Forming the Human
Commentary by Amanda Mbuvi
Brazilian artist Vik Muniz is known for using ‘unlikely material’ in his work, and for the way in which that material reflects his reflection on the subjects of his work.
He recreates Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco from the Sistine ceiling in a pair of photographs that set the famous scene on what looks like the concrete floor of a workshop. Doll parts, miniature furniture, and other small objects constitute the space around them. They show signs of wear but are available for repurposing, reminiscent of the line of interpretation (advanced by commentators such as Rashi as well as contemporary scholars; e.g. Rogerson 2004: 56–7) that reads in Genesis a creation which makes use of pre-existing materials (as opposed to a creatio ex nihilo).
Among these assembled objects, God and Adam seem larger than life. They also seem less vivid than their surroundings, comparatively devoid of depth and colour. In this way, the figures and the backdrop compete for attention, each drawing the viewer’s eye in different ways.
While Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam occupies a ceiling, Muniz’s work brings it down to earth. The photographs foreground the artisanal aspect of creation that Michelangelo’s work downplays. Although God and Adam still do not touch, their setting amidst a collection of objects presents a view of creation that finds transcendence within physicality rather than beyond it, and that celebrates the power of transformation.
This re-presentation of Michelangelo’s celebrated composition draws attention to the way in which his artwork not only depicts God creating a human, but also constitutes a seminal example of a human creating God. It invites reflection on notions of what it means to be human, on what making an image of God might require of a visual artist (whether in Michelangelo’s time or in our own), and on the relationships between images of God and the settings in which people encounter them.
Waste Land. 2011. Directed by Lucy Walker, with João Jardim & Karen Harley http://www.wastelandmovie.com/ [accessed 20 April 2022]
Rogerson, John. 2004. Genesis 1–11: T&T Clark Study Guides (New York: T&T Clark)
Christ Gives Adam The Divine Spark
Commentary by Amanda Mbuvi
The Creation of Man, a mosaic from the abbey church at Monreale, situates that story firmly within Christian tradition. This image is just one of the forty-two mosaics in the nave of the church devoted to the book of Genesis. In its original historical context, it served as an instrument of religious instruction for an audience unable to read the Bible, but familiar with biblical stories and steeped in the symbolic lexicon deployed by this and other images.
In reflecting light, the golden tesserae of the mosaic background have a symbolic role, representing the divine light of the presence of God. Christ, the Divine Word, appears as the agent of creation. In keeping with other depictions, he extends his right hand in a gesture of blessing while holding in his left hand a book that other mosaics in the series identify as a Gospel. In keeping with the sixth day of creation as described in Genesis 1, the image also features a cluster of land animals. The mosaic’s interpretation of creation is notable for its inclusion of a unicorn.
Although the mosaic includes an inscription from the Latin ‘Vulgate’ translation of Genesis 1:27, it also includes elements of Genesis 2:4–8. The ray of light connecting Christ and Adam evokes an episode from Genesis 2: what has been called the animation of Adam. In Genesis, God breathes into Adam’s nostrils. The mosaic resists the intimacy conveyed in the text, which suggests close bodily(?) contact. Instead, it places Christ and Adam at a distance from one another.
The coronavirus pandemic of the early 2020s has given such a depiction new resonance, as the act of maintaining physical distance from another person becomes an expression of connection.
Benton, Janetta Rebold. 2009. Materials, Methods, and Masterpieces of Medieval Art (Santa Barbara: Praeger)
Borsook, Eve. 1990. Messages in Mosaic: The Royal Programmes of Norman Sicily, 1130–1187 (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
Who Is Like God?
Commentary by Amanda Mbuvi
In her painting The Creation of God, Afro-Cuban American artist Harmonia Rosales revisits Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco. The title of Rosales’s painting highlights its intentionally disruptive entry into conversation with Michelangelo’s iconic work and subsequent works that it has inspired. The Creation of God evokes The Creation of Adam by employing a similar composition, but it casts Black women in the central roles.
The Creation of Adam follows conventions of its time and place in depicting God as a white male. The image’s subsequent ubiquity through its constant reproduction and dissemination has functioned to cement the ‘authority’ of its representation of God. This authority can seem as weighty as that of the biblical text itself, and readers may now have difficulty imagining God in other ways. The title of Rosales’s work points to this dynamic: Michelangelo’s work not only depicts the creation of the first human, but also helps to nurture a particular understanding of God, and, correspondingly, of human value and worth. By disrupting the expectations engendered by the earlier fresco, The Creation of God calls attention to the work’s status as an interpretive choice rather than as simply the way things are.
