The Genesis Cycle, First Triad:– Andrew Graham-DixonSeptember 27, 2012
The Separation of Light and Darkness
Michelangelo begins at the beginning, with a depiction of The Separation of Light and Darkness. He shows the Almighty God of the Old Testament as a heroic male figure with grey beard and hair, dressed in lilac robes that swirl about him, twisting upwards through the heavens to separate light from darkness. He embodies male strength but also the fecundity of the female principle, in that Michelangelo has given him pectoral muscles nearly as rounded as a woman’s breasts. The figure rises into space amid rays of light. The picture is at once the sparest and the most austere of the ceiling’s scenes of Creation.
The subject is drawn from the Book of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Genesis 1: 1-5
There was no precedent in earlier Christian art for Michelangelo’s dynamic airborne deity swooping through an implied infinity of space. The artists of the Byzantine and medieval traditions had expressed their own sense of the ineffable mystery of God the Creator by removing the scenes so elliptically described at the start of Genesis to a pictorial world of abstract geometrical perfection.
The Italo-Byzantine craftsmen who had created the thirteenth-century mosaics of the dome of the Baptistry in Florence — a famous and much venerated building at the heart of the town where Michelangelo spent his formative years — had represented the God of the Creation scenes as a solemn, hieratic figure floating on a ground of gold, enclosed by the celestial spheres, making a stiff gesture of benediction.
The artists of the early Renaissance had humanized God the Father, to the extent that he could appear in Masaccio’s celebrated fresco of The Trinity, of the 1420s, in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, as a doughty ancient with a forbiddingly solemn expression on his face. But Michelangelo energized this still recently anthropomorphized figure in a way that was both new and revolutionary.
His reinvention of the all-creating deity as a figure flying through space under the unseen impulse of divine will, was to prove enormously influential. Artists of the High Renaissance such as Raphael, followed by the painters of the Baroque and Rococo periods, would follow Michelangelo in embodying God as a being with human form endowed with a superhuman, cosmic thrust and energy.
Romantic painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would impart something, of his twisting, irrepressible force to the Promethean heroes of their own disenchanted mythologies. Michelangelo’s influence can even be discerned in the popular art of the twentieth century. Inventors of the American superhero comic-strip adapted his style to their own ends. The character of Superman has his origins, as a graphic creation, in the airborne God who flies majestically across the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Although The Separation of Light and Darkness is the first of the nine narrative scenes from the Book of Genesis, Michelangelo painted it last of all, along with the other two scenes of primal creation. Having gradually worked his way along the ceiling, starting at the chapel’s entrance with the painted histories of fallen humanity, he finished above the altar with images of the all-powerful God. So while the momentum of his narrative moves, as in the Old Testament, from the acts of God to the life of man, Michelangelo actually painted that narrative in reverse order.
There could have been purely practical reasons for this, but the artist’s piety may also have played a part. Michelangelo must have known that, as he proceeded with the project, he would become more technically accomplished in the medium of fresco. Perhaps he wanted to be at his best when painting the scenes that involved God alone.
To create the image of the deity reaching up to separate light from darkness, night from day, Michelangelo used the difficult technique known as sotto in su. The figure is seen, from beneath, as though soaring up and away from the viewer. Practical methods had been devised by earlier generations of artists for accomplishing this particular type of illusion. The architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, in his treatise . on painting of the 1430s, had described a perspective `veil’ — a grid of threads strung on a wooden frame, through which a painter might study a subject seen at an extreme angle of foreshortening, transcribing each element of what he saw on to the corresponding sections of a squared-up piece of paper.
If Michelangelo used a device of that kind, he did not do so slavishly. Such was his self-assurance that he departed in many details from the carefully calculated sketch for this scene produced in his workshop, to help him realize this difficult perspectival illusion. The outlines of that sketch were incised into the wet plaster before Michelangelo began work, so the evidence still survives of just how freely he improvised from it. Minute study of the picture’s surface during conservation has revealed that the artist changed the angle and position of both of God’s hands and arms, and even shifted the entire figure so as to set it more firmly on a diagonal — increasing its torsion and intensifying the sense of God’s upwardly spiraling energy.
The difficulty of making off-the-cuff changes to such a challenging composition should not be underestimated. It is a tribute to Michelangelo’s exceptional ability to think three-dimensionally, even when working in two dimensions, that he managed to carry it off. It is as if, in painting The Separation of Light and Darkness, he conceived the rectangular panel to be painted not as a flat surface but as a block of stone extending upwards through the vault of the ceiling. Into that block, he imagined himself carving the figure of God, painting a form he could almost feel with his hands.
God’s act of creation is simultaneously an act of division. He reaches into the air as though separating bright swirls of lightly tinted steam from a mass of heavy grey storm clouds. Michelangelo, as well as the more theologically learned among his audience, may have associated the separation of light from darkness with ideas about the Creation expressed by the venerable Saint Augustine (354-430).
