Renaissance Art or Neuroanatomy (part 1)?
Posted by Darin Hayton on 06/03 at 10:00 PM
Last week a guest blog post at the Scientific American, “Michelangelo’s Secret Message in the Sistine Chapel: A Juxtaposition of God and the Human Brain” was the most popular page at the Scientific American website. Apparently, this post remains the most popular:
The author, R. Douglas Fields, summarizes an article that just appeared in the journal Neurosurgery.1
At the age of 17 he began dissecting corpses from the church graveyard. Between the years 1508 and 1512 he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Michelangelo Buonarroti—known by his first name the world over as the singular artistic genius, sculptor and architect—was also an anatomist, a secret he concealed by destroying almost all of his anatomical sketches and notes. Now, 500 years after he drew them, his hidden anatomical illustrations have been found—painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, cleverly concealed from the eyes of Pope Julius II and countless religious worshipers, historians, and art lovers for centuries—inside the body of God.2
Fields reports the findings of the original article, repeating its claim that Michelangelo “hid the human brain stem, eyes and optic nerve of man inside the figure of God directly above the altar” and further that he concealed “a precise depiction of the human spinal cord and brain stem” in the folds of God’s robe and His throat.3 Fields gestures toward the Rorschach nature of these findings—“The mystery is whether these neuroanatomical features are hidden messages or whether the Sistine Chapel a Rorshach [sic] tests upon which anyone can extract an image that is meaningful to themselves.”—but seems to be persuaded by the original article. He quickly casts Michelangelo and his “secret message” in terms of the now canonical science v. religion contest. Unfortunately, in the process, he makes a few historical errors. For example:
Recall that this was the age when the monk Copernicus was denounced by the Church for theorizing that the Earth revolved around the sun. It was a period of struggle between scientific observation and the authority of the Church, and a time of intense conflict between Protestants and Catholics.4
Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel between 1508-1512, five years before Luther reported nailed his 95 theses to the church in Wittenberg and nearly two decades before Protestants and Protestantism was formalized at the imperial Diet in Augsburg. Copernicus was not a monk.4a Moreover, the Church did not denounce Copernicus “for theorizing that the earth revolved around the sun” for roughly another century. Finally, what is this “struggle between scientific observation and the authority of the Church” of which he speaks? Vesalius’s great work on anatomy, which was published in 1543, struggled to overturn the authority of Galen, not the Church.
Fields’s post and the article it summarizes raise a few interesting questions, including: What happens when scientists/physicians try to practice the history of science? Is there an implicit denial of expertise when they do? To what extent can somebody find anything in the historical record (Fields’s Rorschach comment seems to raise this question)? What evidence should be used to defend an interpretation of the historical record? In other words, to what extent can contemporary knowledge and sources be used to interpret historical sources?
Fields’s post is not unique. He, obviously, summarized an article published in a reputable scientific journal. He mentions a similar article published twenty years ago in another reputable scientific journal. The most recent Sky & Telescope published an article on “forensic astronomy,” which raises similar issues. The history of diseases and medicine is replete with examples. Consequently, it might be worthwhile to look at a few of these to see how the questions raised play themselves out in the actual scholarship. This post will look at Meshberger’s 1990 article. Subsequent posts will look at Suk and Tamargo’s “Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo’s Separation of Light From Darkness in the Sistine Chapel” and perhaps Donald Olson’s latest piece of forensic astronomy.
F. L. Meshberger, “An Interpretation of Michelango’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy”
In 1990 Frank Meshberger published his “An Interpretation of Michelango’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy” in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which he argued: “I believe that Michelangelo encoded a special message” in his Creation of Adam fresco in the Sistine Chapel.5 The “special message” was “that the ‘divine pare’ we [humans] ‘receive’ from God is the ‘intellect.’”6 On the face of it, this is not a particularly interesting conclusion. For Meshberger, the key is how Michelangelo conveyed that message. According to Meshberger, Michelangelo had a “great knowledge of anatomy that he acquired by performing dissections on the human body.”7 Drawing on this great knowledge, Michelangelo cleverly hid an outline of the human brain in his fresco in the billowing cloak that surrounds God and the angels.
