My Old Kentucky Homesite

Was Michelangelo a Joking Atheist?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 06/22/2010

My friend Srsny called me up yesterday all excited by a story about Michelangelo that she’d just heard on NPR. It seems that one of his depictions of Yahweh in the Sistine Chapel contains an anatomically correct brainstem in the Big Guy’s neck.

According to the two Johns Hopkins neurosurgery researchers who studied the painting, Michelangelo likely included the brainstem as (a) a kind of signature, (b) a joke, and/or (c) a nose-thumbing “fuck you” to the Vatican.

Apparently, it’s fairly well known that Renaissance artists, interested in learning human anatomy, obtained cadavers for dissection. The Church frowned on this practice at the same time that it paid for, and encouraged, realism in the painting of biblical subjects. So the authors hypothesize that Michelangelo included the brain in his painting essentially to twit the religious authorities with a subtle “Guess what I did!”

My take, as an atheist, is a different one. Perhaps Michelangelo was pointing out that his god’s brain was exactly the same as an ordinary human’s. Surely, the great painter had dissected the bodies of other creatures besides those of our species, and he would have known that animals’ organs, including their brains, are not the same as ours. So, if the heavenly creator were indeed more “superior” to Man than Man is to the beasts, his godly brain should have been of a different size and proportion altogether. For his brain to be so much like ours, he must have been a construct of mere mortals, rather than a supreme being to take seriously.

But that got me thinking about how amazing our brain really is. One of the things most interesting to me about the story was the great joke by the editors — the closing play-out music. This kind of joke is broadcast all the time on NPR’s various programs, but today was the first time I ever thought about the mechanics of such a gag.

First, the listeners have to recognize a collection of noises as music rather than just a group of odd sounds. Second, the audience has to “translate” what they’re hearing into a tune they know, even though the melody is played in a version that’s most likely a variant of the one they’re familiar with; perhaps it’s orchestrated differently, or performed at a different tempo, or slightly varied in its rhythms. Third, when the tune is recognized, its music has to be so indelibly tied to its title and/or lyrics as to make a certain phrase spring to mind immediately upon identification of the melody. Fourth, the listeners have to understand that the associated phrase is not just a random string of words, but one that communicates a definite message from the programming staff. Fifth, the message has to be processed by filtering the phrase through the context of the preceding story. Sixth, the juxtaposition of story and phrase has to be enough of a surprise to engender an involuntary laugh reflex; the more inappropriate the original context of the song to the broadcast context, the bigger the laugh is likely to be. That’s a pretty astounding series of “calculations” for an organ, mortal or not, to perform.

Oddly enough, I can’t think of a single instance in the bible of people using their god-like brains to laugh at a pure, clever joke like the musical one that followed NPR’s story, or the one that Michelangelo painted. Can you?

28 Responses to “Was Michelangelo a Joking Atheist?”

  1. John Evo said

    Link wasn’t working for me (probably JUST me) but I went out and hunted it down. I don’t get it. But then, if I only had a brain…. ah, well.

  2. Evo:
    I tried the link, and it seems OK. Perhaps you ought to while away a few hours upgrading your web browser instead of conferring with your plants.

  3. Sarge said

    “Oddly enough, I can’t think of a single instance in the bible of people using their god-like brains to laugh at a pure, clever joke like the musical one that followed NPR’s story, or the one that Michelangelo painted. Can you?”

    Most religions aren’t too big on people laughing and enjoying themselves, and especially making jests which might make unseemly fun of the “Spirituasl Fathers” or institutions.
    I have, however, heard of liturgical “holy laughture”, but don’t know much about it other than it is some sort of ritualistic thing only trotted out on certain occasions.

    When I was in touring in Italy a long time ago, certain things were pointed out in several of the masterpieces that we saw. Faces of certain “princes of the church” on demons or sinners, persons present at “the last supper” or annunciation, or “The Birth” (good greif!) who most emphaticly were NOT welcome there…

    We take our shots where we can.

    Shoshtakovitch was known for it in his music as well.

