Top 5 lesser-known, badass heroes of fantasy literature

Sidelining surrealism temporarily, this post instead looks at another passion of mine:  fantasy literature. I fancied having a go at one of those ‘top whatever’ lists you see all over the place and so I tried to think of something that I hadn’t come across before… Therefore I give you my top 5 lesser-known, badass heroes of fantasy (nb. I’m looking at literature only – though some of the books may have been adapted into films). You will likely notice that there is a conspicuous absence of some major sagas here – Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Discworld etc. – and this is because I have tried to keep away from major franchises and focus instead on works which might not be quite as well-known. Please let me know in the comments of any other bad-ass lesser-known heroes and heroines of fantasy (of which I’m sure there are plenty!) you have come across who you think would also make worthy candidates.

#5. Colonel Bremer dan Gorst – First Law (Joe Abercrombie)

Colonel Gorst is only a minor character in Abercrombie’s more famous First Law trilogy, but he plays a much more significant role in The Heroes, a standalone work which revisits the world and many of the characters from his original series (and also happens to be one of the best standalone works of fantasy I’ve ever read – be sure to check it out). For a number of years Gorst was leader of the revered Knights of the Body (the king’s royal bodyguards), but following a near-miss disaster at a royal event which almost led to the king’s untimely demise, he was subsequently disgraced, outcast and demoted to a military grunt on the front line (though his exceptional leadership and his skills on the battlefield meant he still retained significant influence in his newfound station). Despite his imposing physical stature Gorst has a very high-pitched and feeble voice, which is relentlessly mocked by many of his fellow Union officers and higher ranking kinsmen who know that he would not react for fear of further demotion. In battle however, Gorst is unparalleled. Not only is he the recurring champion swordsman of The Contest (with the exception of his loss to Jezal dan Luthar, which he would easily have won if not for the interference of the great sorcerer Bayaz, who enchants Luthar), the biggest sword-fighting competition in the Kingdom, but he is also the top unenhanced (i.e. no magical or preternatural abilities) fighter in the First law universe. Even the infamous Logen Ninefingers (the main protagonist of The Blade itself) would only stand a chance against Gorst were he to awaken ‘the Bloody Nine’, his maniacal and nigh-unkillable alter-ego, which is surely what we might consider as a form of enhancement. Gorst frequently bests entire companies of Northmen, the sworn enemy of the Union, and defeats high ranking generals of the North with relative ease. But aside from his fighting prowess, Gorst the unfortunate is also shown to have an essentially good heart, and although he is despised by almost all those around him, he is still more willing than most to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Union and for valour.

“The river became a mass of stomping hooves and spray, flying metal and blood, and Gorst hacked his way through it, teeth ground together in a frozen smile. I am home… he swung, and swung, and swung, denting armour, smashing bone, splitting flesh, every jolting impact up his arm a burning thrill. Every blow like a swallow to a drunkard, better, and better, but never enough…” – The Heroes

great artistic rendition of Gorst in The Heroes (artist unknown)


#4. Silk – Belgariad (David Eddings)

Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, or ‘Silk’ as he is better known, was always in a league of his own. At an early age his Machiavellian personality drew the interest of the immortal sorcerer Belgarath, who observed that he was smarter than most men by the age of ten, and among the wiliest ‘men’ he had ever stumbled across in all his many generations of life. Spy, deadly assassin, master merchant, business overlord, infamous thief, acrobat, champion swordfighter, and heir to one of the most powerful seats in the empire, the only people who pose even a mild threat to Silk are magic-users, and even they are always cautious not to underestimate him. His position of royalty is juggled with a repository of alternate personas which he slips into freely as he travels to different parts of the empire, even going so far as to shift his facial muscles to adopt a different appearance for his various roles. Archetypal handsome hero he is not; in fact Silk is described as being hideously ugly, with a prodigiously large hooked nose and rat-like features, and much shorter and stockier than the average man. But despite his aesthetic pitfalls, Silk’s charm and skill with words enable him to seduce some of the most beautiful and high-ranking women in all of Drasnia, even whilst not donning his princely persona. Silk is a crucial member of the fellowship responsible for protecting Garion (a young wizard who must fulfill an ancient prophecy to vanquish ultimate evil – standard hero stuff), and gets them out of countless perilous situations by way of his cunning and deadly skills in combat. His ever jocular nature among friends belies a misunderstood soul, whose isolated, regal childhood and superior intelligence have made him forever an outsider, but nevertheless a quintessential fantasy hero.

