Art historians are split over a doctor's theory that Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" on the Sistine Chapel ceiling contains a huge image of a brain, symbolizing God endowing man with intelligence.

Dr. Frank Lynn Meshberger contends the fresco has been misunderstood since it was created in 1512. The painting was covered with dirt until a recent restoration, "so it might have been difficult to visualize a brain," he said.The painting shows Adam and God reaching toward one another, arms outstretched, fingers almost touching. God has his arm around Eve, and angels look on. God and the angels form the shape of the brain, Meshberger said.

Meshberger, a gynecologist at St. John's Medical Center in Anderson, Ind., said in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association that Michelangelo intended to symbolize God giving man intellect, rather than life as commonly believed.

Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a fine arts professor at New York University and a consultant for Renaissance art at the Vatican Museum, disputed Meshberger's theory as a "retrofit" of his own knowledge.

"All the elements in the image have profound traditional roots in the visual culture of the Renaissance and Middle Ages," she said. "God is more than a flying brain."

Other art historians are reluctant to dismiss the theory, noting that artists and scientists of the time studied sections of the brain.

Meshberger said he learned through his research that Michelangelo had deep religious beliefs and dissected cadavers to study the human form for his art.

"The idea of God being equated with the mind is quite attractive," said Graham Smith, who specializes in 16th-century art at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.