Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam

Jessica Lobo
London, Ontario, Canada

 

Michelangelo, taken from a drawing in
“The Index Guide to Travel and Art-Study in Europe”
Lafayette Loomis, 1882.

Michelangelo painted some of his most famous work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, covering it with the world’s most beautiful frescoes, of which The Creation of Adam is the most iconic.1 He worked during the Italian Renaissance, and this was a time when “the personality of the Western artist became a conspicuous component of his artwork,” and an emphasis on human agency allowed an artist to experiment with the way his or her personality could be represented.2 Originally, Pope Julius II requested that Michelangelo represent the Twelve Apostles on the ceiling, but Michelangelo was not intimidated by this demand.3 In the end, he was given the freedom to choose the subject matter.4 This enabled him to “conjure original works of art from the fathoms of his own imagination, unfettered by the demands of the marketplace or patron.”5 It also allowed him to represent who he was in his work, and in The Creation of Adam we are able to discern his identities as a sculptor and an anatomist.

Although paintings make-up the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo did not consider himself a painter, but rather a sculptor. On the day he started his work on the frescoes, he still referred to himself as a sculptor: “[o]n this day, May 10, 1508, I Michelangelo, sculptor, have received on account from our Holy Lord Pope Julius II five-hundred papal ducats toward the painting of the ceiling of the papal Sistine Chapel, on which I am beginning to work today.”6 At that point, he had next to no experience painting, and, according to Ross King, he had “hardly touched a painting brush.”7 Even while he was painting the Sistine ceiling frescoes, sculpting was where his expertise lay. Painting the frescoes were “difficult times” for him as he was constantly frustrated and felt he was not doing a good job—he felt like he was creating “dead paintings.”8 He was far more comfortable sculpting and, as proven by his renown David, he was exceptionally good at it.9

The techniques he picked up as a sculptor most likely contributed to the outstanding realism and beauty of Adam and God, his figures of God and Adam being emblematic of Renaissance paintings as they reflect the idealist-realist ideology of the time. The figures appear real, or three-dimensional, even though they are on a two-dimensional surface. The viewer truly sees God how Michelangelo believed He would have looked giving life to Adam as it is “sensed in every muscle, gesture, and glance.”10 If he were able to construct the ideal and real male figure of David in stone, then it is likely he could use that knowledge to also paint the perfect male body. Michelangelo himself said that “the nearer a painting approaches sculpture, the better it is.”11

Like many other Renaissance artists, Michelangelo was a practiced anatomist; for in his time art and anatomy shared a close relationship. As the Renaissance went back to its Classical roots and revitalized a passion for life sciences, this passion bled through in all aspects of society, including art: “[it] was a period of extensive scientific and cultural production.”12 It was “a time when those most interested in human anatomy were . . . artists,” and Michelangelo was one of them.13 As a young man he had spent much of his time dissecting cadavers, and had developed a strong understanding and vivid image of human anatomy.14

Not only did his sculpting skills help him with the perfect aestheticism of Adam and God, but his work as an anatomist played a part as well. Michelangelo’s vast experience with human anatomy is confirmed through “the perfection with which the human figure is represented in his works.”15 This “perfection” is apparent in The Creation of Adam: “[t]he perfection of Adam’s face and body are largely determined by . . . the knowledge Michelangelo gained from anatomical dissections.”16 Moreover, there is such a thing as a divine proportion or a golden ratio that provide “greater structural efficiency” and beauty when used in art.17 Through his work with anatomy, Michelangelo had most likely become aware of this golden ratio, found in biological structures such as the human body.18 This golden ratio, whether intentionally or not, is present in The Creation of Adam adding to the balance and harmony of the work.19

