Is That a Secret Michelangelo Selfie at the Sistine Chapel?
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Is That a Secret Michelangelo Selfie at the Sistine Chapel?

A new theory suggests that the Renaissance master modelled his iconic image of God after himself

Thu, Apr 20, 2023 9:04amGrey Clock 4 min

Michelangelo may have secretly painted himself onto the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, portraying himself as God with arm outstretched to spark life in a lounging Adam.

The theory, if true, underscores Michelangelo’s outsize ego, or at least his cheeky sense of humour. The hunch, which is gaining traction among Italian Renaissance scholars, also places the artist’s self-portrait squarely at the center of one of the most famous images in Western art.

“Michelangelo saw himself as the Messiah of art, so it makes sense,” said Adriano Marinazzo, a curator of special projects at Virginia’s Muscarelle Museum of Art at The College of William & Mary who published the theory last December in the peer-reviewed Italian art journal Critica d’Arte.

Although the artist painted more than 300 biblical characters across 5,000 square feet of ceiling, the central action in Michelangelo’s masterpiece is “The Creation of Adam.” The section shows an elderly, bearded God twisting beneath a floating cloak so that the fingertips on his right hand nearly reach a lackadaisical Adam, who represents mankind.

Mr. Marinazzo, who has a record of Michelangelo-related discoveries, said he made the connection after studying a sheet of paper containing a sonnet Michelangelo wrote to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia between 1509 and 1511. In the sonnet, Michelangelo complains about the physical toll the job has taken on his health.

“My brush, above me all the time, dribbles the paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings,” the artist wrote.

In the sonnet’s margins, the artist also drew a man, presumably himself, standing with legs slightly crossed while painting a ghoulish face on the ceiling with his right arm outstretched.

Scholars have long focused on how the poem now held in Florence’s Buonarroti Archive proves Michelangelo’s ornery attitude about the papal commission. Mr. Marinazzo said he instead fixated on the sketch, wondering why the artist would portray himself standing with one leg slightly crossing the other—a shaky stance for anyone standing on scaffolding.

Mr. Marinazzo rotated a digital image of the letter last year and had an epiphany: The posture and pose of the sketched man looked eerily similar to that of God on the ceiling, a move the historian is now convinced was intentional.

“He’s hidden himself in the ceiling,” he said. “The face is idealised because Michelangelo was self-conscious about his smashed nose, but this is the closest he’s ever come to presenting himself as divine.”

Not everyone is convinced. Paul Barolsky, a Renaissance art historian at the University of Virginia, said he needs corroborating proof that the sketch inspired the final product. Michelangelo left behind hundreds of letters, including several where he wrote self-deprecatingly about his looks after a rival painter punched and broke his nose. He also created preparatory drawings of the figures’ hands in that pivotal scene on the ceiling. Never once did the artist claim to have modelled the figure of God after himself. “Everybody’s got theories, but you’ve got to do better than that,” Mr. Barolsky said.

Yet other scholars who have read Mr. Marinazzo’s hypothesis see merit in the claim.

William Wallace, a historian at Washington University in St. Louis who has written eight books on Michelangelo, said Mr. Marinazzo has made a “clever connection” about an artist whose crackling sense of humor is often overlooked. Mr. Wallace said he could “totally entertain” a theory wherein the artist painted himself as God. “He liked to laugh at himself, so this could be a hint.”

Gary Radke, an Italian Renaissance expert at New York’s Syracuse University, said he is now equally curious about the artist’s stance in the sketch. “Who stands like that on scaffolding?” Mr. Radke said. “It raises questions about interpretation, and Adriano has seen something new.”

Mr. Radke thinks the artist, who prized his own skills, may have subconsciously related to the God figure he was painting at the time.

Certainly the task before him was gargantuan. At the time Michelangelo took the commission, he was in his 30s—far younger than the God he painted—and already deemed one of Florence’s greatest sculptors, having carved “David” in Florence and the “Pietà” of St. Peter’s a few years before. He famously preferred sculpting over painting and accused his peers of recommending him for the ceiling job so they could watch him fail, scholars say.

Pope Julius II only asked him to paint the 12 apostles in the triangular shapes lining the outer edges of the barrel-vaulted ceiling, leaving the centre painted like a night sky with gilt stars. Instead, Michelangelo took over the entire span, ultimately re-creating a vast, biblical story about man’s search for God and redemption.

The result was widely hailed the moment it was unveiled in 1512, with Michelangelo’s biographer Giorgio Vasari describing the artist as “something divine rather than mortal.”

Mr. Radke said it often takes time for scholars to accept new ideas involving Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Another theory gaining traction alleges that the artist modelled the billowing cloak surrounding God after the shape of a human brain, he said. Ditto the notion that the woman and toddler tucked under God’s left arm represent Christ and his mother, Mary.

