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A Closer Look at Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam

In the “Famous Artworks” series, we’ll take a closer look at some of the world’s best loved works of art to uncover surprising new details.

Michaelangelo (full name: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni!) painted “The Creation of Adam” as part of his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in 1505. By the time Michelangelo began “The Creation of Adam” he was famous as an architect and sculptor. He had already finished two of his most important commissions: the “Pieta” at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and the “Statue of David” for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

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In his book The Life of Michelangelo, scholar Ascanio Condivi suggests that Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to create frescoes on the ceiling and sanctuary wall (the wall behind the altar) of the Sistine Chapel at the suggestion of a jealous rival. Donato Bramante, a fellow architect and Renaissance master in his own right, hoped the famous sculptor would be embarrassed by his work in an unfamiliar medium: paint. That plan obviously failed miserably, and Michelangelo successfully covered the building in a timeless masterpiece in just four years.

Today we’re used to seeing “The Creation of Adam” out of context, but it’s actually part of a much larger visual story. In the above image, “The Creation of Adam” sits just below the central scene. One can imagine how overpowering it would be in person, and this picture doesn’t even include the whole mural–it’s missing two of the nine panels running down the center of the ceiling, one on each end. In total there are nine central panels, 14 lunettes (half-circular paintings around windows just below the ceiling), eight pendentives (the triangular sections in the image above), and 11 side scenes between the pendentives. Each part of the ceiling is an episode in the story of the creation and downfall of mankind, which transitions to the apocalyptic Last Judgement on the sanctuary wall.

“The Creation of Adam” is one of nine frescoes that depicts the events of the Bible’s Book of Genesis, when God creates Heaven, Earth, and all their inhabitants. Michelangelo tells the story chronologically, so “The Creation of Adam” takes place after God divides water from earth, and before God creates Eve. Our panel depicts God giving life to Adam, the first human being. Adam is shown at the left with God at the right, and both figures reach their arms toward each other without fully touching as God passes the spark of life into his creation.

For Christians, this scene is an incredibly powerful symbol of their faith. To emphasize the importance of this moment, today the image is often cropped to include only the two figures’ fingers, which focuses the viewer on the relationship between human beings and their creator.

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