Michelangelo’s extensive knowledge of anatomy may serve as evidence for hidden symbols he may have purposely included in The Creation of Adam. There is debate over whether his frescoes reflect only the teachings of the Bible and the Catholic Church.20 The Creation of Adam has been analyzed through other lenses since some of the religious motifs in the painting connote non-religious ideas.21 The question is whether or not Michelangelo did this intentionally. His experience with anatomy makes it likely that these hidden meanings were intentional.22 For instance, the purple tapestry that surrounds God in the painting when seen through a religious lens is an ellipse, a plume of celestial material that can further connote “angelic spirits.”23 However, the shape of the purple tapestry resembles the shape of a human brain, and this image is known as “the concept of the ‘Brain-God.’”24, 25 Through his dissections, Michelangelo most likely knew the shape of the brain, and the symbolic reasoning for surrounding God in the brain is to represent human intellect—the life, that God breathed into Adam in order to create him.26 Adam is already alive in the painting as his eyes are open, but his “facial expression is bland and he raises his hand in a listless manner.”27, 28 Adam is alive, but he is not yet able to live. This can mean that the divine gift humanity received from God that day was not life, but intellect.29 Michelangelo is representing “the nature of the divine gift that makes [someone] truly human,” and his belief is that this divine gift is the human brain, an idea he may have gotten from dissecting cadavers.30

Thus Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam represents not only a scene from the Bible, but also aspects of Michelangelo’s life. The Renaissance allowed artists to show themselves in their art and, with the permission of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo was given freedom to paint as he pleased. Therefore, he was able to depict his own life and personality in the fresco. His experience as a sculptor added to the phenomenal aestheticism of the figures of Adam and God. His experience as an anatomist added not only to the realism of Adam and God, but also may have been the source for hidden symbols in the painting. Historians are uncertain as to whether these hidden symbols were intentional, but his work with anatomy and his knowledge of the shape of the human brain makes it likely that this was so. In any case, it was Michelangelo’s background in sculpture and anatomy that gave him the ability to achieve the incredible realism attained in The Creation of Adam.

“Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo. Circa 1511.

Endnotes

  1. Michael Salcman. “The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).” Neurosurgery 59, no. 6 (2006): 11.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ross King. Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling. (London: Walker Publishing Company Inc, 2003). 62.
  4. Maria Rzepinska. “The Divine Wisdom of Michelangelo in ‘The Creation of Adam’.” Artibus et Historiae 15, no. 29 (1994): 185.
  5. Ross King. Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling. (London: Walker Publishing Company Inc, 2003). 58.
  6. Ibid., 45.
  7. Ibid., 23.
  8. Lisa Ann Heard. “Spiritual and natural light in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.” Ph. D. diss. 9.
  9. Peter D’Epiro. Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World. (New York City: Anchor, 2001). 192.
  10. Lisa Ann Heard. “Spiritual and natural light in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.” Ph. D. diss. 21.
  11. Peter D’Epiro. Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World. (New York City: Anchor, 2001). 194.
  12. Deivis De Campos, Tais Malysz, João Antonio Bonatto‐Costa, Geraldo Pereira Jotz, Lino Pinto de Oliveira Junior and Andrea Oxley da Rocha. “More than a neuroanatomical representation in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, a representation of the Golden Ratio.” Clinical Anatomy 28, no. 6 (2015): 703.
  13. Stefano Di Bella, Fabrizio Taglietti, Andrea Lacobuzio, Emma Johnson, Andrea Baiocchini, and Nicola Petrosillo. “The ‘Delivery of Adam” A Medical Interpretation of Michelangelo.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 90, no. 4 (2015): 508.
  14. Deivis De Campos, Tais Malysz, João Antonio Bonatto‐Costa, Geraldo Pereira Jotz, Lino Pinto de Oliveira Junior and Andrea Oxley da Rocha. “More than a neuroanatomical representation in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, a representation of the Golden Ratio.” Clinical Anatomy 28, no. 6 (2015): 702.
  15. Ibid., 703.
  16. Michael Salcman. “The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).” Neurosurgery 59, no. 6 (2006): 12.
  17. Deivis De Campos, Tais Malysz, João Antonio Bonatto‐Costa, Geraldo Pereira Jotz, Lino Pinto de Oliveira Junior and Andrea Oxley da Rocha. “More than a neuroanatomical representation in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, a representation of the Golden Ratio.” Clinical Anatomy 28, no. 6 (2015): 702.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 703.
  20. Ibid., 702.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Michael Salcman. “The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).” Neurosurgery 59, no. 6 (2006): 11.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Deivis De Campos, Tais Malysz, João Antonio Bonatto‐Costa, Geraldo Pereira Jotz, Lino Pinto de Oliveira Junior and Andrea Oxley da Rocha. “More than a neuroanatomical representation in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, a representation of the Golden Ratio.” Clinical Anatomy 28, no. 6 (2015): 703.
  25. Stefano Di Bella, Fabrizio Taglietti, Andrea Lacobuzio, Emma Johnson, Andrea Baiocchini, and Nicola Petrosillo. “The ‘Delivery of Adam” A Medical Interpretation of Michelangelo.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 90, no. 4 (2015): 505.
  26. Michael Salcman. “The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).” Neurosurgery 59, no. 6 (2006): 12.
  27. Deivis De Campos, Tais Malysz, João Antonio Bonatto‐Costa, Geraldo Pereira Jotz, Lino Pinto de Oliveira Junior and Andrea Oxley da Rocha. “More than a neuroanatomical representation in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, a representation of the Golden Ratio.” Clinical Anatomy 28, no. 6 (2015): 703.
  28. Michael Salcman. “The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).” Neurosurgery 59, no. 6 (2006): 12.
  29. Deivis De Campos, Tais Malysz, João Antonio Bonatto‐Costa, Geraldo Pereira Jotz, Lino Pinto de Oliveira Junior and Andrea Oxley da Rocha. “More than a neuroanatomical representation in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, a representation of the Golden Ratio.” Clinical Anatomy 28, no. 6 (2015): 703.
  30. Michael Salcman. “The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).” Neurosurgery 59, no. 6 (2006): 12.

