Secrets of the Sistine: Michelangelo’s hidden anatomical images

There has been a great many recent developments in the approach to Michelangelo’s iconic work in the Sistine Chapel; this mainly due to the discovery of various hidden messages and images which remained unnoticed for centuries until a small number of meticulous historians and scientists with an aesthetic eye came on the scene. One such theory posits that the renowned artist and sculptor had most likely deliberately used a type of paint which would crack and blanch over a relatively short space of time as a means to undermine Pope Julius II (ArtLark). Historians know that Michelangelo was very much against designing the now iconic frescoes of the Sistine (which he painted over just four years: 1508 – 1512), and rather wanted to focus on sculpture which he then viewed as being far superior. But the Pope was adamant, and insisted that Michelangelo produce a painted image. Esteemed painter and composer Sir Hubert Herkomer once explained that Michelangelo ‘had a distinctly sly side to his nature. I wonder if it is generally known to what tricks he resorted in order to circumvent the command of the Pope… when he had covered some space [i.e. painting progress] he asked for a visit from the Pope, that he could see with his own eyes that he was blundering with the material… [what’s more] nearly half the cracks were painted by Michaelangelo himself’ (excerpt from Herkomer’s ‘My School and My Gospel’ [1907]).

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Close-up of the cracks in ‘the creation of Adam’

But this is not an isolated accusation against Michelangelo and his troublesome ways. In fact, there is another theory which far surpasses the ‘material blunder’ claim which was likely more of a personal vendetta against the Pope. No, this next theory is far grander in scale, and has been argued by some to be a move which not only undermined Papal power but the lasting influence of the Catholic church itself. Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ is probably the most iconic piece of religious art in human history, but what if it came to light that this image was actually an audaciously extravagant piece of covert anti-Catholic propaganda, hidden in the very nucleus of Catholicism itself? In the early 90s a frankly astounding discovery/proposition was made by Doctor Frank Meshberger, and has gained much traction over the past few years, not just among historians but among anatomists and scientists alike. In the Creation painting, God is depicted in a red shroud with various other cherubic figures, the shapes and positions of which, including their garments, together accurately mimic the structure of the human brain along with all its proportional intricacies. The validity of this claim is further supported by the fact that there were a great many anatomical sketches found in Michelangelo’s study at the time he was designing the images for the Sistine.

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In addition to the crowning Creation image, anatomical depictions of the brain have later been found in other portions of the Sistine frescoes. In 2010 two neuroscientists from John Hopkins University found another hidden portion of the brain, this time from a different angle, situated in God’s throat (see above image), the shape of which had perplexed historians for many years who assumed it to be an oddly shapen goiter (a claim probably stemming from one of Michelangelo’s poems written whilst creating the frescoes, in which he describes the terrible conditions and bodily contortion underwent whilst painting the Sistine: ‘I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den!’). So the question then is; why would Michelangelo go through the effort of concealing these anatomical images? As stated by Nick Squires, the images could and have indeed been seen to represent ‘a coded attack on the church’s disdain for science’. But then again, they could also have been merely a very ostentatious form of gloating; of solidifying his superior anatomical knowledge in a time when dissection was a crime punishable by death. True, an anatomical image of the human brain stands as an archetypal symbol for scientific knowledge, but at the same time couldn’t the images be seen to in fact represent the exact opposite? In that God’s situation inside the brain could suggest that the only means of acquiring true knowledge is by accepting and submitting to his almighty wisdom. Or similarly, looking at the more recently discovered throat image, by accepting the word (the throat as universal symbol for speech) of God as absolute knowledge. Considering Michelangelo himself was believed to be deeply religious, particularly later in life, and to have perceived the intellect as a divine gift, this would certainly seem a more viable argument. But alas, we are restricted to mere speculation.

What is perhaps even more astounding is Michelangelo’s own belief that his frescoes for the Sistine were wholly inadequate; shameful even. In one of his poems he expresses in defeat ‘Come then, Giovanni, try – To succour my dead pictures and my fame; Since foul I fare and painting is my shame’. Considering that the hidden images have only come to light in the past few decades, half a century after their creation, and which have only been able to be located and verified by leading scientists and neuroscientists of the 21st century, to consider such paintings shameful is truly a testament to his genius. Indeed, these ever expanding discoveries add a whole new and intriguing dimension to the most iconic religious images in all of human history, but perhaps what’s more important is that it makes us realise how much our fundamental perceptions change over time. Well that, and it also raises the question “what else did we miss?!”

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)
Volterra’s portait of Michelangelo (believed to have been painted around 1545)

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NB: excerpts from Michelangelo’s poems sourced from Buonarotti (trans. Symonds 1878)

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