Meaning of it All

Michelangelo Buonarroti
Creation of Adam
Sistine Chapel ceiling
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The Creation of Adam was painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling for Pope Julius II by the Renaissance master Michelangelo. Instantly recognizable today, God’s outstretched arm reaches toward Adam, about to fill him with life. An extensive restoration effort in the 1980s led to a renewed interest by scholars in deciphering both the meaning of the ceiling as a whole and the individual significance of this moment. In 1990, Frank Meshberger, MD, proposed that Michelangelo (known to have had an interest in anatomy and to have performed human dissections) deliberately painted God’s cloak to resemble a human brain in profile. Dr. Meshberger argued that Michelangelo was intending to convey through this imagery that God was about to give Adam humankind’s most valuable trait: intelligence.

Detail of Creation of Adam, a piece in the Neurology, Illustrated gallery at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, MA.Perhaps one of the most iconic artworks of all time, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling has captivated art historians for half a millennium, as scholars have attempted to discover hidden meanings in the imagery. More accurately called the Animation of Adam, the scene (the fourth in a series of nine depicting episodes from Genesis) shows God about to imbue Adam with his soul, ingeniously portrayed by Michelangelo through God’s firm outstretched hand and Adam’s limp form. Michelangelo (1475-1564) worked on the ceiling, at the behest of Pope Julius II, for four long years—the artist claimed to have completed the task entirely on his own, but almost certainly had assistants to help with the more manual aspects of frescoing, a process where one paints directly into wet plaster on a wall or ceiling. The work was completed in two stages, with the scaffolding dissembled and moved halfway through the project. Michelangelo began at the end, with the crowded scenes depicting Noah, and finished with the three scenes of God creating the universe. The middle section, of which the Creation of Adam is the first of three episodes, portrays the creation of Adam and Eve, and their subsequent temptation and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Separation of Light from Darkness by Michelangelo, a piece in the Neurology, Illustrated gallery at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, MA.Art historians have long debated the identity of the various figures clustered around God in the Creation of Adam, with proposals ranging from Eve, to the Virgin Mary, to the angels Lucifer and Michael, and even the Christ child himself. In an article published in 1990, Dr. Frank Meshberger drew attention instead to the cloak enveloping God and the other figures, arguing that Michelangelo intentionally painted the fabric in the shape of a brain. Michelangelo was known to have an interest in anatomy and to have performed human dissections, though there is no evidence of him ever studying a brain directly. Dr. Meshberger argued that by including the shape of the brain in the Creation of Adam, Michelangelo was subtly suggesting that God was about to instill in Adam not just life, but intelligence. In a similar vein, a recent article proposed that in the first scene on the ceiling, the Separation of Light from Darkness, God’s neck was painted in the shape of a brainstem. Both of these theories are intriguing, with the image of the brain in God’s cloak perhaps easier for the casual viewer to visualize. Though neither idea has been universally accepted, they certainly raise interesting questions and demonstrate that even a 500-year-old painting is still open to interpretation. 


Meshberger, Frank Lynn.  “An Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy.”  JAMA Vol. 264, No. 14 (October 10, 1990):  1837-1841.

Suk, Ian and Rafael J. Tamargo.  “Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo’s Separation of Light From Darkness in the Sistine Chapel.”  Neurosurgery Vol. 66, No. 5 (May 2010):  851-861.

Steinberg, Leo.  “Who’s Who in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam:  A Chronology of the Picture’s Reluctant Self-Revelation.”  The Art Bulletin Vol. 74, No. 4 (December 1992):  552-566.

Barkin, Leonard.  Michelangelo:  A Life on Paper.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011.