The Creation of Adam – Andrew Graham-Dixon

September 28, 2012

Probably the most iconic religious fresco of all time. Michelangelo 1511.

The ceiling’s central triad of images begins with The Creation of Adam, a majestic depiction of the moment when God imparts life and a soul to the first of men. It is among the most dynamic and startlingly original of all Michelangelo’s inventions. Like many famous pictures, it can all too easily be taken for granted. The overwhelming familiarity of the composition, its beguiling power and simplicity, can obscure its true qualities. Only on close, careful inspection does the work disclose its range of meanings and subtleties of expression.

The tradition of misreading The Creation of Adam is as old as the picture itself. So far did it depart from all previous artists’ imaginings of the creation of humanity that the work completely bemused at least one early visitor to the Sistine Chapel. Paolo Giovio, bishop of Nocera, who also wrote brief lives of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, composed a slender biographical sketch of Michelangelo sometime between 1523 and 1527.

Giovio’s text, a bare 31 lines in Latin, contains a short appreciation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is principally memorable for revealing the author’s bafflement when faced with The Creation of Adam: `Among the most important figures is that of an old man, in the middle of the ceiling, who is represented in the act of flying through the air …’ Giovio clearly had no idea of what he was looking at. But his incomprehension serves as a measure of just how novel, how alien to prevailing conventions, Michelangelo’s painting seemed to his contemporaries.

The artist was familiar with other depictions of the same theme by earlier Renaissance artists. In devising his composition, he may have had somewhere in his mind a celebrated bronze panel by Jacopo della Quercia on the Porta Magna of San Petronio, in Bologna, a city Michelangelo knew well, having spent several months there creating his doomed monumental bronze portrait of Pope Julius 11. Jacopo had depicted Adam nude and recumbent on a somewhat abstract outcrop of rock, springing into life as if waking from sleep, with the cloaked figure of God the Father standing over him, making a restrained, priestly gesture of benediction. Michelangelo galvanized this somewhat wooden piece of early Renaissance theatre by turning it into a whirlwind encounter between man and God.

The Almighty floats weightlessly through space, wrapped in a billowing red cloak that enfolds his angelic entourage. He is a severe, grey-bearded Creator, reaching out with great deliberation towards the languid Adam, a suitably earthbound figure (the name `Adam’ is also the Hebrew word for `earth’). So it is that God imparts to man, across the few inches of air that separate their outstretched fingers, the spark of life that makes him move and breathe.

In early Christian depictions of the creation of man, God had usually been truncated to a mere hand gesturing from a strategically placed cloud. He had developed into the familiar figure of an old man with a beard by the middle of the fifteenth century, but there was no precedent for showing him `in the act of flying through the air’, let alone dressed in clinging draperies that reveal his legs from the thigh down.

The fingertip act of creation was also Michelangelo’s own invention. Given that this has become the single most famous, most reproduced detail in the entire pictorial scheme of the ceiling — despite the fact that the celebrated fingertips themselves were repainted, due to a small area of loss, by the restorer Domenico Carnevale in the 1570s — it is worth considering in some depth just what Michelangelo may have intended by it.

Where did the painter get this striking idea? It owes little to the account given in Genesis 2: 7, which casts God in the role of a sculptor who literally breathes life into his work: `The Lord God formed man, of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ Michelangelo may have taken inspiration from a medieval hymn traditionally sung at Vespers on Whit Sunday, one stanza of which refers to ‘Digitus paternae dexterae’ – the finger of God’s right hand. The overarching theme of this hymn, which celebrates the nature of God’s gifts to man, also seems apposite to The Creation of Adam:

The seven-fold gift of grace is thine,
Thou finger of the hand divine;
The Father’s promise true, to teach
Our earthly tongues thy heavenly speech.

Thy light to every sense impart;
Pour forth thy love in every heart;
Our weakened flesh do thou restore
To strength and courage evermore.

Drive far away our spirits’ foe,
Thine own abiding peace bestow;
If thou dost go before as guide,
No evil can our steps betide.

