The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Creation of Adam, c.1512, Fresco, 2.8 x 5.7 m, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican State, incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

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Animating Adam

Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

To stand at the entrance to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel (from where the figures in the ceiling appear upright) is to see a breath-taking visual scheme in which historical personae—biblical and pagan—are presented as preparing for Christ. Thus, with High Renaissance exuberance, this chapel in the papal Apostolic Palace brings the story of salvation to life.

At six metres long, the famous fresco of the creation of Adam does not seem large in the context of the greater scheme, which displays 300-or-so figures spread over approximately 500 square metres. It takes its place within a series of nine panels about creation in Genesis, beginning with God’s separation of light from darkness. A languid, expectant, and youthful Adam face to face with God (and contrasted with a drunken, disgraced, elderly Noah later in the sequence) is one of three panels about Eden and the Fall.

Comparison between the figures of God and Adam is invited by this scene, for which Michelangelo had recent models (e.g. Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello, Jacopo della Quercia). The creator, wise in old age with focused intent, is clothed and in flight, surrounded by angels (possibly including Eve) in a billowing red cloak. Adam, with the muscularity of a classical statue, and full of innocence and potential, is passive, earthbound, naked, alone—but the creature is attentive to his fatherly creator. This optimistic portrayal of the Imago Dei offers no stark or demeaning contrast but an intimate asymmetry that signals God’s desire to help a yearning humanity: ‘a whole history of the world in brief’ (De Tolnay 1945: 2.35).

God’s approach and arrival presages Adam’s animation: the impartation of a blessed life and consecrated purpose. In this fine example of disegno (Italian for ‘design’: the capacity for divine-like artistry and intellectual imagination), two index fingers—just about to touch due to God’s momentum—have linear flow and exquisite poignancy. Ascanio Condivi, an early biographer and friend of Michelangelo stated: ‘with His hand God is seen as giving Adam the precepts for what he should do and not do’ (King 2002: 229). Among the most parodied of all artworks, this energetic encounter of dynamic precision and tenderness calls upon the viewer—in imitation of Michelangelo’s reimagining of Genesis—to a freshly-discovered sense of self and destiny.



De Tolnay, Charles. 1945. The Art and Thought of Michelangelo, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

King, Ross. 2002. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (London: Chatto and Windus)

Wind, Edgar. 2000. The Religious Symbolism of Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel, ed. by Elizabeth Sears (Oxford: OUP)

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