Tucked inside of the Pope’s Vatican City residence is one of the most well-known works of art in the world – the Sistine Chapel. Millions of visitors have passed through place of worship to look up and take in the work of famed Renaissance artist, Michelangelo. But there’s more to see than the beauty of the painter’s exquisite work – he hid a few strange secrets behind the angelic images that most people fail to notice.
Michelangelo wasn’t the only artist to contribute his expertise to the Sistine Chapel, but his work on the ceiling and over the altar remain the most noteworthy of all the frescoes adorning the space. His brushstrokes brought to life The Last Judgment, during which Catholics believe that God will hand down a final, eternal judgment on all of humankind. While that imagery covers the altar wall, the ceiling portrays the Book of Genesis, the apostles, Jesus’s ancestors and other religious figures.
In order to paint The Last Judgment and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo had to get creative. Some thought he laid atop a scaffold and painted while he reclined, but his process was simple – the artist stood on a platform and painted above him. What was less straightforward was the meaning behind what he created – we see religious scenes, but Michelangelo used the murals to smuggle in a few thoughts of his own.
The enormous scale of Michelangelo’s endeavour wasn’t mere grandstanding as the Pope isn’t the only religious official to roam the halls of the Vatican. For centuries, the man in charge of the Catholic Church has brought other leaders and dignitaries to his base in Vatican City for meetings, advice and help in carrying out ceremonies. In the 15th century, Pope Sixtus IV needed a place to gather the Papal Chapel, a group of about 200 Vatican officials, clerics and highly regarded religous followers.
Before Pope Sixtus IV ascended to the church’s highest office, the Papal Chapel met within Capella Maggiore, but it had come to an irredeemable state of disrepair by the late 14th century. As such, church heads decided to demolish it, making way for the eventual construction of the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel remains a prime example of Renaissance architecture and, of course, artwork. In terms of proportions, the structure has very specific measurements, a prime feature of the era’s construction. The width of the chapel is one-third of the length, while the height is half of the same dimension. The barrel-vault ceiling has window arches that shed light on it – and, little did architects know, that area would become the space’s main feature.
Indeed, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling could only have become such an eye-catching feature because of the man responsible for painting it. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni is now known only by his first name, which shows just how much of a prolific figure he became during the Renaissance era. Today, many consider him to be the most important artist of his time.
Michelangelo’s work ranged from paintings to sculptures to poetry to architecture, and he did it all with a masterful touch. As such, he’s considered the archetype of a Renaissance man for his wide range of knowledge and expertise. To earn the title, he built an impressive portfolio of work during his 88-year lifetime. Most famously, he sculpted the famous statues of David and Pietà and helmed much of the architectural design of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Still, his work on the Sistine Chapel became some of the most influential frescoes of the Renaissance era. Before the artist stepped in to spruce the place up, though, the ceiling had been adorned much more simply. A blue coat of paint covered the surface, atop of which sparkled gilt stars.
Michelangelo came to work on the ceiling in 1508, at which time the golden stars and blue paint would fade into the background. Pope Julius employed the artist to complete a relatively straightforward task for a Renaissance man. He only wanted Michelangelo to paint the 12 apostles – one apiece on the curved supports which hold up the vaulted ceiling.
Michelangelo refused this offer, though, and instead asked Pope Julius for artistic license with the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Even settling on this point didn’t make the task more attractive to the artist, however. He admitted to the Pope that he felt nervous about the size of the commission and wanted to turn down the job.
In fact, Michelangelo saw the Sistine Chapel offer as a trap – he thought an enemy had set up the entire thing so that the artist would fail. Plus, he had other projects on his plate. Namely, he had spent the years leading up to the Vatican job working as a sculptor. He considered painting the chapel ceiling as a distraction from the intimidatingly large piece of marble sculpture he had been working on.
And yet, Michelangelo decided to take the job anyway, spending the next four years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He even drew up the specs for the scaffolding he’d use to reach the required heights. He proposed affixing bracketed platforms to the wall just below the ceiling, so that no damage would be done to his overhead canvas.
