Michelangelo is considered one of the greats of Italy’s High Renaissance period, a brief artistic period between approximately 1490 to 1527 that was full of optimism and wealth in the face of political turbulence. The still fairly recent emergence of Humanist philosophies and classical texts, art, and knowledge had sparked cultural enlightenment that intertwined mythological representation, scholastic intellect, and Christian values. It is Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (c. 1510) that exemplifies this shift. From its technical finesse to its attention to bodily form, today’s lesson will analyze why this panel of the Sistine Chapel mural is still considered one of the greatest accomplishments of western art.
Daniele da Volterra. Portrait of Michelangelo (unfinished), probably painted about 1545
The interior of the Sistine Chapel showing the ceiling in relation to the other frescoes. Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam is near the top of the photo.
Despite being considered one of Michelangelo’s finest works, he was ultimately distraught about painting the ceiling for Pope Julius II, even writing a sonnet to express his despair. He saw himself as a sculptor and bitterly rejected the suggestions given to him by his patron. But in 1508, he began to depict the stories from Genesis, starting with the Separation of Light and Darkness and finishing with the Drunkenness of Noah. Surrounding the narrative are prophets, sibyls, and ignudi (or decorative nude figures) resting on and around fictive columns, beams, and other pseudo-architectural elements that Michelangelo depicts with stunning realism and depth.
Michelangelo. The Creation of Adam, c. 1512. Fresco on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel. 15’ 9” x 7’ x 6.5”. Vatican, Rome.
The Creation of Adam personifies a critical Bible verse: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him” (Genesis 1:27). The rhetorical chiasmus of this line is captured visually through the outstretched arms, Adam’s and God’s hands and bodies complementing each other to simulate a mirroring effect. The fingers gravitate toward each other but do not touch, recognizing the ever-so-slight distinction between the material and the divine, as well as the harmony between humanity and God. For art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, God’s outstretched finger symbolizes “the conduit through which God’s intelligence, his ideas, and his morality seep into Man.” Indeed, sin has not yet overcome Adam’s worldly paradise, the real and ideal entangled by Michelangelo’s artistic interpretation.
Michelangelo. The Creation of Adam [detail: woman under God’s arm]
While Adam and God are easily distinguishable, the identity of the woman under God’s arm has long been debated by critics. While she has traditionally been considered to be Eve, recent scholarship suggests it may be the Virgin Mary. As critics have noted, God rests his finger on the shoulder of a child beside the woman, the Eucharist-bearing fingers hinting at the coming of Christ.
Aside from the bold, naturalistic coloration – made even more apparent after an intensive conservation-restoration in the 1980s and 1990s – Michelangelo had a fantastic eye for line, shape, and the human figure. Adam’s twisting, sculptural body is detailed with idealized musculature and remarkable proportion. The tension of the limbs and pectoral region is contrasted with his rather relaxed posture as he gazes adoringly toward God and the heavens. Unclothed and unscathed, Adam represents an unachievable purity of the pre-Eden world.
Moreover, Michelangelo has a keen compositional eye for juxtaposition and balance. While Adam is isolated on an unadorned landscape, God is overwhelmed with sporadic lines and humanlike figures gazing intensely at his creation. The earthly setting where Adam is positioned starkly contrasts with the whimsical, silky textures of the blue ribbon and red cloth, hinting at the almighty wisdom, power, and love of God.
However, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is not just a stunning representation of Christian faith; it is also a technical tour de force whose human figures, naturalistic representations, visual symbolism, and eye for aesthetic balance would set a new precedent for all artists afterward.
"There is no greater harm than that of time wasted.” – Michelangelo
"Faith in oneself is the best and safest course.” – Michelangelo
"Genius is eternal patience.” – Michelangelo
"Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” – Michelangelo
Art That Changed the World: Transformative Art Movements and the Paintings That Inspired Them by D.K. Publishing
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