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Does the Michelangelo painting in the Westworld finale really show a brain — or is it a uterus?

Does the Michelangelo painting in the Westworld finale really show a brain — or is it a uterus?


The Westworld writers didn’t come up with this theory on their own

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The Creation of Adam
The Creation of Adam
Michelangelo Buonarroti

Episode 10 of Westworld closes out the season with a bloody robot rebellion. Dolores, one of the amusement park’s android hosts, kills the park’s remaining founder, Robert Ford. But in the buildup before she puts a gun to his head, Ford subjects Dolores to an incongruous art history lesson. He explains that Michelangelo’s painting, the Creation of Adam, contains a hidden symbol: the shape of a brain outlined by God’s billowing shroud. Ford’s message seems to be that consciousness is the true gift that a creator can give its creation.

Consciousness is the true gift

The Westworld writers didn’t come up with this metaphor out of the blue. In fact, gynecologist Frank Lynn Meshberger floated the theory more than two decades ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And there’s some controversy, too: a rival group of researchers believe the shape is actually a uterus.

It’s helpful to know a little bit of the painter’s biography: Michelangelo Buonarroti was a Renaissance artist who painted the Creation of Adam as part of a series of biblical frescoes on the the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One of the hallmarks of the Renaissance was that artists working during the period sought out increasingly lifelike portrayals of the human body — so many of these artists were also anatomists. Michelangelo was no exception; he began dissecting corpses when he was still a teenager in order to understand how people are put together, according to his biographer and contemporary Giorgio Vasari.

God is, in fact, sitting on it

The painting that Ford references, the Creation of Adam, is one of the many biblical scenes depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. In it, God’s hand is outstretched to Adam — possibly to deliver the spark of life. But Meshberger floats an alternative explanation in his essay: that the spark God passed to Adam in this painting wasn’t just life, but also intellect. After all, Michelangelo had written in his sonnets that he thought intellect was a divine gift — and there was a brain right there in the painting. God is, in fact, sitting on it.  

If you were to drop an axe on someone’s head, with the front of blade landing neatly between the eyes and the handle exiting the back of the skull, the exposed brain bits would look a lot like the red circle behind God and the angels, says Meshberger. You’d notice, if you looked closely, a fissure in the shape of a crescent along that axe wound that mirrors the crescent formed in the painting by God’s arm as it wraps around Eve. Even blood vessels show up: the green sash trailing from the brain looks like one of the arteries that connects the neck to the brain.

There were elements of the painting that conformed “in very uncanny ways to the exact anatomical shape,” says Johns Hopkins professor and medical illustrator Ian Suk. “I was floored.”

Two decades later, Suk and his colleague Rafael Tamargo, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University found their own hidden brain in another panel on the chapel’s ceiling. Called the Separation of Light and Darkness, it depicts the moment when God said “Let there be light.” Suk and Tamargo noticed that God’s neck looked unusual — which, given the focus on lifelike anatomy in Renaissance art, made it stand out. In fact, it looked more like a brain stem — the rear, bottom part of the brain responsible for making sure the body does fundamental things like breathe. Suk and Tamargo took photos of a model brain and matched the shadows against the ones on God’s neck. They were the same, according to their paper published in the journal Neurosurgery.

“The brain was, even back then, one of the great mysteries in life,” Suk told The Verge. “I think one of his main pursuits, being a religious man, being a scientific man, and being one of the greatest artists of all time, led to him trying to pursue the mysteries of the human brain.”

God's neck in "Separation of Light From Darkness"
God's neck in "Separation of Light From Darkness"

Not everyone buys the idea that Michelangelo was hiding depictions of brains in his art, Suk and Tamargo note in their paper. Michelangelo’s anatomical explorations of corpses supports the theory, according to a paper by neurosurgeon Michael Salcman. But Salcman also warns that “our visual systems ... fill in details and create meaning where no pattern or meaning may have been intended.”

That could explain why different people see different shapes in God’s billowing shroud. The late Andrea Tranquilli, a gynecologist, argues that the red blob surrounding God and the angels in the Creation of Adam isn’t a brain, but a uterus containing a placenta. “Maybe we are prejudiced by our medical backgrounds (I am a gynecologist, and my wife works on the molecular biology of placental enzymes), but we have seen, without doubt, that Adam is born (created) from a uterus and a human placenta,” he wrote in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine. God and Adam’s outstretched arms form the umbilical cord that transports nutrients and oxygen from mother to baby. The green sash isn’t a blood vessel but a stream of the amniotic fluid that bathes the fetus in the uterus.

Another group of researchers built on the theory, adding that the uterus wasn’t just any uterus, but a uterus right after birth, according to a 2015 paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. That’s why there are folds in the fabric, the authors argue — normally, there wouldn’t be any. But in its post-birth, stretched-out state, the uterus wrinkles like a deflated balloon. The strange part is that the cervix the authors identified — the nub pointing off of the top right edge of the red blob — isn’t pointing at Adam, but away from him. So, it’s not as if the God uterus had just popped him out. Instead, the whole scene is supposed to depict a reclining woman, with the blue background behind Adam representing her torso. And there is a pretty clear breast and nipple right above Adam’s head. “[W]e see God situated in a postpartum uterus while Adam lies on a woman’s torso,” the researchers wrote.

So who’s right? It’s anyone’s guess. “[A] cynic might suppose that neurologists and nephrologists are prone to discover brains and kidneys everywhere,” Salcman added in a paper. (Nephrologists say they’ve spotted kidneys in other panels on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling). To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And to gynecologists, apparently, God’s robe looks like a brain — and also a uterus.