The Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam is a fresco, one of nine scenes of the Book of Genesis painted onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512. Its dimensions are 9ft 2in x 18ft 8in, and depicts the event of God breathing life into Adam, the first man. The fresco is located next to The Creation of Eve, a panel at the center of the room, and the Congregation of the Waters, closest to the Chapel’s altar.

In the painting, God is depicted as a man of elder age, wrapped in a cloak and surrounded by cherubs, who watch as God taps life into the finger of newly-created Adam, the nude figure to the left. As God extends his finger to give Adam the spark of life, Adam mirrors the action in a similar way to God’s, an interpretation of mankind having been created in God’s image. As for the feminine figure to God’s left, his arm draping her shoulder, it has been suggested that she could be Eve awaiting her own creation or an angel. Further speculation indicates that the child God is touching is Jesus, leading scholars to theorize that the woman being protected by God’s arm is the Virgin Mary and predicting the coming of Jesus to atone for Adam’s sins and to protect mankind.

Michelangelo was originally commissioned by then newly-elected Pope Julius II to build a Pope’s tomb that would include forty statues and be finished in five years. Though it took Michelangelo 40 years to complete the tomb, it was plagued with interruptions and wasn’t finished to the artist’s satisfaction. During this period, Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel over the course of four years. Due to resentment of the artist by Italian architect Donato Bramante, he was commissioned to paint the ceiling, a medium Michelangelo was unfamiliar with, under the assumption he would fail. The commission was originally to paint the Twelve Apostles onto pendentives supporting the ceiling; Michelangelo proposed to the Pope a more complex plan to depict the creation and fall of man on through to the genealogy of Christ. This feat would take four years, starting in 1508, with The Creation of Adam being done circa 1512.

Inspiration for the painting may have stemmed from Michelangelo’s extensive study of human anatomy, which shows in the muscular bodies of the painting’s subjects, as well as in his drawings and sculptures. Theories have been made by members of the medical community that the shape of the red cloth surrounding God and the angels/cherubs closely resembles an anatomically accurate version of the human brain, the correlations of features like the brain stem, the frontal lobe, and the pituitary gland being present. There is also comparison to the human uterus, for the green cloth hanging from God is interpreted as the freshly cut umbilical cord.

When It comes to preservation of this work, it is documented that the work as well as the Sistine Chapel suffered the effects of smoke, causing the artwork to dull over the years. That was until 1977, when cleaning and restoration began and the vibrant colors used in the artwork shone through upon completion.

The Creation of Adam has spurred many recreations and parodies, including Jim Henson and Shigeru Miyamoto with their creations. One notable example would be a promotional movie poster for Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster hit, E.T., a spark of light connecting the fingers of the titular alien and that of the young boy who discovers and befriends it.

Among a composition of 500 square metres of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and over 300 figures, The Creation of Adam is one of a handful of frescos bringing art fans the world over to visit this ambitious work of Michelangelo.

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