I always imagined Silk to look a lot like Danny Devito’s Penguin from his description in the Belgariad

#3. TenSoon – Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series

TenSoon is one of the kandra, a genetically and magically engineered race of shapeshifters originally designed as loyal slaves to the will of the evil Lord Ruler (the main antagonist in the original Mistborn series). Having been created using a dark form of magic known as Hemalurgy, also known as ‘the art of Ruin’ (Ruin being the most malign of the greater gods in the mistborn universe), many kandra are not only shapeshifters but are also capable of prodigious magical feats inherited through powers of allomancy. Due to their unique set of skills the kandra are often manipulated and used as assassins by devious humans, who take advantage of the kadras’ instinct to follow rather than to think independently, a trait instilled as a means to avoid them using their great power against the Ruler himself. The kandra homeland is very secretive, and within their closed society they do not keep their replicatory forms but rather don what is known as their ‘True Body’; a (usually) humanoid exoskeleton made up of very rare earthly materials like quartz and precious stones; the True Body is often translucent giving them a striking and ghostly appearance. TenSoon is third generation kandra and is around 700 years old, making him one of the oldest and most experienced of his kind. He is also a rebel and anarchist among his race, and seems somehow able to resist the magically instilled subservience which continues to consume his brethren. TenSoon was originally an antagonist in the series, killing and deceptively replacing another experienced wolfhound-shaped kandra, OreSeur, in order to spy on Vin (the original mistborn’s main protagonist). This is the first killing of a kandra by a kandra, and it is clear that even though it was performed whilst under the instruction of a powerful human master, the killing affected TenSoon very deeply, and was a huge weight on his conscience. Once within his new company something changes in TenSoon, and he find a like-mind in Vin, and grows genuinely attached to her, and soon realises that she is the key to overthrowing the dark reign of the Lord Ruler and freeing his race from its eternal shackles. And so TenSoon comes clean. He sees a great power converging around Vin, and vows to help her fulfill the prophecy, and indeed ends up playing a crucial and decisive role in aiding Sazed (a prophet like figure and spiritual guide to Vin) to overthrow his kin who are still bent to the will of the Lord Ruler. Perhaps what makes Tensoon such a great hero is his endless strife to overcome himself; to overthrow instinct and morality, in order to recognise and fight for what is good for his people no matter how great the cost, and how much torment he must endure.

TenSoon takes the form of a giant wolfhound

#2. Nakor – Raymond E Feist’s Riftwar Saga (and others)

Imagine a cross between Yoda, a Shaolin monk and Nietzsche and you might come somewhere close to Nakor the Isalani, one of the most endearing characters in Feist’s epic Riftwar saga. Despite his staggering magical capabilities Nakor believes magic to be nothing more than ‘trickery’, and seeks to alter the fundamental perceptions towards magic in the universe as a way of unleashing a much greater hidden power in knowledge. He is believed to be centuries old, founds his own quasi-Buddhist religion and has the godly ability to inhabit any physical body on a whim, though he chooses to stay permanently in the body of an aged, slight and impish Isalani farmer. Nakor is even said to harbour a piece of a greater god; that being, perhaps unsurprisingly, the cunning trickster god Kalkin (a Loki figure in Feist’s mythos). Nakor carries a rucksack on his many journeys across the empire which contains both a portal to another world containing unlimited apples and oranges, and an ancient book which contains all possible knowledge in the universe (the Codex of Wodar Hospur). He sleeps with this book under his pillow every night, and the knowledge filters through to him in his dreams: it is believed that someday this great and ever-growing store of knowledge will tip him into madness. Nakor is undoubtedly a key figure in overcoming many of the evils faced throughout the many Riftwar adventures, and one of the only ‘magicians’ capable of confronting the gods. But what makes him a truly original character in fantasy literature is that he questions what magic really is: Nakor asks us to, from inside of a magical world no less, embrace magic as nothing more than simulation, trickery, as a means of revelation. When we read a work of fantasy we are being asked to accept the irrational as rational, illogical as logical and yet, in this figure who is seen as madness incarnate within his world, Nakor inverts this process, instead providing us with a dogged rationality. Nakor thus emblematises the idea that magic is merely a form of perception: it is impossible to escape magic, it is all around us, only hidden by a very convincing wall of rationality and logic which we all need to slip away from every once in a while…

