterus in the same fresco panel. Um, okay.

Our desire for evidence, scientists wisely warn, can be overwhelmed when we’re presented with what we want to see.

And now neurosurgeons find an anatomically precise rendering of the human brainstem in the throat of God in Michelangelo’s fresco of The Separation of Light from Darkness, the scene on the ceiling directly above the Sistine Chapel’s altar. The purely visual evidence looks vaguely (sort of, but not really) convincing, however only a specious explanation for Michelangelo’s purpose in putting a brainstem in God’s throat is provided.

Scientists are rightly skeptical when the overzealous among us see Elvis in a rock face or the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. Our desire for evidence, scientists wisely warn, can be overwhelmed when we’re presented with what we want to see.

Endocrinologists who watch thyroids fluttering from flower to flower share this vivid world with lepidopterists who recognize the butterflies in our throats. We see mirages of our interests all around us. Not even neurologists are immune.