Meshberger’s argument reduces to:
I would like to show this by looking at four tracings, Figures 1 through 4, and by reviewing gross neuroanatomy, using works by Frank Netter, MD, illustrator of The CIBA Collection of Medical Illustrations, Volume I — The Nervous System. Examine Figures 1 and 2 to see if there is any similarity between them. Examine Figures 3 and 4 and decide if these figures are similar or dissimilar. Take enough time inspecting the figures so that your mind may form its own image of them.8
For example, looking long enough at figures 3 and 4, we should see that they resemble each other rather closely:
These “tracings” are apparently Meshberger’s own work, drawn from a recent textbook of medical illustrations and a photograph of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Sufficient contemplation of them should reveal to us that:
Having studied these images of neuroanatomy, proceed to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (Figure 11) and look at the image that surrounds God and the angels.
This image has the shape of a brain.9
Figure 13 is especially revealing, as it shows “that Figure 4 is a tracing of the outer shell and of major lines in the fresco of God and the angels.”
Not only is the form of the argument problematic—historians are too attached to sources to invoke, at least explicitly, a ‘let your mind form its own image’ type argument—but the sources used to make this argument are problematic. Using a recent anatomy textbook tells us little about what Michelangelo might have known. And the hand-waving gesture to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists fails to offer any concrete support for the claim that Michelangelo possessed “great knowledge of anatomy.” Even granting some profound knowledge of anatomy, why would that knowledge look like our own?
A useful first approximation might be Vesalius’s De corporis humani fabrica libri septem was published three decades after Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel though two decades before he died. Vesalius’s work set a new standard for anatomical atlases, both in the text and the detailed engravings illustrating the human body. Vesalius’s text offers a guide for what anatomical illustrations could aspire to achieve. Here is the engraving that most closely resembles Meshberger’s tracings:
Vesalius’s engraving of the brain does not look at all like Meshberger’s:
Perhaps Vesalius knew more than he chose to illustrate, but that is speculation. It is clear that Vesalius did not produce any illustrations that resemble the brain Meshberger traced.10 This fact should raise some concerns about the claim that Michelangelo chose to conceal a message by shaping God’s cloak into the shape of a brain.
On one level, Meshberger’s analysis seems nothing more than an example of seeing what you want to see, a physician’s version of Jesus in a Frying Pan. Or, to put it in Collingwood-ian terms, it is simple “scissors and paste history.” While there are, no doubt, many physicians and scientists who write good history of science, those who do have acquired the training and expertise. Meshberger’s article, however, merely dabbles in history, failing to meet basic historical standards. The implicit condescension by the sciences (or at least the medical sciences) for history is revealed in the fact that the Journal of the American Medical Association, a well respected journal, published this article. It is difficult to believe that the editors asked any historian of science to review the draft.
Why does this matter? Because such articles attract the attention of editors and contributors at places like Scientific American. These contributors then post a redaction of the article on the website, where the post becomes one of the most popular. Such redactions misrepresent the history of science, suggest that anybody can write the history of science, and deny that historians of science have a discrete expertise. That’s why it matters.
1I. Suk and R.J. Tamargo, “Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo’s Separation of Light From Darkness in the Sistine Chapel,” Neurosurgery 66, No. 5(2010): 851–861.⇑
2R.D. Fields, “Michelangelo’s Secret Message.”⇑
4aI somehow missed this error when I first wrote this post. Thanks to ThonyC at The Renaissance Mathematicus for pointing it out to me. The lesson here is: proofread.⇑
5F. L. Meshberger, “An Interpretation of Michelango’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy” JAMA 264(1990): 1837–41, quotation on p. 1837.⇑
8Ibid., 1837 & 1841.⇑
10The gallery of images from Vesalius’s De fabrica can be found here at the National Library of Medicine site.⇑