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)
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.