ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now from a discovery under the sea to a discovery on a ceiling, and not just any ceiling, the most famous ceiling in the world: The Sistine Chapel ceiling and Michelangelo's fresco "The Separation of Light from Darkness."
Two researchers at the department of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University claim that hidden within that famous painting is an anatomically accurate painting of the human brain. They say they found it in God's neck.
Well, Dr. Rafael Tamargo is a professor of neurosurgery and is co-author of an article in the journal Neurosurgery about this discovery and joins us now. Welcome to the program.
Dr. RAFAEL TAMARGO (Professor of Neurosurgery, Johns Hopkins University): Thank you, Mr. Siegel.
SIEGEL: And this painting on the Sistine Chapel is huge. Where exactly is the image that your study is about?
Dr. TAMARGO: Well, this fresco, "The Separation of Light from Darkness," is immediately above the altar, and the neck of God in this fresco has attracted the attention of scholars because it has very unusual anatomical features.
And as we studied, you know, the lines that Michelangelo had included in the neck, we were surprised to find that if you follow these lines, you can actually draw an anatomically correct view of the brain stem.
SIEGEL: Now this is - these lines have been seen by others in the past, perhaps not neurosurgeons, as a goiter, say, or some kind of growth on God's neck in this fresco.
Dr. TAMARGO: That's correct.
SIEGEL: But you see an anatomically correct drawing of the brain. Would Michelangelo have been able to draw an anatomically correct rendering of the brain?
Dr. TAMARGO: Yes, Michelangelo himself started dissecting cadavers when he was 17 years old. So he probably had the ability to - and the material to carry on multiple dissections and eventually sort out the gross anatomy of the brain.
SIEGEL: Well, if Michelangelo actually had the ability to draw a to make a very good drawing of the brain, what would his motive be for hiding such a drawing inside the figure of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling?
Dr. TAMARGO: I think that Michelangelo might have been somewhat reluctant to advertise his anatomical dissections. You know, at the time, cadaver dissections were viewed with ambivalence by the population and, in addition, by the Vatican.
And I think he had a lot of anatomical knowledge that he wanted to express but didn't have a venue in which to do so. And by incorporating this image of the brain first, he was able to display his knowledge of anatomy and also sign, so to speak, the fresco in a unique way. And he's known to have had a very playful streak and sign his works in unique ways.
SIEGEL: Now, I appreciate that this is a scholarly article in neurosurgery. It feels, though, a little bit close to, you know, stories about how somewhere in the $20 bill is some encoded message that we all get if we looked at it right or the Da Vinci Code or one of these things. How deeply convinced of this are you, and to what extent are you willing to play with the idea?
Dr. TAMARGO: Well, I'm very convinced. You know, prior to the article, you know, my colleague and I, Ian Suk, showed it to other neurosurgeons, neuroanatomists, and without saying much, they spontaneously recognized the brain stem. So I think it's real.
SIEGEL: Well, Professor Tamargo, thank you very much for talking with us about it.
Dr. TAMARGO: My pleasure, Mr. Siegel.
SIEGEL: Dr. Rafael Tamargo is professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University. And you can see God's neck for yourself at our website, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.