Two neurosurgery researchers at Johns Hopkins University say Michelangelo hid something within one of his Sistine Chapel frescoes: an anatomically accurate painting of the human brain.
And they found it in God's neck in the fresco, The Separation of Light from Darkness. That's the painting immediately above the chapel's altar, says Dr. Rafael Tamargo, a neurosurgery professor and co-author of an article in the journal Neurosurgery.
"As we studied the lines that Michelangelo had included in the neck, we were surprised to find that if you follow these lines, you can actually draw an anatomically correct view of the brainstem," Tamargo tells NPR's Robert Siegel.
He says Michelangelo started dissecting cadavers when he was 17 years old.
"So he probably had the ability and the material to carry on multiple dissections and eventually sort out the gross anatomy of the brain," he says.
But what was Michelangelo's motive for drawing a brain in God's neck?
"I think that Michelangelo might have been somewhat reluctant to advertise his anatomical dissections. At the time, cadaver dissections were viewed with ambivalence by the population and the Vatican. I think he had a lot of anatomical knowledge that he wanted to express, but didn't have a venue in which to do so. And by incorporating this image of the brain first, he was able to display his knowledge of anatomy and also sign the fresco, so to speak, in a unique way," Tamargo says.
Tamargo says he's convinced that this was Michelangelo's intention.
"Prior to the article, my colleague and I, Ian Suk, showed it to other neurosurgeons, neuroanatomists," he says. "And without saying much, they spontaneously recognized the brainstem. So I think it's real."
Images from "Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo's Separation of Light From Darkness in the Sistine Chapel" by Ian Suk and Rafael J. Tamargo (Neurosurgery 66(5):851-861, May 2010). Copyright 2010, Congress of Neurological Surgeons