  4. The link works here, but not if you subscribed to email updates and click from that email.

    Anyway, here’s a great example of how anyone, even neuroanatomists, can succumb to Pareidolia, or seeing things in inanimate objects. We goof on Christians who see Jesus in a Cheeto or his mom in a burnt piece of toast, but here we are with highly educated and assumed rational people seeing brain stems in Renaissance paintings, followed up by hasty rationalizations to confirm their beliefs rather than actually investigate the possibility that they’re wrong.

    This is the sort of thing I battle with my students, actually observing what you’re looking at rather than imposing what you believe something looks like. In art, it’s usually phrased in terms of switching from your left brain to your right brain, and there’s a great book on this called Drawing On The Right Side of Your Brain. One trick to force people to see is if drawing from a photo, turn the photo upside down. That makes it harder for your brain to overlay what you’re seeing with your mental image of what your subject should look like.

    For some reason I can’t fathom, Michelangelo rounded a great deal of anatomical details in his paintings (sorta like Hogarth). If we had none of his sculptures, I’d say the man didn’t know his anatomy or couldn’t disconnect his idea of how something should look with how it actually looks (or at the very least, he’d never seen a woman before). So, imo, what these guys are seeing as a brain stem is simply his over-stylized rounding of the jaw and Adam’s apple (thyroid cartilage).

    It’s a lot of fun to believe he was showing off and giving a “fuck you” to the Pope, who we know he was at odds with, but wanting something to be true sadly doesn’t make it so.

  5. the chaplain said

    Michelangelo rounded a great deal of anatomical details in his paintings

    That explains why I thought God had boobs in this picture.

  6. Sarge:
    Yes, artists have often taken the opportunity to incorporate subtle digs at the people they dislike. That’s one reason why I wouldn’t automatically dismiss the researchers’ interpretation.

    Ordinarily, I’d agree with you that the “brainstem” is just an example of viewers’ imagination at work. But it doesn’t make any sense that Michelangelo would have given Yahweh an Adam’s apple — or a goiter. I’m not convinced by Tamargo’s assertion, but I’m not comfortable in dismissing it entirely, either. Remember: The neuroanatomists’ argument is not merely the imposition of a pattern on a vague, random, and meaningless object, as pareidolia is. Michelangelo did paint something there, so we can reasonably assume that, whatever it is, it was intended to have some visual meaning. Here’s another curious “discovery.” (I’d definitely say that somebody — either the viewer or the painter — just can’t get the brain out of his brain.)

    On the other hand, I agree with Chappy that it kinda looks like the sky-god has tits under that pink shmatta he’s wearing. Perhaps Michelangelo was being intentionally ambivalent about the deity’s gender?

    Yeah, as I wrote above, I also thought those bumps looked suspiciously like melons. But maybe Mike’s god is just a cross-dresser, and the top of his garment has darts. Or, perhaps, they’re just actual melons, stowed in a peculiarly situated inside pocket, in case he gets hungry while doing all that creating.

  7. the chaplain said

    I actually find the second picture more suggestive of deliberate intent than the first. On the other hand, the two of them together may support the idea that both suggestions were deliberate. We’ll have to ask Michelangelo about it when we all meet up in heaven hell…

  8. Chappy:
    We’ll have to ask Michelangelo about it when we all meet up in hell…
    That’ll be second on my list, after I get Leonardo to tell me the joke that made the Mona Lisa smile. Shit, I hope it wasn’t:
    Toc, toc.
    Chi è?
    Boo chi?
    Non piangere, bambina.

  9. BrentH said

    I heard that piece on NPR yesterday. I didn’t notice the music at the end of the piece.

    I thought the piece was somewhat interesting. I was skeptical of this claim about Michelango by Dr. Rafael Tamargo, so I went to the NPR web site to see the pictures myself. I can see the resmblance of the brain stem to “God’s neck”. But I can’t see this as some Renaissance joke played by Michelangelo on the Pope. I just can’t see another painter or physician (except Tamargo 500 years too late) with anatomical knowledge looking at that part of the Sistine Chapel with a gasp and then snickering while thinking, “Michelangelo! You subversive imp!” I agree with you Philly – this is just another case of seeing the Virgin Mom on a piece of toast.

    The music at the end of the piece, on the other hand, is cleverly subversive and subtly irreverant. It made me laugh and NPR didn’t have to wait 500 years for someone to get it. Thanks Larry and kudos to NPR.