In The City of God, the influence of which had been all-pervasive in medieval Christendom, Augustine had compared God’s separation of day from night to his division of the angels into two communities, the good and the bad. A number of traditions told of the rebel angels rising against God, under the leadership of Lucifer, and being cast down into darkness by the host of good angels, led by the Archangel Michael. Augustine explicitly identified the good angels with heaven and the light that God called `Day’ in Genesis is 1:1 and 1: 3-5. The all-creating God is also God the judge. Just as, in the beginning, he divided dark from light, good from evil, so on the last day will he divide mankind into the saved and the damned.
There are numerous stories of Julius’s growing impatience with the length of time it took to finish the ceiling. On one occasion, he is even said to have struck Michelangelo in a fit of frustrated rage. The pope’s importunity may explain the great speed with which the artist finished the scenes of the Creation. Not only were they among the last to be completed, they were by some distance the most rapidly painted. Analysis of its surface has revealed that The Separation of Light and Darkness was painted in a single giornata — just one working day of about eight hours, a period determined by the rapid drying-time of the wet plaster into which the painter of true fresco is obliged to work his images. The artist worked quickly and instinctively, using particularly dilute pigment so that in places the figure of God seems as though dissolving into — or condensing out of — the circumambient air.
As a measure of the painter’s acceleration, the time taken three years earlier to paint The Deluge, at the other end of the chapel, had been no fewer than twenty-nine separate giornate. Admittedly, the subjects are hardly comparable, in that The Deluge occupies a larger area of ceiling and contains many different figures, all of whom had to be depicted in some detail for the story to make its impact. The broad, summary style in which Michelangelo painted the soaring figure of God was well adapted to the contrasting grandeur of the opening of Genesis — a metaphor, itself, for the sweeping, flowing, creative powers of divinity.
The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants
Michelangelo also worked with great rapidity on the second of the three scenes of primal Creation. This was a larger and more complicated composition than The Separation of Light and Darkness, but one that still took him only seven giornate to complete. Its subject is The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants. This time the figure of God appears twice, to indicate that two different moments in the narrative have been telescoped together.
To the right, frowning with concentration, he divides the heavens with a sweeping gesture of his arms, creating both sun and moon. The wingless angels in his broad cape express a mixture of admiration and awe, bordering on terror. This part of the composition is drawn from Genesis 1: 14-18: `And God said let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night … And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night…’
To the left he is seen from behind. Here, the contours and delicate coloring of God’s lilac robe give it the look of a conch shell flying unexpectedly through the sky. He is shown in the act of bringing forth vegetation from the hitherto barren earth, in the form of a few wisps of grass and fronds of fern, silhouetted against the white air. Michelangelo’s source here was Genesis 1: 11: `And God said let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself…’
There is a pointed lack of emphasis on the actual creation of the earth, a part of the story that the artist has not quite left out but has certainly abbreviated to a bare minimum. It is implied, so to speak, as something that must necessarily have happened, in the gesture with which the receding figure of God calls forth the grasses and other plants. But even that gesture is given relatively little prominence, enacted as it is by a Creator whose mighty back — and even mightier posterior — is turned to the spectator. Far greater prominence is given to the formation of the sun and moon. Both were drawn with the aid of a compass — the imprint made by its point is still minutely visible in the centre of each sphere — and colored in flat thin layers of golden yellow and silvery grey. Michelangelo has contrived matters so that his entire composition revolves around sun and moon and the divine gesture that links them.
According to an ancient tradition going back at least as far as to the writings of the fourth-century St Ambrose, the sun was held to be a mystic symbol of Christ, while the moon, reflecting back the sun’s radiance, was equated with the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ and embodiment of the Church. In creating the sun and moon, therefore, God was also pre-ordaining Christ’s Incarnation and the institution of the Church. His outflung arms are a visual anticipation of Christ’s arms, stretched upon the Cross. The expression of solemnity on his face suggests that even at this moment, so close to the beginning of time, he is gazing ahead and seeing, in his mind’s eye, the betrayal and death of his son.
The Creation of Life in the Waters
In the last painting of the first triad, Michelangelo’s God is restored once more to effortless tranquility. He floats through the air, again wrapped in a billowing mantle and attended by a small angelic retinue. This time he. is shown above a vast expanse of grayish-white water. Some authors have assumed that the painter had Genesis 1: 2 in mind: `And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ Others believe that he meant to indicate the separation of the land from the water, as it is described in Genesis 1: 6: `And God said let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’
Either hypothesis, if true, would mean that Michelangelo had disturbed the chronology of Genesis in the order of his pictures. But there is no good reason to suppose that the artist reversed biblical time here. The last of his three pictures almost certainly depicts the events of the fourth day of Creation, which take place directly after the creation of sun and moon: `And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life …” The gesture of his hands suggests that Michelangelo chose to paint the very moment of this invocation. God holds his palms above the water, creating a teeming multitude of unseen creatures down in the depths of the ocean.