The notion that God, through the touch of his finger, metaphorically imparts not only grace but also instruction was embedded in earlier Christian tradition. In considering the Ten Commandments given to Moses from on high, Church fathers had seized on the metaphor of a divine finger — one that both writes instructions for mankind and points out the path of the true and good life. St Augustine develops this idea in a passage in his fifth-century treatise De spiritu et littera:

That Holy Spirit, through whom charity which is the fullness of the law is shed abroad in our hearts, is also called in the Gospel the finger of God. That those tables of the law were written by the finger of God, and that the finger of God is God’s spirit through whom we are sanctified, so that living by faith we may do good works through love

It is impossible to prove that Michelangelo, or the papal advisers who may have helped him to formulate his iconography, had such ideas in mind when devising The Creation of Adam. Interpretations of paintings based on their presumed connections to a specific text or texts are often suspect. This is especially true when those texts are not the primary sources, as in this case, but are drawn instead from the deep well of post-biblical Christian thought.

Such hypotheses bring with them the temptation to force ill-fitting meanings on to works of art that visually resist them — to yoke the unwilling image to the inflexible word. As Leo Steinberg once cuttingly remarked of a fellow art historian, `His glimpse of a Michelangelo picture is as from a speeding car bound for the library.’ Yet in this particular instance the facts of the picture seem to confirm rather than contradict the hypothesis — suggesting that Michelangelo was indeed aware of the Christian tradition that found, in the image of God’s finger, a metaphor for his commands.

There is a look of total concentration on the face of the creating God, in Michelangelo’s fresco. But his gaze, depicted with such sharpness and clarity, is pointedly not directed at the reclining Adam. Instead, he stares with great intensity at his own outstretched finger. He does so in a way that suggests that what is being channelled through it, and towards Adam, is not only the impulse of life but also man’s incipient awareness of God’s own will — and, with that, the capacity for thought and for moral action. It is as if, in the moment of his creation, Adam is also being instructed in the laws by which God means him to live — laws that he will break, with fatal consequences for all of mankind.

Did Michelangelo really mean the viewer to understand all this, in the gesture and gaze of the Almighty? There are good reasons for believing so. The idea of transgression, Adam’s transgression against the divine will, is central to the tragic unfolding of the Genesis story as told by the artist. In the next painting but one, The Temptation and Expulsion, he will take the forbidden fruit. Michelangelo will later make it clear that man’s fallen condition is a direct consequence of Adam’s disobedience, by making the slumped body of the drunken Noah the epitome ofpostlapsarian human frailty resemble a pathetically collapsed version of Adam’s God-perfected body in the scene of his creation.

Yet for Adam to transgress, Adam must first be given the laws that he is to break. This begs the question, where, if not in The Creation of Adam, does Michelangelo imply that narratively necessary divine act of instruction? There is no space for it anywhere else in his scheme. The subject of the painting is best understood, therefore, as the formation rather than simply the creation of man.

The most compelling evidence for this interpretation is to be found in one of the most obvious places, namely Ascanio Condivi’s life of the artist. Admittedly, Condivi is an occasionally unreliable witness, but the fact remains that he knew Michelangelo intimately, and the very terseness of his description of The Creation of Adam, so pointedly bald and unembroidered as it is, gives it all the more credibility. Of the figure of the Almighty, Condivi simply writes the following: `God is seen with arm and hand outstretched as if to impart to Adam the precepts as to what he must and must not do.’

Michelangelo’s Adam looks up at God with an expression of barely dawning awareness on his face. He has just woken into consciousness and there is still about him the wide-eyed helplessness of a child. Yet the look in his eyes suggests that he has already begun to absorb the awareness that life brings with it duty to God. There is a slight implication of melancholy in his gaze, as of someone being drawn half against their will from blissful ignorance towards a sense of responsibility.

Adam’s body is full-grown and athletic. The chiseled outlines, the ebbs and flows of contour that define his nude form, recall Walter Pater’s famous remark about art aspiring to the condition of music. The effect of the entire figure is epitomized by the single detail of Adam’s outstretched arm — which swells and fades, rises and falls, from the curve of the shoulder to the soft bump of the bicep, along the meandering line of the forearm and across the reaching hand, like a melody drawn in the air.

The modeling of the figure’s flesh and muscles in light and shade is equally haunting (and represents a triumph of subtlety within the medium of fresco, which is far less malleable and forgiving than oil paint, making such effects of chiaroscuro notably difficult to achieve). Michelangelo disdained landscape painting but here he has painted Adam’s body as if the human form were itself a landscape to be explored. The soft juncture of his left calf and thigh, the shadowy hollows and protuberances formed in the area around his neck and collarbone, are painted with an immense, tender sensuality. They have what the twentieth-century painter Frank Auerbach has called a ‘haptic’ quality, a term denoting painted forms so instinct with life that to look at them is to have the uncanny sense of physically touching that which is depicted.

