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Michelangelo - The Creation of Adam

by Frauke Maria Petry

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums, a fresco by Michelangelo spreads out like a canopy of Old Testament stories. Struck by the pictorial power in 520 m2 and the approximately 300 pictorial figures, pushed by the tourist streams and shouts of the attendants: "Go on, no Flash," the eye searches for support and finds rest at exactly one familiar pictorial event: "The Creation of Adam."

The 280 x 570 cm ceiling fresco shows a naked man lying on a green ledge. His right arm supports his upper body, his left leg is up. His gaze follows the left outstretched arm with forefinger advanced. A gray-haired, bearded man in a pink robe hovers opposite him. With his stretched out body he leans to the young man and stretches out likewise his right hand. The older person is held and supported by several naked putti. A female figure is under the left arm of the carried man. Almost all the gazes are directed at the young man. The group is surrounded by a fluttering, dark pink cloth. A delicate turquoise ribbon flutters under the group of people, parallel to the legs. The main figures depicted are, as the title reveals, Adam and God. If the prohibition of images was still taken seriously in the Middle Ages, then since the Renaissance - as here - God the Father is still embodied. The recourse to antiquity is evident in the choice of the type of the ancient philosopher. 

Michelangelo worked on the nine-part ceiling fresco from 1508 to 1512 when, at the age of just 33, he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For the "buon fresco" technique, in which the paint is applied to the plaster while it is still wet, the trained sculptor commissioned a group of specialized assistants who worked under his strict instructions. The master built his own wooden structure, which did not disturb the religious and ritual processes in the chapel and provided the craftsmen with a stable platform 18 to 20 meters above the ground by resting on the projecting beams.

According to the Bible, God created man from the soil of the field and blew into his nose the breath of life. The fourth scene of the Genesis cycle, which Michelangelo Buonarotti made in 1510/11, appears to be from shortly after the creation of man. In Michelangelo's depiction, the Creator brings the inert Adam much more to life with his powerfully extended finger; transmitting his energy with his hand, so to speak. The overall image is structured by several diagonals from the upper right corner to the lower left. The resulting dynamic is "disturbed" only by the scene in the center of the picture: The outstretched arms in horizontals break the composition , in the center of which are the hands of the figures in the picture. While Adam rests his hand loosely on his bent leg, the posture of God's hand reveals that the Creator extends his index finger with more effort. The fingers of the protagonists are incredibly close, yet there is no touch. This physical and conceptual gap is essential for the interpretation of the pictorial event.

Giorgio Vasari wrote 60 years after the fresco was completed, "A figure that in its beauty, its posture, and its outlines appears as if it had been created by the first and supreme Creator Himself, but not by the brush and after the drawing of a mortal man." Far be it from the devout Michelangelo to place himself or man on the same level as the Almighty. Thus, the fingers of the figures do not touch - as tiny as the gap appears is the difference between man and his creator. Some researchers also assume that the shawl cloud, in which God is located, corresponds in shape and colors to the human brain or to a womb. The bluish scarf would be accordingly a freshly cut umbilical cord. The woman behind God is seen by some art historians as a prefiguration of Eve, who according to the Bible is subsequently formed from the rib of Adam. It is speculated that the ellipse formed by God and the angels symbolize the cosmic egg as a perfectly formed oval. This is contrasted with the incomplete oval of Adam.

Whether Michelangelo actually intended this symbolism remains unresolved. The masterfulness of the work is consolidated in art history by many interpretations. What remains undisputed is that the anatomical representation of the Adam makes the work a key work of the Renaissance. The athletic figure, which depicts the human body in harmony, corresponds to idealized beauty. The moment of tension of the hands becomes a "pars pro toto" in the following centuries and a cut-out reproduced en masse. "The Creation of Adam" by Michelangelo is probably the most famous fresco in the world.

Michelangelo - The Creation of Adam

Fresco, 1510/11, 280 x 570 cm, Sistine Chapel in the Vatican


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