On the season finale of HBO’s television series Westworld last night, Anthony Hopkins’s character, Dr. Robert Ford, referenced a theory about Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. He told another character that in the Renaissance artist’s Creation of Adam fresco, the swooping fabric behind God, Eve, and a group of angels represents a human brain. Surprisingly, this is based on a real theory published in a scientific journal about 25 years ago.
In 1990, Dr. Frank Lynn Meshberger, a gynecologist, wrote an essay for the Journal of the American Medical Association that stated that Michelangelo had symbolically portrayed God imparting intellect to Adam. Pointing to various anatomical inconsistencies in the fresco, Meshberger argued that Michelangelo had intentionally abstracted figures until the right half of the painting looked like a brain. The angels’ feet, for example, are split in two because they were meant to symbolize the pituitary gland’s two lobes, Dr. Meshberger wrote. For him, a brain was being literally handed off to humanity.
Almost immediately, Dr. Meshberger’s theory was taken to task by art historians. “All the elements in the image have profound traditional roots in the visual culture of the Renaissance and Middle Ages,” Dr. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a consultant for Renaissance art at the Vatican, told the New York Times. “God is more than a flying brain.”
Still, some of Dr. Meshberger’s ideas may be rooted in fact. Art historians know from Giorgio Vasari’s writings that Michelangelo often dissected corpses to study their anatomy. Flayed flesh even appears in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco, which is also on view at the Vatican.
However, many remain unconvinced by Dr. Meshberger’s theory. As one ophthalmologist told the Times in 1990, “It often happens that if you look long enough at a picture, you’ll see all kinds of things.”