Great artistic rendition of Nakor by Don Maitz


#1. Diomedes – Homer’s The Iliad

Although it is still up for debate as to how much of the events depicted in the Iliad are actually fantasy, due to the centrality of Greek Mythology and the intersection of mythical characters with worldly events, it seems not unreasonable to include The Iliad in this list (perhaps even as the first ever known work of fantasy!). Now among the long list of famed great warriors who fought in the Trojan war – including Achilles, Odysseus, Greater Ajax, Hector, Aeneas and Sarpedon to name but a few – none come even close to Diomedes in terms of sheer awesomeness. Despite being the youngest of all the major generals of the Trojan war, Diomedes is nothing shy of a one man army in battle, a master strategist and tactician, and arguably the wisest and most courageous of all the mortal heroes. Moreover, he is also the only mortal to injure 2 opposing Olympian greater gods (and he would have easily killed the demigod Aeneas, one of the greatest Trojan heroes, were it not for Olympian intervention) including Aphrodite and none other than the God of War himself (!!!), Ares, whom he skewered with a spear and forced to leave the battlefield with his tail between his legs.

Although the Trojan war is the best known expedition in modernity, many historians believe that the Epigoni war, which occurred a decade or so earlier, was perhaps of even greater importance to the ancient Greeks, and there is evidence to suggest that there was a significantly larger scope of epics which were dedicated to this war, though unfortunately none of them survived (though they are frequently referred to in many other surviving works). But historians have managed to piece together a great deal of the history of the Epigoni war, and there is one figure who stands out as the hero of that war: a fifteen year old Diomedes. Some of his other feats in his younger years include: sacking the legendary city of Thebes; becoming the youngest king ever to rule Argos and doing so for a great many years; obliterating an entire traitorous neighbouring Kingdom (Calydon) following the imprisonment of his grandfather, Oeneus, during a coup, only leaving once Oeneus was back on his throne; founding and building a mythical city in honour of his grandfather (who was assassinated a number of years after Diomedes  returned him to his station). And all of this years before the Trojan war even took place! To top it all off, Diomedes is one of only 2 Greek Mythological mortal figures (the other was Menelaus) who was offered immortality (he was actually offered to become a Greek God!) due to his superiority over all other mortal men. If Diomedes is not the ultimate lesser known, forgotten hero, then I don’t know who is.

Statue of Diomedes

‘I hold him mightiest of them all; we did not fear even their great champion Achilles, son of an immortal though he be, as we do this man: his rage is beyond all bounds, and there is none can vie with him in prowess’

– The Iliad, description of Diomedes


Continue reading “Top 5 lesser-known, badass heroes of fantasy literature”

Exquisite Words from the Journals of Paul Gauguin after the Death of Van Gogh

‘Scattered notes, without sequence, like dreams, like a life all made up of fragments; and because others have shared in it, the love of beautiful things seen in the houses of others. Things that are sometimes childish when they are written, some of them the fruits of one’s leisure, some the classifications of beloved though perhaps foolish ideas, – in defiance of a bad memory, and some rays that pierce to the vital centre of my art. If a work of art were a work of chance, all these notes would be useless.

I believe that the thought which has guided my work, a part of my work, is mysteriously linked with a thousand other thoughts, some my own, some those of others. There are days of idle imagination from which I recall long studies, often sterile, more often troubling: a black cloud has just darkened the horizon; confusion takes over my soul and I am unable to do anything. If in other hours of bright sunshine and a clear mind I attach myself to such and such a fact, or vision, or bit of reading, I feel I must make some brief record of it, perpetuate the memory of it.