  10. Brent:
    I’ll repeat: The reason why Tamargo’s “vision” is not comparable to a toasty Madonna or a urinal Jesus is that Michelangelo’s fresco didn’t occur randomly. There really was a creator of that painting. So, while I’m not ready to hop immediately aboard the brain train, I can’t imagine that there’s not some reason for that bump in the supreme neck.

    Perhaps Philly’s correct, and it’s just an inept instance of rounding. But we’re not talking about some artistic hack here. I think that Michelangelo could have easily avoided making it look as if his god had a lump in his throat. So I find it interesting to explore potential rational explanations, just as I would if the meaning of a line in a great poem were unclear, or if there were a strangely harmonized passage in a musical masterpiece. And, although I don’t think the neuroscientists have supplied sufficient evidence for their conclusion to be automatically accepted as valid, I find their hypothesis reasonable enough to warrant further exploration.

  11. BrentH said

    I see your point. I am more of a skeptic about it being intended as a joke. Tamargo thinks this may have been an expression of Michelangelo’s “playful streak”.

  12. Brent:
    Well, that joke business is definitely a leap. But I’m not familiar enough with Michelangelo’s work or biography to know whether or not his “playful streak” has been documented. Maybe he was a well-known practical joker in his day, always putting a whoopee cushion on the papal throne, and wearing a joy buzzer when he greeted Julius II. I doubt whether he had a squirting camera, though, because I don’t think that contraption became popular until Van Gogh used it in Arles.

  13. srsny said

    The theater cartoonist Al Hirshfield used to camouflage the name of his daughter, Nina, in all of his drawings. New York Times readers every Sunday knew to look at the number next to the artist’s signature to discover how many “Nina”s were there to be discovered. Kind of like a Where’s Waldo for theater fans.

    It strikes me that those Renaissance painters did the same thing. I recall – without specifics – that some of them would use the faces of people they either liked or disliked to portray them in either a positive or negative light. The contemporary viewers would get the “joke.”

    If someone treated me the way Rex Harrison treated poor agonized Charlton Heston, I would try to get back at him by thumbing my nose while lying on my back by using the paintbrushes in my hand. So there- nah nah nah nah nah nah — God has (maybe is even controlled by)a human brain – har de har har. Put that in ya Pope and smite it!

  14. Sarge said

    What are intentions and such things? How can we REALLY know?

    For years excavations of bronze age British house sites had a mystery.
    Just inside the doorway were small, bowl shaped depressions.
    Why were they there? What was their signifigance? Was there some ritual use (turned out they kinda were)? They were a mystery.

    Papers were written, conjectures expounded upon, positions were taken, it was a minor battleground in academia. Reputations were on the line.

    Then, an experiment was undertaken in which modern people were put to actually living that life, and the scientist checked out several things, confirmed certain theories, debuncked others.
    Then came the day one of the white-coats saw those same depressions in the houses, just like the ones in days of yore! What were you doing??!! Why did you make those holes??!!

    Turned out that when it rained the chickens would come inside and just inside the door they’d have a dust bath.
    Something as simple as that.

    Something like it with Michelangelo?

  15. the chaplain said


    Toc, toc.
    Chi è?
    Boo chi?
    Non piangere, bambina.

    Here’s a hanky.

  16. Srsny:
    Great point about finding the “Nina”s. I never thought of them as buried messages, but they were!
    Maybe Michelangelo’s daughter was named “Brainstem Buonarroti.”

    Are you suggesting that Michelangelo’s chickens had a dust bath on God’s neck?


  17. John Evo said

    Philly – thanks for the tip. I remember now that I had the same problem with one of his music links – and I almost always read straight from the sub feed.

  18. Evo:
    I almost always read straight from the sub feed.
    Well, you ought to dock that thing and come out on dry land once in a while.

  19. John Evo said

    I stay on my sub and everyone seems happier that way. Thanks for the invite though.

    By the way, the last “Betty Boop” post was great. Did I say that on the post comments? No? Well… it was great. Not sure which was my favorite. But they were all weird as hell – sort of nightmarish, I’d say.

    How’s that for “off topic”. See why I stay on the sub?