Although the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has a slew of biblical scenes and figures painted across it, Michelangelo’s use of bright colors tied the whole fresco together. The artist used brightly colored paints to bring each image to life – the vibrant hues made his work easy to see from the floor of the chapel, too.
When it comes to the ceiling portion of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, seeing it in person might be the only way to truly grasp the scope of his work. His unconventional canvas measures in at 131 feet long by 43 feet wide. Together, that meant that the Renaissance man covered more than 5,000 square feet of ceiling space in unforgettable frescoes.
The ceiling features biblical scenes and figures as chosen by Michelangelo himself, a design to which the Pope had agreed in order to secure him for the job. The artist began with the ancestors of Jesus at the lowest point on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. From there, he illustrated a sucession of male and female prophets, leading all the way to the altar. Over that area, Michelangelo painted Jonah.
The 300 figures on the ceiling weren’t Michelangelo’s only artwork on the ceiling, though. The Sistine Chapel’s frescoes also feature nine biblical stories, specifically tales from the Book of Genesis. Peering up at the Renaissance-era artwork, one can see the Great Flood, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, humankind’s creation and more.
Again, it took Michelangelo four years to complete all of this work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling but, as it turned out, he wasn’t quite finished with the project. Both Popes Clement VII and Paul III summoned the artist to return to Vatican City in the mid-1530s to pick up the paintbrush one more time – they needed him to illustrate the chapel’s altar wall.
Indeed, Michelangelo’s second stint painting in Vatican City found the Catholic Church in a very different situation than it had been in 1508. In 1527, rogue Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, led what’s now known as the Sack of Rome. The invasion, largely carried out by mutinous German mercenary troops, changed Rome – and the Catholic Church – permanently.
The Sack of Rome solidified the split between Catholicism and Protestantism. The city itself lost its Renaissance-era draw for artists and creators, too. But nearly a decade later, Michelangelo found his way back to Vatican City, where he painted a very poignant fresco for the church in its newly altered state.
Namely, Michelangelo transformed the entire altar wall to depict The Last Judgment, or the second coming of Christ, as described in the Bible. The fresco depicts the dead as they rise from their graves toward heaven. Others have been sent downward into the flames of hell. Over it all reigns Jesus and his disciples.
Reception to The Last Judgment was mixed because of a few artistic decisions that Michelangelo had made. The artist had painted the fresco’s figures naked, which did not suit the tastes of some high-ranking members of the Catholic Church. Eventually, another artist named Daniele da Volterra came in and painted on some fig leaves to save the church’s blushes.
Nowadays, however, people fully appreciate the magnificent work of Michelangelo, especially in the Sistine Chapel. Many consider his frescoes to be one of the greatest achievements in art. With millions flockingng to see the Sistine Chapel each year, eyes continue to be on Michelangelo’s work, a half-millennium after the fact. And those viewers have begun to detect a few strange brushstrokes amongst the Renaissance man’s masterpiece.
To really see the strange additions – and to understand why they might have been made – one has to understand the mind of Michelangelo. Embodying the meaning of “Renaissance man,” he studied many subjects, even in his teens. To brush up on his knowledge of anatomy, he began methodically cutting up bodies from the graveyard at just 17 years old.
For years, Michelangelo’s anatomy sketches were believed lost – presumably detroyed. Now,
neuroanatomy experts Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo think that he hid his findings in a very interesting place – on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They wrote a paper, which appeared in a 2017 issue of Neurosurgery. Interestingly, theirs wasn’t the first scientific journal article to make such a claim about the Renaissance artist’s work.
Initially, the focus fell on one area of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in particular – the very center, where Michelangelo had painted God Creating Adam. Physician Frank Meshberger wrote for the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1990 that the artist’s depiction of this biblical event mirrored a cross-section of the human brain.