Sometimes I have gone far back, farther back than the horses of the Parthenon… as far back as the Dada of my babyhood, the good rocking-horse. I have lingered among the Nymphs of Corot, dancing in the sacred wood of Ville-d’Avray.

This is not a book.

… On the veranda, a quiet siesta, everything peaceful. My eyes see the space before me without taking it in; and I have the sensation of something endless of which I am the beginning. Moorea on the horizon; the sun is approaching it. I follow its mournful march; without comprehending it I have the sensation of a movement that is going to go on forever: a universal life that will never be extingished.

And lo, he night. Everything is quiet. My eyes close, to see without grasping it the dream in infinite space that flees before me. And I have the sweet sensation of the mournful procession of my hopes…

– Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals


NB: Featured image is Gauguin’s ‘Day of the God’ (1894). This passage from Gauguin’s journals comes directly after his description of his final communications with Van Gogh before his suicide in 1890, which affected him very deeply. Gauguin had taken Van Gogh under his wing, and they had spent some years together in friendship before Van Gogh’s eventual mental collapse.


Gauguin’s ‘The Painter of Sunflowers’ (1888) depicting Van Gogh. Van Gogh remarked to Gauguin of the image “it is certainly I, but it’s I gone mad!”.

J. G. Ballard and the Poetry of Advertising (black friday special)

It’s Black Friday. The day when the consumer degenerates into an atavistic consumption-crazed beast as the corpulent capitalists dangle their chunks of discounted meat over the maws of the masses. It is a surrealist day; when the unconscious prevails (MUST… BUY… 50 INCH PLASMA TV… MUST… PURCHASE… SCANTILY DISCOUNTED NONESSENTIALS… BUY… BUY… BUYYY) and consciousness floats away until the early hours of saturday morning (wha.. shit… do they still do refunds?). It is also a quintessentially Ballardian day of course, when primal urges are united with the unconscious-channeling consumer-capitalist landscape.

So let’s look at a work of advertising which serves a very different function to such mind-numbing corporate acquiescence, and instead seeks to empower the viewer, to stimulate active creative thought and decipherment. Apart from his earlier Project for a New Novel billboards which were a series of ingenious adverts which covertly inundated the consumer landscape with some of the greatest artworks by Salvador Dali, Court Circular (1968) was another lesser-known endeavor of Ballard’s which veered away from traditional advertising forms towards empowering the mass psyche through art (which was of course all the rage in 1968). Court Circular was a double-page advertisement (Ballard himself acknowledged it as such) published in a newspaper-sized, special edition of the groundbreaking SF mag Ambit (#37). The ad doubles as a work of concrete poetry, and depicts a columnal series of repeated words on one page, and a series of small fauvist-like images (8 in total) drawn by Bruce Mclean, as well as a photograph taken from Paolozzi’s ‘Moonstrips – General Dynamic F.U.N.’ (Ambit #33, 1967) on the other.



So what exactly is it? The concrete poem is a fascinating work: it is comprised of less than a dozen different words and yet is able to depict a girl’s journey into adulthood – her first kiss, her first love, first experience of oral sex, losing her virginity, explorative sex, first rift in a relationship, before eventual marriage and pregnancy, and seemingly settling into a mutually affectionate relationship (due to the dedication the girl is presumably based on Claire Churchill, one of Ballard’s partners and a frequent figure within his more experimental works). But then how does this experimental poem coincide with the strangely contorted shapes of the figures below?

It is only when one begins to meticulously attach the topmost text-based work with the Matisse-stylised figures below, that some narrative cohesion begins to emerge. If we begin to ‘flesh out’ these various clusters of successive words – visualise hair where it reads ‘HAIR’, perhaps lips or breasts where it reads ‘SUCK’, a vagina where it reads ‘FUCK’, anus where it reads ‘ANUS’ (that one he made easy for us) and then use the subjective terms (i.e. ‘GIRL’ and ‘WIFE’) as the primary image of the figure, then a larger abstract Fauvist image, just like the smaller ones below, begins to take shape. Ballard is thus expressing how this rigid, columnal series of words, when placed within a codified system, when deciphered, can take on artistic significance, and can in effect be elevated to a work of art!

