Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling illustrates the biblical creation narrative from the book of Genesis in which God breathes life into Adam, the first man. Characteristic of Michelangelo’s attributes as a colourist the artwork uses cool greens and blues for the earth and a cool red for God and heaven. Lounging on earth on the left side is Adam’s concave body with his arm extended. God reciprocates this gesture from above on the right side with his arm reaching out and his finger about to touch Adam’s. God is depicted with a powerful muscular body and with the grey hair of an elderly man. God’s convex posture complements that of Adam as he floats in a nebulous form of drapery and figures. The accuracy of the muscles on both figures gives the appearance of sculpture. The different colours and the level of earth compared to sky/heaven establish the contrast between human and transcendent. Similarly Adams nakedness and god’s clothed physique separate the normal from supernatural.
The fresco belongs to a complex iconographic scheme and is chronologically placed amid a series of panels depicting episodes from Genesis on the chapel ceiling. It is bookended by ‘The Creation of Eve’ at the centre of the room and by ‘The Congregation of the Waters’ which is closer to the altar. An interesting set of circumstances led to the commission of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Pope Julius II. In 1508 the Pope was persuaded by the artistic community of Rome (including artists like Raphael) to commission Michelangelo. This was an attempt to degrade the artist as they knew he was a sculptor and wasn’t trained in painting and would probably fail. They felt threatened by his fame at such a young age and hoped to embarrass and cause his downfall.
Michelangelo’s ability to depict physical accuracy is due to his analysis and study of human anatomy. He studied the organs of the human body by sketching and measuring parts of dissected human corpses. Before he picked up the paint brush he would also make several drawing studies of his subject using human models in his studio (all of which were male.). These drawings were primarily done in chalk and allowed him to experiment with tone, shapes and placement of light sources. When he painted the Sistine Chapel Ceiling he had to design his own wooden scaffolding in order to get close enough to paint. His environment was physically draining as he worked in cramped conditions and painted in a standing position with his head tilted up. He applied paint to moist plaster in the fresco style which meant the plaster would absorb and trap the colours when dried. Every day he laid a new section of plaster and would scrape away the edges of the previous day. Typically fresco artists would transfer a drawing to the plaster as an outline, however Michelangelo broke this convention as he drew directly onto the ceiling. In some areas of the ceiling he used grids, indicating that he enlarged directly onto the ceiling from a small drawing. He used a wash technique to apply broad areas of colour, when drier he revisited these areas with a more linear approach, adding shade and detail. For some textured surfaces, such as facial hair and wood grain, he used a broad bristly brush.
The placement of the figures of God and Adam delineate the power distribution and status as God is more powerful due to his superior position above Adam. God faces down to Adam and extends his arm out to him symbolising his status as the ‘giver’ of life and knowledge. In response Adam is vulnerable as he isn’t clothed and his posture is weak and reliant on God. Adam’s nudity also resonates with the belief that God is all knowing as Adam has nothing to hide behind but is fully exposed. The near touch of God’s finger to Adams depicts the moment before god imparts the spark of life and knowledge to mankind. The arrangement of the arms and hands symbolises the belief that man is created in the image and likeness of God as the outstretched arm of Adam mirrors that of God. The female protected behind God’s arm gazes at Adam and perhaps foreshadows the coming of Eve who hasn’t been created yet. Similarly the other figures may also be waiting to be created and put on earth.
The drapery behind God resembles a human brain in shape. Connotations of this would suggest that God is the Supreme Being with ultimate intelligence. The potential brain shape may also suggest the notion that God is like a brain as we know of him and can think about him but cannot see or touch him, unlike Adam on earth who is flesh and blood. Similarly the shape can be viewed as a human uterus and the scarf hanging out as a newly cut umbilical cord. This hypothetical idea presents the creation scene as an idealised representation of the physical birth of man. Michelangelo was greatly influenced by art from the ‘classical’ era of the ancient Greeks who put emphasis on human form and proportion. Echoing this, Michelangelo uses anatomically accurate proportions to establish the ideal body and depict Gods creations as being perfect through Adam’s physique. Through Adam Michelangelo communicates the idea that the human body is a symbol of perfection. The nature of Michelangelo’s depiction of ‘The Creation of Adam’ also alludes to Greek myths as God may resemble Zeus and Adam may be an appropriation of Apollo, the son of Zeus.
‘The Creation of Adam’ conveys the drama of the narrative of Genesis through visually stimulating shapes that unravel a scenario. Michelangelo captures the paramount moment by showing the energy of God and Adam a few seconds before they make contact. The swirling motion of the drapery and the entwined limbs and bodies of the figures behind god are all frozen in time yet radiate life and energy. The work evokes awe, admiration and a form of fear via anticipation within the audience. It places the audience in an instance bigger then themselves as they witness a monumental moment. This causes the audience to feel insignificant as they have no control of the situation presented to them but can only witness it from the sidelines.
"Good painting is nothing else but a copy of the perfections of God and a reminder of His painting. Finally, good painting is a music and a melody which intellect only can appreciate, and with great difficulty." Michelangelo