For all of my passionate fascination over use of symbols and optical illusions in art – especially in historical paintings – I’m usually hesitant to give much credibility to claims of hidden meanings or codes embedded in the works of the ‘masters’. I’ve never been convinced that Da Vinci was dropping some subtle hints in his famous depiction of the last supper, for example. Nor do I think there’s anything mysterious about the Mona Lisa, other than the fact that Da Vinci had an amazing talent for the use of sfumato. And don’t get me started on the legendary ‘golden ratio’ that can be found anywhere you care to look hard enough.
But there has always been something rather odd about the depiction of God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling work. The painter knew his way around the folds and crevices of the human body thanks to his experience cutting into corpses as an adolescent, and his anatomical knowledge was evident in both his paintings and sculptures. Every bulge, lump and node correctly corresponds to the subcutaneous landscape of your typical man or woman.
Now, maybe God simply has a bung neck, according to Michelangelo. Or a goiter. While it’s possible that The Lord hasn’t had enough iodine thanks to a diet rich in ambrosia and low in haddock, a professor of neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine seems to think the Renaissance genius turned Our Heavenly Father’s larynx into a cerebellum. In other words, there’s the faint image of a brainstem overlaying God’s trachea, chin and beard in an anatomical version of ‘find the hidden animals’.
My first thought was to account for pareidolia, which remains a distinct possibility. But in this instance, I suspect the good neurologist might be onto something. Unlike the common ‘Christ is risen damp’ and ‘Mary in a biscuit’, or the demonic giraffe that lurked in my childhood wardrobe door, there’s a pretty good match for each of the brain bits and the deity’s upturned head. There’s been past speculation that the billowing cloth surrounding God and his chorus of seraphim in the famous ‘Creation of Adam’ is a brain seen from the side, indicating Michelangelo might have had something of a cerebral fetish. Or he simply thought there was something profound about connecting such a divine scene with a map of our grey matter.
As with most artists, we’ll never really know what he was thinking. But there is something about this Renaissance connection between God and the human brain I find rather appealing. Maybe I should write a best-selling pulp-adventure novel based on an academic neurologist who finds the Church is trying to hide the truth about God being a figment of our imaginations? Nah…who would want to read anything so blatantly ridiculous?