Art Moment: Michelangelo’s ‘Adam’

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, c. 1512. Fresco on the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel, Rome.

Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam is such a familiar image that we can too easily overlook the depth of its meanings. To appreciate the poetic artfulness of this work, we must understand how God is usually rendered in earlier art. In the Tuscan and Roman traditions to which Michelangelo was heir, God is usually shown standing on the ground, hovering just above it, or seated on His throne as He creates Adam. In other early images, only the hand of God is shown, emerging from the heavens. In contrast, Michelangelo’s depiction of a full-bodied figure of God soaring through the clouds is unprecedented. His God is positioned laterally across the sky and nearly parallel to Adam’s body, their extended arms and fingers being mirror images. By this positioning, Michelangelo is guiding the beholder to contemplate God shown in this fresco as the Second Adam as personified by Jesus of the Gospels, the Savior of the world as foretold by prophets of the Old Testament.

Michelangelo’s singular way of showing the Creator as the God who became man evokes these themes. His Adam, though beautifully formed, will not be perfect until he is touched by the redeeming finger of God, a touch that is imminent but not yet realized. Nowhere in the history of art before, or after, do we find such rich allegorical meanings.

Further study

Paul Barolsky, Michelangelo and the Finger of God, Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2003.

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