Michelangelo's Presentations in the Sistine Chapel: Brain Evolution and the Relationship of the Brain to Specific Cognitive Functions

Neuroscientist. 2022 Nov 19;10738584221136091. doi: 10.1177/10738584221136091. Online ahead of print.


Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) presented some of the most spectacular artworks of all times in frescos on the ceiling and behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. While Michelangelo's presentations depict events described in the Bible, there is broad consensus that Michelangelo was conveying his knowledge and theoretical ideas gleaned from his experiences with anatomic dissection. Michelangelo appears to have communicated several ideas about the brain in the images of the Days of Creation and the Last Judgment. Taking the Days of Creation and the Last Judgment together, Michelangelo appears to be symbolizing that God is in the brain, specifically the brainstem, and the brain performs mental functions. The five images on the ceiling of the chapel showing Days of Creation may be interpreted as reflecting the course of vertebrate brain evolution. There are further suggestions about brain function, including perceiving light and complex images and giving spirit to Adam. Furthermore, on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel behind the altar, within the work titled the Last Judgment, the central ellipse, in which Jesus is sitting, appears to represent a midcoronal cross section of a human brain, suggesting that it is the brain that renders judgments about good and evil.

Keywords: God; Michelangelo; Renaissance; art; brainstem; decision; executive function.