Based on the jugular vein seen in several of Michelangelo’s sculptures, it seems as though he was pretty knowledgeable with the body’s circulatory system – a century before doctors were.
The jugular vein is especially visible in the sculpture he created of David (from the story of David and Goliath). The sculpture depicts an excited David which indicates that Michelangelo made the connection between excitement and a swollen jugular vein which doctors didn’t document until 124 years after the sculpture was made. While a swollen jugular can indicate illnesses such as heart failure or an elevated intracardiac pressure, the vein also bulges out for a short time during a heightened state of excitement.
Although Michelangelo created the famous sculpture over 500 years ago, it was only recently that the bulging jugular vein had been noticed by cardiologist Daniel Gelfman from the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indianapolis.
“Michelangelo, like some of his artistic contemporaries, had anatomical training,” Dr. Gelfman wrote in his research paper, adding, “I realized that Michelangelo must have noticed temporary jugular venous distension in healthy individuals who are excited.” He went on to explain, “At the time the David was created, in 1504, [anatomist and physician] William Harvey had yet to describe the true mechanics of the circulatory system.” “This did not occur until 1628.”
David wasn’t Michelangelo’s only work of art that showed a swollen jugular vein, as the sculpture of Moses that was ordered by Pope Julius II in the year 1505 also had the same feature. He created the sculpture in reference to when Moses returned from Mount Sinai after he received the Ten Commandments. But when he saw people worshiping a calf, he got extremely angry and that anger was portrayed in the sculpture with his glaring expression and tense left arm.
As for his sculpture titled Pietà, the jugular vein is not visible as it depicted the death of Jesus; therefore, portraying a very sad time. “In sculpture, one can only show a single image in time,” Dr. Gelfman explained, adding that with his art depicting the angry Moses and nervous David, he “must have wanted to express this [circulatory] observation in his work.”
Marcin Kowalski, who is a cardiac electrophysiologist from the Staten Island University Hospital in New York, weighed in by stating, “It is incredible that a 500-year-old statue can depict physical findings that might be used in diagnosis.”
It’s amazing to think that Michelangelo had knowledge of the circulatory system over a century before doctors did. Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in Caprese, Italy, in 1475, but spent the majority of his life in Rome until 1564 when he passed away at 88 years of age. During his life, he was a painter, sculptor, architect, and even wrote sonnets. One of his most recognized accomplishments was his ceiling painting in the Sistine Chapel. According to the National Gallery in London, he was the first artist to ever be recognized by his peers as a genius.