You may have seen countless imitations and references to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, arguably one of the most talked about religious artworks. When I first laid my eyes on this masterpiece, I was merely a child who did not know how to appreciate art but I could feel that the sight ahead of me was great art – art that has been celebrated for decades. I could feel the excitement in the crowd surrounding me and I could not help staring at the painting despite the constant ache in my neck from straining so much. Now that I am not an enraptured child anymore and am an artist, I can truly appreciate and understand what this artwork means to the world. Made by the Italian artist Michelangelo in c. 1508–1512, this painting forms part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and illustrates the Biblical creation narrative from the Book of Genesis in which God gives life to Adam, the first man. A painting based on an already told religious story – so why was it so crucial to the renaissance period? What hidden messages does it still hold?
Story behind the art
As a child who was brought up in a Hindu household, I did not know the real significance of the images Michelangelo painted on the ceiling. All I knew was that I wanted to lie down on the floor and keep staring at the painting. The story behind this painting is an interesting one. In 1505, Michelangelo was invited back to Rome by the newly elected Pope Julius II and he was commissioned to build the Pope’s tomb, which was to include forty statues and be finished in five years. Although Michelangelo worked on the tomb for 40 years, it was never finished to his satisfaction and during the same period, he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which took around four years to complete. What many people do not know is that Michelangelo was originally commissioned to paint the Twelve Apostles on the triangular pendentives that supported the ceiling. But the artist persuaded Pope Julius to give him a free hand and proposed a different and more complex scheme, representing the Creation, the Fall of Man, the Promise of Salvation through the prophets, and the genealogy of Christ. It is a good thing that the Pope agreed or else the art world would not have had the chance to marvel at the glory of Michelangelo’s artwork.
Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam
By now the entire world of art lovers knows what the painting represents. It depicts the excerpt “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him” (Gen. 1:27)”. Although some say Michelangelo was inspired by a medical hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus”, which asks the ‘finger of the paternal right hand’ (digitus paternae dexterae) to give the faithful speech. God is shown as an elderly white-bearded man wrapped in a swirling cloak and Adam is completely naked. God’s right arm is outstretched to impart the spark of life from his finger into that of Adam, whose left arm is extended in a pose mirroring God’s, a reminder that man is created in the image and likeness of God.
Just like any other famous piece of art, this too was analysed over the years for any hidden meanings and symbolism. Apart from Michelangelo’s evident expertise in human anatomy (the statue of David is another example), several hypotheses emerged regarding the portrayal of the human brain in the painting. In 1990 in Anderson, Indiana, physician Frank Meshberger noted that the background figures and shapes portrayed behind the figure of God appeared to be an anatomically accurate picture of the human brain. For those who do not understand the anatomy of a brain: the borders in the painting correlate with the major sulci of the cerebrum in the inner and outer surface of the brain, the brain stem, the frontal lobe, the basilar artery, the pituitary gland, and optic chiasm. The biology-related hypothesis does not just end at the brain. Some say that the red cloth around God has the shape of the human uterus and the green scarf hanging out could be a newly cut umbilical cord. Another theory related to the painting is that the left side of Adam’s torse contains an extra concealed rib. This rib is said to represent the rib of Eve and Michelangelo wanted to represent Adam and Eve being created side by side, which differs from the Catholic tradition that states Eve was created after Adam.
Apart from the interpretations of human anatomy, historians have grappled with the identity of the twelve figures around God. One of the widely accepted theories is that the person protected by God’s left arm represents Eve, due to the figure’s feminine appearance and gaze towards Adam and the eleven other figures symbolically represent the souls of Adam and Eve’s unborn progeny, the entire human race. Some also say the figure behind God is the Virgin Mary, Sophia, the personified human soul, or “an angel of masculine build”.
Even though I was not so familiar with the biblical terms when I first saw the Creation of Adam, I was well aware that it is an iconic work of religious art and a key work of the Renaissance in Rome. Michelangelo was principally a sculptor who did not know enough about painting using fresco. Despite that, he created this artwork which remains a quintessential expression of Renaissance art and one of the finest Renaissance paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries simply because of the outstanding realism and beauty of Adam and God. His figures of God and Adam are emblematic of Renaissance paintings as they reflect the idealist-realist ideology of the time.
Next Up in Behind the Art: Is Oslo’s Van Gogh Self-Portrait the most disturbing portrait of all time? Why did Van Gogh paint so many self-portraits?