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Michelangelo, “The Creation of Adam” (1511-12) (image via Wikimedia)

The Renaissance artist Michelangelo was fascinated by human anatomy. He dissected cadavers to study them and so gained an impressive depth of knowledge about the body that he used when painting the Sistine Chapel.

New research published in Clinical Anatomy suggests that Michelangelo’s attentiveness to anatomy might have been spurred by a larger interest in the golden ratio. Though he is not known to have used it, many other artists of his day — including Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer — did. The geometric concept states that a perfect rectangle can be split into a square and a smaller rectangle that has the exact proportions as the larger one — mathematically expressed with the value of 1.6180. It’s often said to be the most appealing proportion in nature, and the human body is thought to illustrate it.

The study, titled “More Than A Neuroanatomical Representation in ‘The Creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo Buonarroti, A Representation of the Golden Ratio,” claims that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco fits the ratio perfectly — so perfectly, it seems, that the artist had to have consciously used it. And that he did so in everything from the painting’s figures to its overall composition.

The researchers came to this conclusion by measuring the painting using Image Plus Pro Software. First they compared the distances between the edge of the most famous panel, “The Creation of Adam,” and its most “critical element” — the space where Adam and God’s fingers are about to meet. It was a perfect match. The point divided the panel into a golden rectangle, and when they compared it to the entire fresco, it formed a much larger golden rectangle as well.

Lead author Deivis de Campos writes that

the data presented here are compelling evidence that the [golden ratio], which is found in many biological structures and works of art by renowned artists, did not go unnoticed by Michelangelo. Given this discovery, it is assumed that the beauty and harmony found in all the works of Michelangelo may not be based solely on his anatomical knowledge. We believe that in all probability, Michelangelo knew that anatomical structures incorporating the [ratio] offer greater structural efficiency and, therefore, used the [ratio] to enhance the aesthetic quality of his works.

The discovery seems to at least anecdotally bolster the legitimacy of the golden ratio, which recently has been called into question. A Fast Company article published in April quoted Stanford University mathematician Keith Devlin as saying that it doesn’t actually exist in nature, since its decimal points go on forever, making it an irrational number. So while you can find approximations, you can’t find the real thing. If it seems a bit nit-picky, Devlin supported his point with evidence that students he surveyed, when shown different rectangles, rarely picked the golden one.

But it will be hard for many to ignore the example of the Sistine Chapel, which has dazzled visitors for centuries. At least they don’t seem to mind that it’s a few decimal points off.

The Sistine Chapel (image via Wikimedia)

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and loitering in her community bookstore.

2 replies on “Did Michelangelo Use the Golden Ratio to Paint the Sistine Chapel?”

  1. The golden ratio, pi, planks constant, exist only in how we experience reality. A true/pure circle does not exist, but the circles we experience are all over the place.

  2. “Hidden harmonies are more than obvious.”
    Heraclitus
    The simple answer is that these geometries are innate in both number and nature. They represent both the optimal division of unity (the number 1) and dynamical systems universality. Of how nature can change (or scale) without changing any more than it needs to, while still allowing for emergence and evolution over time.
    https://www.quora.com/Complexity/Asynsis-Principle-What-is-the-Asynsis-principle-a-design-law-of-nature-or-culture-What-is-the-etymology-of-the-word
    I’ve recently shared on TED how the Type 4, Rule 30/110 behaviours that characterise the golden ratio (as a spatio-temporal geometric signature of thermodynamic behaviours), can also be seen as a temporal signature (an asymptotic convergence, to be precise), of dynamical systems universality, of how nature evolves emergent complexity most robustly, adaptively and rapidly.
    But really, looking exclusively at only Spatial interpretations are so last century anyway. We of course, need to look at what nature is doing in Time.
    For example, is the entire repertoire of plant phyllotaxis an illusion?
    Plants are telling us something, that we need to think harder about the Temporal, thermodynamics and morphogenesis, as Alan Turning did in his last research on the Fibonacci series, phyllotaxis and morphogenesis before he tragically died at an early age.
    http://docmadhattan.fieldofscience.com/2013/08/turing-fibonacci-and-sunflowers.html
    We need to look at both the animate and inanimate, at the dynamical and space-time, not just the frozen and static. It seems the way nature works is to manifest the golden ratio not as a spatial fossil, rather an optimal temporal energy flow signature. An efficiency (& beauty) constant.
    Much of current debate in the design industries is only over the residue or sedimentary forms of these dynamical flows – so we are missing half the picture (as I’ve been saying since first publication in AD Magazine, based on Masters studies in Architecture & Computer Science at the University of Westminster, London).
    Entropy begets Design – QED
    https://asynsis.wordpress.com/2014/09/05/entropy-begets-design-qed-2/
    What the sciences of complexity and dynamical systems have been sharing recently is that the golden ratio is one of several optimal, analogical geometric signatures of how nature evolves emergent complexity most easily – over time.
    It’s a dynamical behaviour, a verb not a noun.
    It’s not the phone number, but the very action of dialing.
    Here’s how I Tweet it:
    #Asynsis #DaoOfDesign on #TED at #TEDxWanchai #HongKong.
    A New, Extremely Lean, Mean (#Design) #TheoryOfEverything
    Watch “Form follows flow | Nigel Reading | TEDxWanChai” Video at TEDxTalks
    TED: Asynsis@TEDx Wanchai Aug 23 2014
    https://medium.com/@ASYNSIS/hidden-harmonies-are-more-than-obvious-1eb24148fa93
    Nigel Anthony Reading RIBA LEED GA (asynsis) on about.me
    Asynsis
    http://about.me/asynsis
    The very latest examples (including E8 & ER=EPR #Universality), are shared here (enjoy!):
    AsynSoφia
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/AsynSo%CF%86ia/202383966558282

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