Two Brazilian doctors and amateur art lovers believe they have uncovered a secret lesson on human anatomy hidden by Renaissance artist Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
Completed nearly 500 years ago, the brightly colored frescoes painted on the Vatican’s famous sanctuary are considered some of the world’s greatest works of art. They depict biblical scenes such as the “Creation of Adam” in which God reaches out to touch Adam’s finger.
But Gilson Barreto and Marcelo de Oliveira believe Michelangelo also scattered his detailed knowledge of internal anatomy across 34 of the ceiling’s 38 panels. The way they see it, a tree trunk is not just a tree trunk, but also a bronchial tube. And a green bag in one scene is really a human heart.
They say the key to finding the numerous organs, bones and other human insides is to crack a “code” they believe was left behind by the Florentine artist. Essentially, it is a set of sometimes subtle, sometimes overt clues, such as the way a figure is pointing.
“Why wasn’t this ever seen before? First, because very few people have the sufficient anatomical knowledge to see these pieces like this. I do because that’s my profession,” said Barreto, who is a surgeon in the Brazilian city of Campinas.
Barreto and his friend Oliveira are not the first physicians to see depictions of human organs in the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican church where popes are elected.
Fifteen years ago, U.S. doctor Frank Meshberger pointed out that the figure of God and his surrounding angels in the “Creation of Adam” panel resembled a cross-section of the human brain.
He believes Michelangelo was equating God’s gift of a soul for Adam with the divine gift of intelligence for mankind.
Packing up his desk as he prepared to move houses, Barreto came across Meshberger’s theory.
“I said to myself, ‘If there’s a brain, he surely didn’t just paint a brain. There have to be others,”’ Barreto said.
Thumbing through books and pictures of the chapel all night, Barreto said he found five or six other anatomical depictions. He presented his findings to Oliveira the next day, and the two probed further for three months.
The project culminated with their book “The Secret Art of Michelangelo,” which was published in Brazil last year and has so far sold 50,000 copies, a very high number for Brazil. It is being negotiated for U.S., Spanish and Portuguese publication.
As part of their research, they discovered another U.S. doctor, Garabed Eknoyan, had found the figure of a kidney in the panel entitled “Separation of the Earth from the Waters.”
Cracking the code
Eventually Barreto and Oliveira came to believe Michelangelo had left behind coded messages in each panel to help viewers find the hidden body part.
Some clues are thematic, such as “Creation of Adam” or “Creation of Eve,” in which a tree trunk looks like a bronchial tube and God’s purple robe is a representation of a lung when viewed from the side. One could say God is imparting the “breath of life” into Eve in the scene, Barreto said.
Another part of the code is to look at what figures surrounding the main character of each panel are doing.
In the “Cumaean Sibyl” scene, two cherubic figures embrace behind a bulky, muscular woman representing a mythological oracle. One cherub has his hands on the other’s chest. Meanwhile, four other cherublike figures underneath a painted pillar raise their arms to reveal their chest.
According to Barreto and Oliveira, a bag with a red frilly border and white rolled up scrolls inside hanging beside the Sibyl is a depiction of a heart, the diaphragm and the aorta.
Sometimes Michelangelo “points” to the hidden body part.
In the “Libyan Sibyl,” a cherub pointing to his shoulder stands next to a twisting woman, her shoulder blade in the spotlight. Two other cherubs beneath the pillars point to their shoulders too.
If looked at upside down, the fold of the Sibyl’s dress and the bottom of her trunk look like a rendition of the arm bone, or humerus, and the socket into which it fits on the shoulder.
“We’ve said it’s actually a very infantile language, because it’s all about looks, light, pointing,” Barreto said.
Is the anatomy really there?
When faced with the paintings and photographs of the anatomical body part side-by-side, Barreto and Oliveira’s theory is conceivable, although some matches require a little bit of creativity. Some might say too much.
“The problem, and art historians too are certainly often guilty of this, is simply that we often see what we want to see,” said Dennis Geronimus, a specialist on Renaissance art at New York University who had a chance to examine some of Barreto and Oliveira’s “decoded” matches.
Their proposals, he said, “stretch the visual evidence far beyond Michelangelo’s own specific vocabulary of poses, gestures and symbolic relationships.”
Indeed, why would Michelangelo hide drawings of human organs in the Sistine Chapel?
Barreto and Oliveira say they aren’t sure, but it is well-known that Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists were obsessed with human anatomy and the human body. There are also other examples of artists “hiding” objects in their paintings, images that can only be seen from a certain perspective.
Still, the two doctors have sent their book to art historians and anatomical specialists in Portugal to get their opinion, and plan to eventually get the Vatican’s opinion too.
“We’re not here to play around. We believe this is a great discovery for the arts,” Barreto said. “The only thing we want to do is spread this knowledge.”