In a splendidly illustrated and nicely argued open access article appearing in the journal Neurosurgery, Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo contend that Michelangelo included a portion of the human brain on God’s neck in his Sistine Chapel fresco, “Separation of Light from Darkness,” which was painted in 1511. I have used another of those frescos — the famous “Creation of Adam” — to decorate this blog. Here are the primary images the authors use to make their case:
The article has generated a fair amount of media attention and debate, most of which centers on whether the authors are seeing something that simply is not there. While I think the authors have made a compelling case (based on a reading of the entire article and examination of all the comparative illustrations), the bigger issue for me is what Michelangelo — an accomplished anatomist and deep thinker — may have been suggesting.
Rather than interpreting this image as mere artistic/anatomical whim, it is possible that Michelangelo believed the human brain generated the idea of God and was not real; instead, it was a product of the brain-mind. This suggestion would been heresy and if discovered, surely would have resulted in Michelangelo’s excommunication and execution.
Assuming this to be the case, Michelangelo would have been far ahead of his time and one of the first to argue that spirits and gods are a product of neurobiology. It took another 330 years for someone to assert — in print and forcefully, that God resided in the human imagination and was simply a projection. In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach published The Essence of Christianity and made precisely this argument. Later scholars would extend Feuerbach’s thesis and more precisely locate god concepts in the brain-mind.
Today, there are many scientists and scholars who find that supernatural thinking (and hence the idea of God) is naturally generated by ordinary and explicable brain functions. I have discussed these findings in several posts, all of which are located in the category (to the right) “Cognition and Religion.”