During the Renaissance, a period of ‘rebirth’ for humanities and science, new knowledge and speculation began to emerge about the function of the human body, replacing ancient religious and philosophical dogma. The brain must have been a fascinating mystery to a Renaissance artist, but some speculation existed at that time on the function of its parts. Here we show how revived interest in anatomy and life sciences may have influenced the figurative work of Italian and Flemish masters, such as Rafael, Michelangelo and David. We present a historical perspective on the artists and the period in which they lived, their fascination for human anatomy and its symbolic use in their art.
Prior to the 16th century, knowledge of the brain was limited and influenced in a dogmatic way by the teachings of Galen1 who, as we now know, conducted his anatomical studies not on humans but on animals.2 Nemesus, Bishop of Emesa, in around the year 400 was one of the first to attribute mental faculties to the brain, specifically to the ventricles. He identified two anterior (lateral) ventricles, to which he assigned perception, a middle ventricle responsible for cognition and a posterior ventricle for memory.2,3 After a long period of stasis in the Middle Ages, Renaissance scholars realized the importance of making direct observations on dissected cadavers. Between 1504 and 1507, Leonardo da Vinci conducted experiments to reveal the anatomy of the ventricular system in the brain. He injected hot wax through a tube thrust into the ventricular cavities of an ox and then scraped the overlying brain off, thus obtaining, in a simple but ingenious way, an accurate cast of the ventricles.2,4 Leonardo shared the belief promoted by scholarly Christians that the ventricles were the abode of rational soul.
We have several examples of hidden symbolism in Renaissance paintings, but the influence of phrenology and this rudimentary knowledge of neuroanatomy on artists of that period is under-recognized. In the absence of documentary or scientific evidence as to the real intentions of these painters, the notion of such commixture of sacred and profane remains speculative and probably controversial, but at the same time fascinating and provocative. Here we present three examples of Renaissance masterpieces where such symbolism may have been used, although probably many more exist. Conducting an artistic, philosophical and anatomical analysis of the paintings can be an intriguing exercise, but the interpretation will inevitably be conjectural.