Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel Research Paper

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Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam (1512) as conceived and depicted by Michelangelo represents a significant moment in art history because it brings a humanistic style of expression and sense of realism to the art world that had not existed prior. The work is focused almost exclusively on the Body as a subject. The two figures—God the Father and Adam—represent the majesty of the human anatomy in its ideal form: muscular, flexible, unique, authentic, poised, admirable, beautiful and proportional. In the painting, God is mostly draped with a thin cloth; Adam is completely nude and his position (reclined with one knee propped up while he stretches backwards and reaches forward languidly) suggests one of royalty being wakened after a long slumber. Indeed, the idea that Adam is like royalty is one that Michelangelo infuses into the scene giving the painting its high-minded rapturous quality, which is much in line with the poetic imagination of the Italian Renaissance.[footnoteRef:1] However, it is not just representative o the poetic imagination of the Italian Renaissance; it is also representative of the move to realism that was coming at the end of the High Renaissance and that would burst forth in the Baroque era during the Counter-Reformation. [1: Paul Barolsky, “Botticelli's Primavera and the Poetic Imagination of Italian Renaissance Art.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 8, no. 2 (2000): 7.]

This realism is especially noteworthy because throughout Europe the first rumblings of the Protestant Reformation were approaching at the time that Michelangelo was working in the Sistine Chapel: Martin Luther would nail his 95 Theses to the church in Wittenberg in 1517 and Zwingli would join the call for reform in Switzerland shortly thereafter. John Wycliffe had already been active in calling for reform in the century prior in England, essentially setting the stage for rebellion, and in France John Calvin would launch his attacks on the Church in the 1530s, about the same time that Henry VIII was fighting with the Pope over the attainment of an annulment—the prelude to his own break with the Church and England’s abrupt leap into Protestantism. These storm clouds were gathering all over Europe while a simultaneous threat was coming from the East in the form of Suleiman and the Muslim invasions, which Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, fought hard to repel. The crisis of the Church with the unanswered attacks of the Protestant Reformers and the threat of the Ottoman Empire was palpable—and Charles V himself would push for the Pope in Rome to call a Council that would address the errors being promoted and promulgated by the Protestant Reformers. That council would eventually be held from 1544 to 1563 and be known as the Council of Trent, which launched the Counter-Reformation. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam thus appears as the last declaration of faith by the High Renaissance of the Middle Ages before the modern era would come crashing down all over Europe, leading to the Roman Catholic Church’s last hurrah and the Age of the Baroque.

In Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam two figures clearly dominate the painting: Adam on the earth on the left side of the panel and God in Heaven on the right side. God is portrayed as being held up by angels populating the drapery behind God. Michelangelo used extremely vibrant colors and incredible detail to paint this scene and bring the optimism, beauty and promise of the awesome act of creation to life in painting. The red color used to surround God places the Father in a magisterial and royal context—and that royal lineage is passed on to Adam through the extension of God’s arm and hand to Adam’s. When the fingers touch and the creation is accomplished, it is as though sparks fly and an invisible burst of happy energy is felt from that touch: God’s hair is blown back and Adam’s is as well. Michelangelo’s use of line is also extremely evident in the way God the Father is represented: his muscular arm, for instance, is outstretched diagonally from God’s head; another line is formed by God’s body and legs which are held out by the angels; and God’s torso supported by angels below acts as a third line, giving God a triangular shape which suggests the Holy Trinity—another doctrine of the Catholic Faith that would certainly be consistent with the context of the painting.

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God’s attire does not represent his majesty, but his physical being and His angelic attendants all bear it out.

Adam’s body is shaped to look concave while God has a convex posture. In this manner, the two bodies complement one another. Adam’s posture is more passive than God’s, which is active—indicating that God is doing the creating and Adam is receiving the gift of life. The expression on Adam’s face is like that of a newborn—seeing, believing, but not showing much emotion other than a doting look in the eye that communicates all the softness of expression that a newborn baby’s eye communicates when it sees its parents who nurse him, having brought him into the world. The same expression can be seen in Adam’s face as he looks adoringly and with gratitude at God. Line is a major technique that Michelangelo uses with Adam, too, whose figure complements the triangular effect of God with his own triangular, three-lined frame, with arm outstretched at 90 degrees from head and shoulder, hand pointing down to the legs which extend from the body at 45 degrees so that Adam’s figure resembles a right triangle. God resembles an equilateral triangle, which makes sense since the Trinity consists of three equal Persons in one Divine God.

The woman and the child to the left of God are also worth noticing. God has his arm around the woman and is also touching the baby. The woman’s identity is unknown: it could be Eve watching from under God’s arm, representing the mate who will be brought out from Adam’s rib.[footnoteRef:2] It could also be the Virgin Mary, her necessity foreshadowing the Fall and the need for salvation through the Redeemer, which is the main theme of the Sistine ceiling. As such there is reason to believe that the woman may very well be the virgin Mary with her child Jesus.[footnoteRef:3] This theory may be more appropiate, as one can see that the child is looking away from the interaction between God and Adam, as though knowing the sacrificial role he himself will have to play in making things right again. [2: Leo Steinberg, “Eve's idle hand.” Art Journal 35, no. 2 (1975): 130.] [3: Leo Steinberg, “Who's Who in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam: A Chronology of the Picture's Reluctant Self-Revelation.” The Art Bulletin 74, no. 4 (1992): 552.]

Finally, the focal point of the painting is what really gives the viewer a sense of the work’s strength. The focal point is where the two main character’s two index fingers are about to make contact with each other, signifying unity between man and the superior being. One can see that Michelangelo leaves the viewer with a cliffhanger—it is a perfect artistic expression: life is about to be breathed into the creation—but the viewer is not permitted to see the exact moment of conception—just like man and woman cannot pinpoint the exact moment of conception in the act of procreation when they conceive a child. It remains a mystery for them as it does for the viewer with the creation of the first man. For all the viewer knows, as soon as Adam and God make contact with each other, there may be sparks, light or anything of that sort to express the power that has just been passed on.

The iconography of the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo is situated in the narrative contained in the Book of Genesis of the Old Testament, in which God creates the world and then creates man in his own image and likeness. This emphasis on man being made in God’s image is critical and is the reason God and Adam are like mirror images….....

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Barolsky, Paul. “Botticelli’s Primavera and the Poetic Imagination of Italian Renaissance Art.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 8, no. 2 (2000): 5-35.
Hasel, M. F. A., and Giselle Sarli. “Teaching Art History from a Biblical Foundation: Art History as a View into the Great Controversy.” The Journal of Biblical Foundations of Faith and Learning 1, no. 1 (2016): 5.

Saler, Benson. “Supernatural as a Western category.” Ethos 5, no. 1 (1977): 31-53.

Shaw, Christine. Julius II: The warrior pope. Crux Publishing Ltd, 2015.

Steinberg, Leo. “Eve’s idle hand.” Art Journal 35, no. 2 (1975): 130-135.

Steinberg, Leo. “Who’s Who in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam: A Chronology of the Picture's Reluctant Self-Revelation.” The Art Bulletin 74, no. 4 (1992): 552-566.

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