In Meshberger’s theory, Michelangelo’s utilisation of the brain pattern hadn’t been coincidental. Instead, the physician posited that the painter wanted to convey that God had handed over more than just life to Adam. The omnipotent being had also gifted man his intelligence, superiior to any other creature on Earth.
Suk and Tamargo’s 2017 paper built on of Meshberger’s initial hypothesis. The pair found even more notable figures hidden within the Sistine Chapel. One panel of the artist’s work has long caused controversy amongst art historians. The fresco known as The Separation of Light from Darkness shows God with some strangely imperfect features, especially according to Michelangelo’s standards.
Michelangelo painted the fresco so that it would appear that light was flooding in from the lower left-hand side of the frame. However, God’s neck seems to be aglow as if a ray of light shines directly upon it. Nowhere else on the Sistine Chapel ceiling did the artist make such an unsightly gaffe, but Suk and Tamargo had an explanation.
Once again, superimposing an image of the human brain explains Michelangelo’s strange depiction of God’s neck. Suk and Tamargo argue that it’s the same shape as the brain, too, although from a different angle – rather than being a cross-section, God’s neck in this portion of the fresco is the shape of a brain as if seen from below.
The Separation of Light From Darkness has a few other hidden symbols, too. God dons a robe in the painting, but the fabric running up the center of it doesn’t look as perfect as the rest of Michelangelo’s renditions on the ceiling. Indeed, the way the garment bunches and folds doesn’t match any other painted figure’s – it seems to be an unnatural draping, especially for a painter as talented as Michelangelo.
Suk and Tamargo claim that this very fabric fold has the same form as a human spinal cord. As it’s painted in The Separation of Light From Darkness, the textile extends all the way up to the brain, as represented by God’s highlighted neck. At the robe’s waist, too, it appears as though Michelangelo painted a pair of optic nerves stemming out, as well.
Others have spotted a few outlines that look strangely similar to a kidney. The bean-shaped organ is not part of the nervous system like the rest of Michelangelo’s supposed sketches, but it still had special meaning to the painter. That’s because he suffered from kidney stones, which sparked his interest in learning more about that area of the body.
Because so many anatomical images seem to appear in the Sistine Chapel, plenty of theories now exist as to why Michelangelo might have hidden them in his frescoes. One idea is that the inclusion of the spinal cord, optic nerves and brain in The Separation of Light From Darkness was meant as a comment on the clash between religion and science.
Although Michelangelo worked closely with the Catholic Church, he had his own woes with the institution. Specifically, he felt the church had become too corrupt, and its buildings too opulent. To properly express how he felt, Michelangelo expressed himself in a way only he could – he painted his feelings into the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Michelangelo himself appears twice on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and both times he used his own visage in place of a biblical figure in the midst of torture. Saint Bartholomew, who was skinned alive, has the artist’s face in the fresco. The severed head of Holofernes eerily matches Michelangelo’s appearance, too.
Michelangelo had further clashes with the Catholic Church that stemmed from his belief in spiritualism, which strengthened in the artist’s later years. The practice hinges upon the idea that one can find God outside of the church, so long as they have an open line of communication. It’s easy to see why such a belief might not fly with those involved in organized religion.
Because of his spiritual side, Michelangelo’s painting, The Last Judgment, had its critics. Pope Paul IV saw the altar painting as a defamation against the church because it subtly portrayed a spiritualistic side of Jesus. In the picture, he speaks directly to God on humankind’s day of judgment, insinuating that Jesus didn’t need the church, either.
All of this friction led to Michelangelo losing his pension – Pope Paul IV ordered that the frescoes’ naked figures should have cover-ups painted on them. Perhaps it was this censorship that stoked Michelangelo’s desire to be buried far from his famous Sistine Chapel. Instead, he requested that his final resting place be in Florence,
Since Michelangelo’s death in 1564, his legacy has been kept alive by his artwork, including the frescoes adorning the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps the artist had one note that he wanted to send to generations to come. Some say that the inclusion of the brain motif was his way of telling people that they could connect with God all on their own – no church required.