In some cases the woman’s anatomy in the smaller drawings can be tethered almost exactly to the location of the words in the poem. For example where the successive word ‘kiss’ appears in the upper region of column three you will notice the woman’s head appears roughly around this area within most of the smaller images below. Moreover, the word ‘ANUS’ is located exactly where the woman’s anus is situated in the third drawing along in the topmost column of Mclean’s drawings, whilst the grouping of the word ‘HAIR’ which flows from the bottom of column six to the top of column seven, corresponds to the far middle-right of Mclean’s drawings, in which the woman’s hair appears to sweep around the bottom of the image all the way around to the top much like a frame. Interestingly ‘HAIR’ is the only word or batch of words to flow from one column to the other, suggesting that Ballard was perhaps trying here to use the text to imitate the flowing physicality of hair as opposed to the more rigid aspects of the  anatomy.

If only the world were not so dominated by corporations and marketers dead-set on anesthetizing the mind to droning consumption and instead embracing such Ballardian methods of subjective empowerment, why then every shopping trip would be a Sherlockian adventure, and we’d be in a world propelled by the urge to unravel and solve and seek out new means of expression – O’ what a world it would be!!!


NB: Featured image from John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Also be sure to read Mike Holliday’s fascinating piece on for even more about Ballard’s forays into advertising.

Millet’s Angelus: The Enigmatic Source of Salvador Dali’s Paranoiac-critical Surrealism

Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus (1859)

There is likely no greater example in art of a single work having such a profound and lasting influence on an artist than Dali’s influence by Jean Francois Millet’s Angelus. Dali had been familiar with the work since childhood; a reproduction of the painting hung on a secluded wall of his grammar school. But the obsessional, paranoiac aspect to the image would not come until a striking vision in 1932 at which point ‘it suddenly appeared in my mind without any recent recollection or conscious association… It left with me a profound impression, I was most upset by it… the Angelus of Millet suddenly became for me the most troubling of pictorial works, the most enigmatic, the most dense, the richest in unconscious thoughts that had ever existed’ (Dali, Tragic Myth). From that point on the work brought about frequent delirious episodes in Dali, during which the symbols and figures of the Angelus would appear in his daily life to plague and haunt his consciousness.

Dali’s The Angelus (1935)

It was from such paranoiac visions however that the systematic approach to Dali’s work would emanate, and would come to formulate the paranoiac-critical method, a means by which the artist ‘organizes and objectivizes in an exclusivist manner the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective and objective ‘significance’ in the irrational… it makes the world of delirium pass onto the plane of reality’ (from Dali’s 1935 essay ‘The Conquest of the Irrational’). The Angelus thus served as the genesis of Dali’s latency-driven works which would later represent a crucial component of the surrealist movement at large. The analytical frame to Dali’s technique is expounded in his 1938 work, The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, a work which was believed lost for many decades following the outbreak of the second work war.

The male figure from the Angelus appears in Dali’s ‘meditation on the harp’ (1932-33)

Dali’s persistent visions, which are reflected in the innumerable allusions and appearances of the Angelus in his artworks, led to an astounding discovery, which was only verified over a century after the work’s creation by modern x-raying technology. Dali had been particularly haunted by the lurking sense of death evoked by the image, in particular the sense of the loss of a child (perhaps a conviction which colluded with the burdensome death of Dali’s brother in childhood), though in the image there is nothing which explicitly suggests such, other than the grim aspect of the standing figures. But Dali had little doubt that there this was a depiction of the death of a child, and he continued to write his entire Tragic Myth, his entire paranoiac activity manifesto based on this unproven belief: ‘The great mythical theme of the death of the son, an essential sentimaent that became apparent in my Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus, was confirmed once my thesis had been completed, without my having yet been able, until recently, to verify it’ (from the later commentary added to his Tragic Myth text). Then, after many years of doubt by almost all those other than Dali himself, the painting was analysed, and there, beneath the many layers of soil and oil paint, there lay the unquestionable outline of a small coffin, the size of which would suit only a child. Dali was right all along.

