The Creation of Eve – Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 1, 2012

The second of Michelangelo’s paintings telling the story of Adam and Eve is The Creation of Eve, the biblical source for which is Genesis 2: 21-2:

`And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman…’

The artist shows the blonde-haired Eve emerging from the side of Adam and coming face to face with her creator. Michelangelo has placed Adam’s sleeping form next to a jumble of dark rocks, which introduces a spatial ambiguity into the scene and makes Eve look as though she might be stepping from the entrance of a cave beside him. Emerging from darkness into light, she seems astonished by the suddenness of her encounter with God. Her mouth hangs half open in amazement and she holds her hands up instinctively in a prayer that also looks like a gesture of supplication. With his raised right hand, God seems to be pulling her upright, drawing her out of Adam’s side and into life. He stares solemnly into her troubled eyes.

The figure of God in The Creation of Eve is distinctly less awe-inspiring than the airborne, cosmic creator of the earlier Genesis scenes. Dressed in a voluminous mantle, he has here the aspect of a patriarch or priest. He does not fly, but stands and even stoops slightly in the act of creating woman. His weight upon the earth is suggested by the single mighty foot shown protruding from his robes, toes splayed on the bare grey ground. His hair and beard are a lank, dullish blond, painted with far less energy and animation than the swirling grey locks of God in the other scenes.

How can these differences be explained? Partly perhaps as a result of the evolution of Michelangelo’s ideas between one phase of painting and the next. The artist was to break off from painting the ceiling for several months after finishing The Creation of Eve. This pause for thought might well account for the great difference between the figure of God the Father as he appears in this picture, and as he would appear in the three scenes of the creation of the universe and The Creation of Adam.

It may simply be that Michelangelo, recognizing that God would have to become dynamically more active for the earlier scenes of creation, took the chance offered by a break in his work to reconceive his personification of the deity. But one of the great (and relatively underrated) aspects of the artist’s achievement in painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling was that he managed to preserve the total unity of the scheme despite the evolution of his own style during the course of the four years that it took him to complete it. And the fact remains that the character of God, as he appears in The Creation of Eve, powerfully contributes to the particular expressive twist that Michelangelo gives to this episode in the Genesis story.

The position of the fresco on the ceiling of the chapel is significant. It is the central image of the nine narrative scenes, occupying a place directly above the screen that once divided the area closest to the altar — reserved for the pope and his court — from that occupied by less exalted worshippers. It marks a corresponding separation within the overall scheme of the Genesis narrative, dividing the stories of creation from those of fallen humanity. So it makes sense that the figure of God should suddenly, in this image, seem so much more grounded. This is the moment when the story itself comes decisively to earth. The transition is not a joyful one. The action takes place on a lonely stretch of coast. The line of the horizon, where sea meets sky, neatly bisects Eve’s body at the midriff.

The overt symbolism of the picture restates the ultimate beneficence of God’s plan for mankind. The sleeping Adam, beneath a dead tree stump suggestive of a truncated cross, is once more a prefiguration of Christ, while Eve, springing from his side, calls to mind the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, in that water and blood ran from the side of the crucified Christ (associations reinforced by the water behind her, and by the way in which she holds her hands up to the priest-like figure of God, like a worshipper at Mass preparing to receive the wafer).

But the pious complacency inherent in such typologies is disturbed by the raw emotion with which the painting is charged. A current of intense, troubled feeling courses from Eve to the Almighty. She looks at God with an expression of pained and pleading mystery that lends this already cramped and claustrophobic act of creation an ominous, menacing atmosphere.

Eve, placed dead centre of the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling, is given a unique privilege. She is the only figure on the whole ceiling who is allowed to look into the eyes of God. Does she already feel sinfulness stirring within her breast? Could she be asking God why he has made her, why he has squeezed her into being, imperfect as she is? These are among the oldest and most intractable questions that Christians have asked themselves about their God. If all was foreknown, all foreordained, by a perfectly benevolent deity, why create the possibility of evil at all? But in Michelangelo’s painting, she receives no answer. The solemn God stares back at Eve with eyes as hard, as unyielding, as stones.

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