 

Bibliography

  1. Barolsky, Paul. “The Genius of Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ and the Blindness of Art History.” Notes in the History of Art 22, no.1 (2013): 21-24.
  2. Barolsky, Paul. “The Imperfection of Michelangelo’s Adam.” Notes in the History of Art 20, no. 4 (2001): 6-8.
  3. De Campos, Deivis, Tais Malysz, João Antonio Bonatto‐Costa, Geraldo Pereira Jotz, Lino Pinto de Oliveira Junior and Andrea Oxley da Rocha. “More than a neuroanatomical representation in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, a representation of the Golden Ratio.” Clinical Anatomy 28, no. 6 (2015): 702-705.
  4. D’Epiro, Peter. Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World. Anchor: New York City, 2001.
  5. Di Bella, Stefano, Fabrizio Taglietti, Andrea Lacobuzio, Emma Johnson, Andrea Baiocchini, and Nicola Petrosillo. “The ‘Delivery of Adam” A Medical Interpretation of Michelangelo.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 90, no. 4 (2015): 505-508.
  6. Heard, Lisa Ann. “Spiritual and natural light in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.” Ph. D. diss. 1996.
  7. King, Ross. Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling. Walker Publishing Company Inc.: London. 2003.
  8. Rzepinska, Maria. “The Divine Wisdom of Michelangelo in ‘The Creation of Adam’.” Artibus et Historiae 15, no. 29 (1994): 181-187.
  9. Salcman, Michael. “The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).” Neurosurgery 59, no. 6 (2006): 11-12.

 


 

JESSICA LOBO is a Canadian writer with an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario in Media, Information & Technoculture. Although she already has a fictional short story on Amazon, “The Survival of Happiness,” she aspires to write on issues concerning international relations and human rights after graduate school.

 

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 11, Issue 2– Spring 2019

Winter 2019   |  Sections  |  Art Essays