The figures in The Creation of God have short, natural Black hair. Like Adam in Michelangelo’s painting, the human in The Creation of God is without body hair but otherwise in a natural state. Considered within its contemporary context, such a depiction takes on ideological resonance. ‘Beauty culture’ often mandates that Black women discipline their bodies through shapewear and alter their hair so that it more closely resembles the hair of white women. While The Creation of Adam suggests that the divine image belongs most thoroughly to white men, this painting finds divine beauty in Black women apart from their conformity to Eurocentric norms.
Elizabeth, De. 2017. ‘Artist Harmonia Rosales Re-Imagines “The Creation of Adam” with Black Women, 17 May 2017’, www.teenvogue.com, [accessed 20 April 2022]
Mercado, Elsa S. 2018. ‘A Conversation with Artist Harmonia Rosales’, Afro-Hispanic Review 37.2: 152–60, 189
Vik Muniz :
The Creation of Adam, After Michelangelo, 2011 , Two Chromogenic Prints
Unknown Byzantine artist :
The Creation of Adam, 12th–13th century , Mosaic
Harmonia Rosales :
'The Creation of God', 2017 , Oil on canvas ?
Retelling What It Means To Be Human
Comparative commentary by Amanda Mbuvi
Genesis depicts the creation of humanity twice, first in what’s known as the Priestly version in 1:26–28, and once in this passage, known as the Yahwist version. The relationship between the two passages remains a matter of debate: should they be understood as competing accounts from different authors or do they work together in some way? The artworks discussed here contain elements corresponding to both passages, as well as elements not found in either.
The highly stylized Priestly version presents a transcendent God creating through words alone. The Yahwist version takes a different view, depicting God physically engaging with creation. In this passage, for example, God moulds the first human from the dust of the earth and breathes life into its nostrils.
Although many translations use the word ‘man’ in this passage, the Hebrew word (’adam) denotes a human being of unspecified gender. That word will eventually become the personal name of the first male, but that does not necessarily mean that it carries that meaning throughout the passage. It is not clear that this passage depicts the creation of a male. Much depends on how one construes the relationship between this passage and Genesis 1:26–28. While subsequent events in this chapter of Genesis are often interpreted as involving the creation of a female from the rib of a male, Phyllis Trible has famously suggested that the original human was sexually undifferentiated, with male and female coming into existence at the same time through the process of division (Trible 1978: 80). Such a view brings this passage into alignment with Genesis 1:26–28 and its depiction of a simultaneous creation of male and female.
The priority of creation has been interpreted as expressing the superiority of the male, placing androcentrism at the centre of creation as part of the nature of things. The congruence between each artwork’s depiction of the human and its depiction of God points to another significant issue: the question of whether all humans share equally in the dignity of being made in the image of God, or whether some human forms are more normative than others. That question continues to play out in a variety of contemporary practices, such as the reliance of medical trials on male subjects even when focused on health issues that impact only women (Rabin 2014; Simkin 1995).
The Monreale mosaic renders God and Adam as European men who share the same physical form. The works by Vik Muniz and Harmonia Rosales follow Michelangelo in depicting God as older than the human who is about to be animated. The Muniz could be interpreted as reproducing Michelangelo’s racialization as well, or it could be interpreted as de-normalizing that racialization by draining the figures of colour. The Rosales shifts both the race and the gender of the figures, which I interpret in conversation with Genesis as pushing the viewer to see possibilities present in the biblical text that have been foreclosed by what have become conventional interpretations.
All three artworks deemphasize humanity’s relationship to the rest of the natural world. The Hebrew word for a human—’adam—highlights its source material ’adamah, the fertile soil. Genesis 2:4–8 frames the creation of the human from the vantage point of the earth. The passage begins with an observation that the land had not yet produced vegetation because God had not yet sent rain and because there was no human to work the soil. The creation of the human thus arrives as a solution to the land’s need. Although much has been made of the idea of the woman’s creation in response to the man’s need (by those who interpret the creation of humanity in that sequential way), far less attention has been paid to what this passage implies about humanity’s relationship to the earth.
There are lessons to be found in the way that these artworks treat the creation/animation of humanity as an isolated transaction between God and the human, with reference more to other artistic interpretations than to the text of Genesis (e.g., the Muniz and the Rosales both take Michelangelo’s work as a point of departure). That illustrates the extent to which certain interpretations have claimed such authority that they displace the text and neutralize those elements that they don’t include. Those contours of conversation also demonstrate the extent to which, for many people, identity has become divorced from a sense of place in the natural world.
Rabin, Roni Caryn. 2014. ‘Health Researchers Will Get $10.1 Million to Counter Gender Bias in Studies, 23 September 2014’, www.nytimes.com, [accessed 20 April 2022]
Simkin R.J. 1995. ‘Women’s Health: Time for a Redefinition’, Cmaj: Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal De L'association Medicale Canadienne 152.4: 477–79
Trible, Phyllis. 1978. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press)