God's backside & Michelangelo's not-so-hidden brain

December 7, 2009

Iconic pieces of art occupy such a prominent place in the public eye that over time they begin to acquire their own folklore and mythology - whether it be about its creation or meaning. The Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes executed begrudgingly by Michelangelo Buonarroti between 1508 and 1512 have produced some of the most enduring images of the Renaissance. What are they all about? Is it just an Old Testament/Paganist mish-mash comic strip of epic proportions, or is there something more?

Michelangelo gets lumped with a massive task. Image from 2005 documentary Michelangelo Superstar

Firstly, it should be mentioned that Michelangelo was apparently not too enamoured with the arduous task assigned him. By reports, he would have preferred to be completing the sculptures of Pope Julius II tomb. Ever the trooper, Michelangelo persevered and working with his team, took the skill of fresco painting to new heights. Not too bad considering they did all of this on scaffold supports, with paint dripping onto their face. Evidence of the scaffolding system used supports the fact that a lot of the work was done in standing, as opposed to the common perception that it was done in supine. This misconception largely arises from the depiction in the Charlton Heston film, The Agony and the Ecstasy.

Michelangelo and crew would paint at all hours lit by candles tied onto their hats.

Known to be a drama queen of sorts, Michelangelo painted some quite clear references to his unhappiness at being assigned such an overwhelming project. This is most clearly demonstrated in his unnerving self portrait as the flayed skin of the St. Bartholomew. This image is on the Sistine Chapel altar wall, known as The Last Judgement. Although this wall was painted much later than the ceiling - it still resonates with the ill feeling Michelangelo felt towards the ordeals the commission had put him through.

There are many symbols and gestures in the chapel frescoes that have kept the fertile imaginations of religious types, art historians and the mentally off-centre busy for centuries. Some of these symbols are a bit more obvious than others.

There is an interesting amount of evidence that suggests Michelangelo may have preferred the company of men. The very notion of this seems to upset some, yet cause proud flag waving among others. Poetry written by Michelangelo to young male friends and students seem to indicate a predilection to male company and affection - as does his apparent obsession with the male form.

Some believe all of the models of the Sistine Chapel were males. Whether this was a cost cutting measure, artistic license, or something more lurid is hard to prove unequivocally. In any event, many of the figures of the chapel ceiling are brutishly muscular, even females and angelic young seraphs. While it does seem odd upon initial consideration, it isn't really too odd - accentuating the physique of figures painted high on a ceiling will give them a more distinct and prominent form when viewed from ground level.

That being said, some images raise eyebrows and question marks, such as the the various fruit arrangements adorning figures of the chapel, a lot of them looking quite phallic in nature.

One of the more obvious of the controversial shapes of the Sistine Chapel is "God's Brain". In one of the most famous images produced in the history of mankind, Michelangelo shows us a very Jove-like bearded God bestowing the gift of life to Adam through wifi. As the finger of God never actually touches Adam, there is no spark or wind between them. Jewish scholars believe this to be a reference to Kabbalic tradition, whereas students of artistic composition make an equally compelling argument that the space diminishes when viewed from the ground - where painting them actually touching would diminish the aesthetic balance of the image.

So much has been said about the purple hued brain shaped orb God and his merry band of followers seem to be floating around on. To anatomists and even the untrained eye, it does definitely seem to resemble a sagittal section (midline slice) of the brain.

An actual human brain (owner unknown!)

It is well known that Renaissance artists made studies of anatomical sections to better understand and depict the human form. The most famous of these midnight anatomists was of course Leonardo da Vinci, whose sketches of dissection specimens have been used in anatomical texts for centuries. Many of Michelangelo's sketches are similarly prized as masterpieces of anatomical drawing.

In this unique image, the epic events of Genesis start with God apparently flashing his arse at the viewer! Why Michelangelo did this is subject to wild speculation - and whatever the true meaning may be, it is definitely quite amusing. Having flashed his backside at creation and mortal observers below, God proceeds to make the heavens, and then whips around to point at Adam and bring him to Life.

In the chapel ceiling, the billowing orb God and crew float on is also seen in the panel depicting God creating the Sun and Moon.

In this sense, some believe the brain image indicates God bestowing intellect upon man. The Renaissance was a time of humanist endeavour, where in art and daily life, the toils of humankind took centre stage, with intellectual and artistic pursuits held in divine reverence. This explanation is definitely very plausible, and appealing to many - scholars and pious folk alike. It is indeed the most popular explanation.