When it comes to Michelangelo selfies, there’s also precedent: Two decades after the artist finished the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo returned to the same room to paint a wall-spanning view of Christ’s Second Coming. In 1925, a scholar first suggested that Michelangelo likely painted himself in the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew in that work, “The Last Judgment,” and the idea has since caught on.

“Michelangelo had an ego beyond belief,” Mr. Radke said, “so all his art was autobiography to him. He was a modern artist in that way.”


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Should AI Have Access to Your Medical Records? What if It Can Save Many Lives?

We asked readers: Is it worth giving up some potential privacy if the public benefit could be great? Here’s what they said.

Tue, May 28, 2024 4 min

We’re constantly told that one of the potentially biggest benefits of artificial intelligence is in the area of health. By collecting large amounts of data, AI can create all sorts of drugs for diseases that have been resistant to treatment.

But the price of that could be that we have to share more of our medical information. After all, researchers can’t collect large amounts of data if people aren’t willing to part with that data.

We wanted to see where our readers stand on the balance of privacy versus public-health gains as part of our series on ethical dilemmas created by the advent of AI.

Here are the questions we posed…

AI may be able to discover new medical treatments if it can scan large volumes of health records. Should our personal health records be made available for this purpose, if it has the potential to improve or save millions of lives? How would we guard privacy in that case?

…and some of the answers we received. undefined

Rely on nonpartisan overseers

While my own recent experience with a data breach highlights the importance of robust data security, I recognise the potential for AI to revolutionise healthcare. To ensure privacy, I would be more comfortable if an independent, nonpartisan body—overseen by medical professionals, data-security experts, and citizen representatives—managed a secure database.

Anonymity cuts both ways

Yes. Simply sanitise the health records of any identifying information, which is quite doable. Although there is an argument to be made that AI may discover something that an individual needs or wants to know.

Executive-level oversight

I think we can make AI scanning of health records available with strict privacy controls. Create an AI-CEO position at medical facilities with extreme vetting of that individual before hiring them.

Well worth it

This actually sounds like a very GOOD use of AI. There are several methods for anonymising data which would allow for studies over massive cross-sections of the population without compromising individuals’ privacy. The AI would just be doing the same things meta-studies do now, only faster and maybe better.

Human touch

My concern is that the next generations of doctors will rely more heavily, maybe exclusively, on AI and lose the ability or even the desire to respect the art of medicine which demands one-on-one interaction with a patient for discussion and examination (already a dying skill).


People should be able to sign over rights to their complete “anonymised” health record upon death just as they can sign over rights to their organs. Waiting for death for such access does temporarily slow down the pace of such research, but ultimately will make the research better. Data sets will be more complete, too. Before signing over such rights, however, a person would have to be fully informed on how their relatives’ privacy may also be affected.

Pay me or make it free for all

As long as this is open-source and free, they can use my records. I have a problem with people using my data to make a profit without compensation.

Privacy above all

As a free society, we value freedoms and privacy, often over greater utilitarian benefits that could come. AI does not get any greater right to infringe on that liberty than anything else does.

Opt-in only

You should be able to opt in and choose a plan that protects your privacy.

Privacy doesn’t exist anyway

If it is decided to extend human lives indefinitely, then by all means, scan all health records. As for privacy, there is no such thing. All databases, once established, will eventually, if not immediately, be accessed or hacked by both the good and bad guys.

The data’s already out there

I think it should be made available. We already sign our rights for information over to large insurance companies. Making health records in the aggregate available for helping AI spot potential ways to improve medical care makes sense to me.

Overarching benefit

Of course they should be made available. Privacy is no serious concern when the benefits are so huge for so many.

Compensation for breakthroughs

We should be given the choice to release our records and compensated if our particular genome creates a pathway to treatment and medications.

Too risky

I like the idea of improving healthcare by accessing health records. However, as great as that potential is, the risks outweigh it. Access to the information would not be controlled. Too many would see personal opportunity in it for personal gain.

Nothing personal

The personal info should never be available to anyone who is not specifically authorised by the patient to have it. Medical information can be used to deny people employment or licenses!

No guarantee, but go ahead

This should be allowed on an anonymous basis, without question. But how to provide that anonymity?

Anonymously isolating the information is probably easy, but that information probably contains enough information to identify you if someone had access to the data and was strongly motivated. So the answer lies in restricting access to the raw data to trusted individuals.

Take my records, please

As a person with multiple medical conditions taking 28 medications a day, I highly endorse the use of my records. It is an area where I have found AI particularly valuable. With no medical educational background, I find it very helpful when AI describes in layman’s terms both my conditions and medications. In one instance, while interpreting a CT scan, AI noted a growth on my kidney that looked suspiciously like cancer and had not been disclosed to me by any of the four doctors examining the chart.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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