homage to millet.jpg
Dali’s ‘homage to Millet’ (1934)

To finish, here’s a sublimely surrealist description of the Angelus written by Dali:

“In the picture this lonely, crepuscular, mortal place plays the role of the dissection table in the poetic text, because, not only is life fading out on the horizon, but also the pitchfork is plunged into the real substantial meat which the ploughed land has been to man throughout all time. It is plunged into the earth, I said, with that greedy intentionality of fecundity appropriate to the delectable incisions of the surgical knife during the dissection of any corpse which, as everyone knows, is, under diverse analytical pretexts, secretly only looking for the synthetic, fertile and nourishing potato of death. Constant dualism stems from this, felt throughout all ages, a sort of ploughed-earth nutrition, a table for eating – the ploughed earth nourishing itself from that manure as sweet as honey which is nothing but that of the authentic, amoniacal, necrophilic desires – a dualism that finally brings us to consider the ploughed earth, especially when worsened by the twilight, like the best-laden dissection table, which among all others offers us the most appetizing and prime cadaver. This corpse is seasoned with that fine and imponderable truffle that is only found in nutritive dreams consisting of the flesh from the rounded shoulders of hitlerian atavistic nurses, and with an incorruptible, exciting salt made by the frenetic, voracious squirming of ants… ”

– Salvador Dali, in ‘Explanation of an illustration from the Chants de Maldoror’ (found in the appendix of Tragic Myth)


NB: Just as a short additional piece of Dalinian trivia, another fascinating story/conspiracy theory involving the Angelus has to do with the legendary Van Gogh and his cutting off his ear. Another of Dali’s recurrent delusions of the Angelus was the association of the woman figure with the praying mantis; seen as evoking Freudian notions of the atavistic, primal instincts of the mother figure, and her aspect, in conjunction with the bowed head of the father figure, which Dali saw as being reminiscent of cannibalistic urges following the death of the child (note that in all the works by Dali containing both figures, the female towers above the male to represent this mantid analogy). Dali goes as far as to say that ‘it is indeed this insect that we are going to see illustrate in a dazzling fashion the tragic myth contained in Millet’s Angelus’ (Tragic Myth, 81), thus situating the mantis at the very centre of his own decipherment! What’s interesting though, and what links Van Gogh here, is that Van Gogh showed a similar obsession with the Angelus image, but only whilst in his  most delirious state of madness. Now get this, in the late-80s, whilst Dali was very ill and not wholly in his right mind, a scientific discovery was made involving mantids: the mantid is the only known living creature on earth to have what is known as a ‘cyclopean ear’, that is a ‘single, midline ear’ (discovered by Yager and Hoy). This discovery was found a great many years after Dali’s conception of the mantis being so central in the Angelus, and even further after Van Gogh’s psychotic episode during which he cut of his ear, and yet it gives some clarity to the reasoning behind Van Gogh’s cutting off his ear and not any other part of his body, a mystery which baffled historians for many years. Could this indeed be the answer, lying deep in the unconscious workings of this enigmatic painting?! Could it be that the unconscious presence of the mantis also infected Van Gogh in his delirious state and led him to the act of severing his ear?! We will never know for sure, but it is certainly a theory which champions the authority of the unconscious mind, and which undoubtedly makes Dali all the more endearing.

Ode to J. G. Ballard

Curator of cascading cavalcades and causeways of carnality,

Virtuoso of vivisection, mosaics of calamity,

In whose worlds a prosaic insanity festers midst cortex;

Synergies of synapse and syntax, an existential vortex.

Through a geometric rhetoric of plaza and high rise,

Come parables comparable to Freudian mythologies.

Where avian conclaves of Loplopian apostles soar,

As the corpses of collossi are numbly washed ashore.

Marooned tycoons wander in some highway purgatory,

Metro meets Mecca: all hail the gods of multi-storey.

A Triassic redux as concrete jungles plunge neath tide,

From Shanghai to Shepperton he pedalled, forever wide-eyed…


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]).

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.




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)


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