Michelangelo’s David Reveals Artist Knew About Jugular Vein a Century Before Doctors
A new study has shown that Michelangelo knew facts about the human circulatory system over a century before scientists and doctors. A prominent jugular vein in the neck of Michelangelo’s David shows that he had a high degree of anatomical knowledge. This knowledge was central to his work and is part of the reason why his art has been so acclaimed down the centuries.
Dr. Daniel Gelfman was visiting Florence and went to view the world-famous sculpture of David, the biblical hero, which was created between 1501 and 1504, and today is on view at the Galleria dell' Accademia di Firenze. Gelfman is an American cardiologist, who teaches at the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indianapolis, noticed something on the 17ft (5.2m) high statute that astonished him.
Full shot of Michelangelo’s David in Florence. (Michelangelo / CC BY 3.0)
Michelangelo’s David Reveals Medical Insight
With his trained-eye, Gelfman noted the very prominent jugular vein in the neck of David. This was amazing as the vein is not typically apparent in most sculpted figures and people. In Michelangelo’s David, the vein is clearly shown just above the clavicle (collarbone) of the slayer of Goliath.
This swollen vein was very accurately portrayed and is very realistic. The great Florentine sculptor catches the moment when David is about to battle with the Philistine Goliath, a giant of a man. The vein is clearly distended, which is what one would expect to see in a fit young man, who is excited and about to risk his life. Gelfman told USA Today that Michelangelo was aware of “temporary jugular [sic. venous distension] in healthy individuals who are excited.”
Depiction of David slaying Goliath. (Anton Robert Leinweber / Public domain)
Secrets of the Human Body
When Michelangelo was creating his masterpiece, doctors were unaware of the nature of the circulatory system. It was only discovered in 1628 by the great English doctor William Harvey, long after the Italian’s death. Gelfman stated that he was amazed at Michelangelo’s “ability to recognize this finding and express it in his artwork at a time when there was such limited information in cardiovascular physiology,” according to The Daily Mail. Even today only those with a deep knowledge of cardiology know about this feature of the circulatory system.
The Daily Mail quotes Gelfman as stating that “Michelangelo, like some of his artistic contemporaries, had anatomical training.” In order to achieve realistic portrayals of the human body, painters and sculptors had to have a good knowledge of human anatomy. It is believed that many Renaissance artists observed the work of doctors in order to get a better understanding of how the body worked. It is also possible that Michelangelo simply observed that the jugular became distended when people became agitated.
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Michelangelo’s Extraordinary Anatomical Knowledge
There is other evidence in Michelangelo’s work that he was aware of this detail of the circulatory system. In his sculpture of Moses that adorns a papal tomb in Rome, a swollen jugular vein is also apparent. This statue shows the prophet with a glaring expression and angry, at the moment when he sees the Hebrews worshipping ‘the golden calf’.
Photo of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses showing the jugular vein in his neck. Source: Jörg Bittner Unna / CC BY 3.0
Remarkably Michelangelo was able to use his anatomical knowledge in his work. The Daily Mail quotes Dr. Gelfman, as saying that he “must have wanted to express this circulatory observation in his work.” This detailed knowledge of the body is one of the reasons why the Florentine’s work is so lifelike and powerful.
The discovery of Gelfman is also important for medical doctors and researchers. It demonstrates the importance of physical examinations and observations in medicine, even in the age of high-tech scanners. According to Dr. Marcin Kowalski, a New York-based cardiologist, the find shows the importance of “the art of physical examination,” reports USA News Today. There are times when there are no clear-cut answers for patients’ health problems, and this is when medicine becomes an art. The discovery also demonstrates that medical students must continue to be taught the importance of physical findings.
Gelfman believes he is the first person in over 500 years to notice the distended vein on the Renaissance masterpiece. According to USA News Today, he has called the feature the ‘David Sign’. The cardiologist’s study has been published in full in the academic journal JAMA Cardiology.
Top image: Photo of Michelangelo’s David showing the jugular vein in his neck distended. Source: Jörg Bittner Unna / CC BY 3.0
By Ed Whelan