Adam must be perfect, his image that of a god on earth, because of the words of Genesis 1: 26: `And God said, Let us make man in our image, .after our likeness.’ In no other figure on the whole of the ceiling is Adam’s beauty repeated, and that too is part of Michelangelo’s expressive purpose. The first of men, newly created, represents a perfect state of harmony with God — but one that is destined to be lost, and never recaptured until the blessed rise on the day of the resurrection.

The scene where the action takes place is the most abstracted of landscapes, a grassy mound suspended in infinite space. Temporally, the picture is even more ambiguous because it represents a moment in which all of history — from the creation of man to his fall and ultimate salvation — is also contained. Michelangelo gives to God an aspect that expresses his infinite power. The vivid coils and whorls of his hair and beard evoke the cataclysmic patterns of whirlwinds and whirlpools. They bear a remarkably close resemblance to a later, celebrated group of apocalyptic drawings of floods and deluges by Michelangelo’s contemporary (and occasional rival) Leonardo da Vinci, who knew the Sistine Chapel and may have been influenced by this detail.

The figures contained within God’s mantle span the arc of time. At his shoulder he is accompanied by seraphim and cherubim, members of the highest order of the angels, to whom Michelangelo has also given the character of classical representations of the four winds. Their presence makes of the mantle a sail, swelled by their breath and thus impelled through space. Below God’s right arm lies a mysterious, anguished figure, present only as a groaning face, half obscured by darkness. This shadowy presence can tentatively be identified as a personification of Chaos, the dark nothingness from which the Almighty wrestled the universe into being — now conquered, he is whirled along in God’s train like the captives trailed in the wake of ancient triumphal processions.

There is also a beautiful young woman held in the embrace of God’s left arm. She looks across at Adam with a lively, fascinated gaze — the look, almost, of a startled gazelle — suggesting that she knows her destiny to be entwined with his. She can be identified with certainty. She is Eve, preordained in the mind of God from the beginning. Michelangelo has arranged his composition so that she appears as if coming out of God’s left side, a subtle prefiguration of the way in which she will actually emerge from the left side of Adam — God’s own likeness on earth — in the ceiling’s very next narrative scene. The length of green drapery that enfolds her loins has become unwound and flutters freely in the air beneath the crowded mantle of divinity, reaching down towards the earth that is Adam’s namesake. Green is the color of life, symbolizing Eve’s fruitfulness as the future mother of mankind.

If the spectator looking up at the ceiling should choose at this point to zoom out, so to speak, and encompass all three of Michelangelo’s paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve, a larger pattern of meaning can be seen to have its origin here. The figure of Eve is repeated twice more across a single, powerful diagonal that connects all three narrative scenes of the ceiling’s central triad — creating, as it were, one line of vision along which can be traced the successive stages of her destiny. She nestles in God’s mantle; she emerges from Adam’s side; she tempts Adam to his fall.

Behind the figure of Eve, in The Creation of Adam, can be glimpsed another female figure, with wispy blonde hair and a face partially obscured by paint damage. Her hand is wrapped around God’s left arm, suggesting her proximity to the Almighty. The most likely explanation for this figure’s presence is to be found in Proverbs, Chapter 8, in which Wisdom is personified as a woman coeval with God himself. `The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old,’ she proclaims. `I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth there was … When he prepared the heavens I was there, when he set a compass upon the face of the depth’ (Proverbs 8: 22-7).  Wisdom seems to be leaning forward to whisper into Eve’s ear. But Eve, transfixed by the sight of her husband, pays her no heed.

Numerous interlinked allusions and associations play across the composition. These form a chain of meaning, carried from figure to figure, at times from hand to hand, the end of which is to create a metaphor for an omniscient God’s all-encompassing salvific plan for erring humanity. In the figure of Eve is also implied that of the Virgin Mary, vessel of the Incarnation. Beside her is a staring child, a look of ominous foreboding in his eyes. He is the infant Jesus Christ — an identification underlined by the hand of God, whose fingers encircle the round protuberance of the child’s right shoulder in just the same gesture used by a priest when he elevates the Host, flesh of Christ, at the ceremony of the Mass. Within the mantle of God, within the divine mind, all is foretold and all foreseen.

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