The more cynical and cheeky among us hold that Michelangelo is having a dig at the church, and asserting God is a figment of man's imagination. Whilst this explanation rings true with the atheistic flavour of the modern age, it is hard to look at the myriad examples of Michelangelo's works of devotion and conclude that he had no stirrings about the divine. The inspiration and effort required to make such beautiful works requires some element of the artist believing in what they were doing, and investing themselves emotionally into their work.

A quick look at the marble hewn emotion of the Pieta makes it really difficult to picture Michelangelo as a rampant atheist, spouting off about the existence of God in the fresco equivalent of a manifesto. There are many indications that Michelangelo's respect for the institution of the church, and the pope in particular waxed and waned, but to state there is a total absence of an emotional devotion is a leap of faith worthy of trumpets and angels.

If this subject tickles your fancy, it is an absolute must that you see The Michelangelo Code, a two part documentary presented by Waldemar Januszczak, one of the most unassuming and informative Art Journalists of the modern era. This documentary was produced by Channel Four UK and ZCZ films. If you're in the UK you can view it from the Channel 4 Website, or can purchase it from the ZCZ site directly. Here's a nice little clip to give you a taste.

Watching Januszczak delve into the Sistine Chapel is fascinating, and whilst discussing the many facets of religious history and superstition the chapel images reveal, he manages to present it in a way that is not stifled by any apparent personal religious agenda.
Another fabulous documentary on this topic features lavish recreations of scenes and techniques used by Michelangelo in creating the Sistine images and the statue of David. Michaelangelo Superstar was released on DVD in 2007, though seems to appear quite regularly on documentary channels.
For those that want an alternative account of the religious themes of the Sistine Chapel, Blech and Doliner's Sistine Secrets is an interesting read. With the religious expertise that comes with such authorship, a degree of barrow pushing is implied
Finally, no mention of recommended reading materials on the topic of Michelangelo would be complete without mention of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.

Vasari was a contemporary and student of Michelangelo, his famous biographies of the Renaissance artists have been a hit since the day they were published centuries ago. A free public domain copy can be obtained from Project Gutenberg.
A wonderful panoramic recreation of the Sistine Chapel can be viewed online. Simply breathtaking!


Anonymous said...

Just discovered the blog. It is quite fulfilling to have links to my experience, study and reading in this form. It is better than enlightening; more like culmination or summing-up (a bit too far to say "apotheosis"). It is disconcerting to read or see then reach for common sources on the bookshelf (yes, I used the dreaded "B" mot). While it is certain that you will be discovered by critical prodigies, it is certain that there is no useful disparagement of the genuine mind and effort exercised here. And that just leaves available the traditional obeisance at the end of all given knowledge: Grazzi Maestro....


Unknown said...

Thank you for comments Pasteur721. This article has been up for quite a while now - I hope I am relatively safe from notice by the critical prodigies you mentioned!

I'm personally ambivalent about the whole thing, as much as it's an interesting notion, I myself would not be convinced of Michelangelo's true intentions unless there was a primary document identifying it.

His history as an anatomist and his poetry tells us enough about his disposition towards God to make it a possibility, but that is hardly irrefutable evidence explaining the brain shape.

Extracting facts from allegory is a speculative field at best, and quite removed from a true science. You can't assign a P<0.001 to it!

Kind Regards
H Niyazi

Simon Abrahams said...

An interesting overview. I realize this was done some time ago but thought I might add my nickel's worth anyway. Michelangelo was very serious about his art. He did not make his females muscular because he was gay or comment on the arduousness of his work. Those would have been frivolous reasons. He made females look male to make them whole human beings (male and female combined.) It is also why he also made his males look feminine, eg the princes in the Medici Chapel. All these figures are androgynous, the only state in which the soul is whole. We are not looking at reality as we know it but at the inside of the human mind which, to Michelangelo imbued with Neoplatonism, was more real than the external one.

I don't know if you've read the three-part paper on the Sistine Chapel at "Every painter..." but it makes sense of all these loose ends. Have you ever noticed, for instance, how many of the outside professionals making important commentary on the Sistine Chapel come from the medical community, at least seven by my count are doctors. Why? Because the chapel is full of organs, human ones, that they recognize from their everyday work. Everything we look at is inside Michelangelo, a creator made in the image of God. Thus, we are looking at divinity, at the macrocosm seen through the microcosm.

Anyway, it's good to see the Sistine Chapel discussed. We all win if any of these ideas get people thinking about what they are looking at in the Sistine Chapel. All artists study the Chapel so whatever is there is everywhere.

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