The Creation of Adam
Michelangelo began painting The Creation of Adam, commencing the west half of the ceiling, in October 1511. After a fourteen-month break from painting, he had been able to see the first half of the ceiling from the ground and realized his method had to be slightly altered. Because the ceiling of the
chapel is over sixty-five feet above the floor, the earlier figures were difficult to see. On this second half, the figures would become taller and the compositions would be less complex making them easier to see from the ground. Also, with his main ally, Pope Julius II, going in and out of failing health, Michelangelo knew that he would have to work faster to ensure that he would be able to finish the fresco. In fact, the entire scene of God creating Adam took less than three weeks to complete.
Starting with Adam, and working from left to right, Michelangelo created the scene of God giving life to Adam in manner unlike any that had been made before. In many depictions before, God and Adam are both placed on the ground. Genesis 2:7 says “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” and such, artists often showed God forming Adam as an artist would, or with a ray or breath going from God’s mouth to Adam’s nostrils. On the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo showed something very different.
Adam, The First Man
On the ceiling, Adam is placed to the left, reclining on his right arm with his left arm outstretched reaching to the heavens. He is naked and muscular lying on the ground. A biographer and contemporary of Michelangelo, Vasari wrote of Adam “a figure whose beauty, pose, and contours are of such quality that that he seems newly created by his Supreme and First creator rather than by the brush and design of a mere mortal.” Indeed, there has been discussion by earlier religious philosophers that Adam would have had to be the ideal man, as St. Bonaventure wrote, “his body is most glorious, subtle, agile, and immortal.” Adam, being the first man, sits alone looking toward God as life begins.
Characteristic of the Renaissance and Michelangelo’s art as a whole, Adam is depicted with anatomical detail that had not been seen in art for centuries. Like his sculptures, the figure is shown not just as a representation of man, but as if the paint is a man alive. For Michelangelo, the goal was not just to show a scene from Genesis, but to breathe new life into the image and make it feel as if it is happening now.
The Creator, Lord God
To the right of Adam, a much more complicated scene of God is shown. While Adam is shown young and naked, God is shown in the, now common, image of an old man with a grey beard and clothed in a flowing robe. In this image, we see the divergence away from the past images of creation. God is flying through the sky carried by eleven young angels – their hair flowing as if being blown in the wind. Unlike Adam with his relaxed pose, the angels strain almost struggling to carry the weight of God and with him, the weight of the world. Not just being carried, God too takes on some of the burden supporting himself with his left arm around that of a woman, perhaps the not yet created on earth, Eve.
The center of the panel is where the hands of Adam and God almost touch. Both figures reach to the other but in different ways. As Adam looks up to God, his quiet face shows little emotion. It is as if he looks on waiting for God’s touch, passive and patient. The same emotion can be seen in his hand. Adam’s hand is limp and relaxed. Even though reaching out, his fingers are still bent, waiting for life to straighten them and give them strength.
God, however, looks on to Adam with furled brows fighting both against the wind and struggling to reach his finest creation. Like Adam, God is muscular even in his old age. Even though he is wearing a robe, the fabric is pulled tight against his body showing the form of his shoulders and arms underneath. His hand, large like Adam’s, is reaching out to give life. His index finger is straight about to touch that of Adam’s.
Even with Michelangelo diverting from a literal depiction of the scene described in the Bible, his image is instantly recognizable as Adam receives God’s touch. And for Michelangelo, this panel, like the ceiling as a whole, helped to cement his reputation as one of the greatest artists, not just sculptors, in the world.
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