  20. Evo:
    See why I stay on the sub?
    Fool speed ahead, Mr. Bos’n, full speed ahead.

  21. Sarge said

    @ Larry: No, just suggesting that there might me something completely different in the whole thing.

    I am dyslexic, and have had a further brain injury, and from what has happened to my already skewed perceptive abilities coupled with the consequenses of the further damage to the “guidance system”, these things fascinate me. (I have given up trying to explain the sensations of synesthesia).

  22. I think you’re rational explorations aren’t that far off from cl’s. You’ve bought into the brain stem idea, like he’s bought into the god/supernatural crap, and you’re looking to confirm your belief. Also, parts of the argument that it couldn’t be there otherwise sounds like irreducible complexity. ;)

    The creation in the shape of a brain is pretty amusing, though. So is the grassy knoll hypothesis.

  23. Sarge:
    I think you do an amazing job writing comments for someone whose brain is (allegedly) not working “normally.” Maybe some of our Christian friends would benefit from a few jolts of whatever causes Sargeness.

    Naw, you can’t dismiss the brainstem “sighting” in the same way you’d dismiss various unsupported arguments. First of all, the embedded brain hypothesis gains some credibility from a number of facts:
    1) It’s probable that Michelangelo had gained knowledge of the brain’s anatomy.
    2) It has never been unusual for artists to leave hidden “messages” in their work.
    3) Michelangelo was frequently pissed off, both with and without justification, at Pope Julius.
    4) There is clearly something unusual about that depiction of the Super Neck.

    To merely fob that “something” off as sloppy rounding sounds an awful lot to me like “God works in mysterious ways.”

    Neuroanatomists are probably far more likely than others of us to see brains where there aren’t any; I’ll grant you that. But while I don’t necessarily accept Tamargo’s theory — my meager knowledge of art history, anatomy, and the specific details of the Sistine Chapel aren’t sufficient for me to make an informed decision — I wouldn’t knee-jerkily dismiss it out of hand.

    I would think that you, of all people, would expect there to be some painterly intent in every stroke of an artist’s brush. Surely, you’ve engaged in some art analysis, which grows out of the assumption that painters, sculptors, architects, etc., make meaningful choices. So why do you find the researchers’ explanation so incredible as to pooh-pooh it without a second thought?

  24. John Evo said

    All reasonable enough on the surface, but you put it all together and is there reason enough for his apparent unquestioning certainty that this was the case, or must there be a stronger body of evidence before one starts acting as if this rises to the level of certainty?

    I agree it’s a more fascinating discussion than whether the “real assassin” was on the grassy knoll. I’m just saying (and I expect Philly would agree) that everything we heard in the piece should have left Tamargo short of the definitive assertions – especially when coming from a scientist. When questioned on “how sure” he was, had he only said “I think this is strong evidence and highly worthy of further exploration”, I’d have no problem at all with the piece.

  25. Evo:
    Well, I wholeheartedly (wholebrainedly?) agree that the definitive assertion was a stretch. I’m not convinced — but I’m open to further argument.

    On the other hand: Tamargo does have a horse in the race; he’s lobbying for his specialty. Hmmmmm. I wonder if there’s grant money at stake. If he were a dental specialist, perhaps he’d have found an anatomically correct set of impacted molars in God’s ass.

    But I do think his theory is worth investigating, because I can’t find any obvious holes in it. And it is supported by some (circumstantial) evidence.

    Still, the main point of this post was not whether or not the brainstem theory is credible. It was that humor — anything that leads to human laughter (other than smiting one’s enemies) — doesn’t seem to be recognized in the bible as desirable.

  26. BrentH said

    Seeing Jesus on a piece of toast only works in one direction. I found this picture of toast on Jesus. I partake of the Holy Toast every morning with strawberry jam, but I’m thinking of converting to CCC (Church of the Chocolate Cheerios).

  27. Brent:
    Hilarious picture!
    Now I wonder if anybody can find one with a urinal in his beard.

  28. JimZ said

    I have always taken Michelangelo’s inclusion of the brain shape, in which ‘God’ is floating, as meaning that “God is just in your head”; a figment of one’s imagination; a creation of the brain.

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