The Hidden Meaning Behind ‘The Creation of Adam’
The Creation of Adam (1508-1512) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has long been recognized as one of the world’s great art treasures. In 1990 Frank Lynn Meshberger, M.D. described what millions had overlooked for centuries — an anatomically accurate image of the human brain was portrayed behind God. On close examination, borders in the painting correlate with sulci in the inner and outer surface of the brain, the brain stem, the basilar artery, the pituitary gland and the optic chiasm. God’s hand does not touch Adam, yet Adam is already alive as if the spark of life is being transmitted across a synaptic cleft. Below the right arm of God is a sad angel in an area of the brain that is sometimes activated on PET scans when someone experiences a sad thought. God is superimposed over the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain and possibly the anatomical counterpart of the human soul. God’s right arm extends to the prefrontal cortex, the most creative and most uniquely human region of the brain.
The brilliant Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti painted magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, laboring from 1508 to 1512. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo performed this work himself without assistance. Scholars debate whether he had any guidance from the Church in the selection of the scenes, and what meaning the scenes were to convey. In the fresco traditionally called the Creation of Adam, but which might be more aptly titled the Endowment of Adam, I believe that Michelangelo encoded a special message. It is a message consistent with thoughts he expressed in his sonnets. Supreme in sculpture and painting, he understood that his skill was in his brain and not in his hands. He believed that the “divine part” we “receive” from God is the “intellect”. In the following sonnet, Michelangelo explains how he creates sculpture and painting and how, I believe, God himself gave man the gift of intellect1:
After the divine part has well
Man’s face and gesture, soon both
mind and hand,
With a cheap model, first, at their
Give life to stone, but this is not
By skill. In painting, too, this is
Only after the intellect has planned
The best and highest, can the ready
Take up the brush and try all things
The sculpture and painting of Michelangelo reflect the great knowledge of anatomy that he acquired by performing dissections of the human body. His experience in dissection is documented in Lives of the Artists, written by his contemporary, Georgio Vasari. Vasari says, “For the church of Santo Spirito in Florence Michelangelo made a crucifix of wood which was placed above the lunette of the high altar, where it still is. He made this to please the prior, who placed rooms at his disposal where Michelangelo very often used to flay dead bodies in order to discover the secrets of anatomy …”
The Creation of Adam fresco shows Adam and God reaching toward one another, arms outstretched, fingers almost touching. One can imagine the spark of life jumping from God to Adam across that synapse between their fingertips. However, Adam is already alive, his eyes are open, and he is completely formed; but it is the intent of the picture that Adam is to “receive” something from God. I believe there is a third “main character” in the fresco that has not previously been recognized. 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.
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