It is a question man has asked since the dawn of time: who are we, and how did we come to be?
Michelangelo’s famous art contributions in the Sistine Chapel prominently feature a depiction that answers this question in The Creation of Adam.
In a Sea of Beauty
Michelangelo will live forever through his work painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel more than 500 years ago, and perhaps the most iconic of all of the panels painted therein is The Creation of Adam. This work of art depicts a scene from the Bible’s Genesis when God first created man.
In this vivid yet soft oil painting, God appears to be floating away from Earth, and in turn, floating away from Adam. On the right side of the composition, God is outstretched in a convex position, surrounded by an assortment of angelic figures who appear to be ascending with him.
On the left, Adam appears concave, a sort of reaction to God’s presence. Perhaps Michelangelo intended for Adam to appear too weak to have yet gained a strong posture, or perhaps the figures were meant as symbols. Since Adam (and all of man) is supposed to have been created in God’s image, the body language may be a nod to the fact that man has always reacted subordinately to God’s presence.
The center of the panel is quite empty save for the hands of God and Adam, nearly touching with their index fingers, but not quite. This is thought to represent the moment at which God actually gave life to Adam, who would in turn give life to the entire human race. The additional figures next to God are sometimes assigned some importance, with speculation about whether or not one of them may represent Eve or the Virgin Mary.
Michelangelo had mostly worked as a sculptor before taking on the Sistine Chapel. He began painting this iconic work in 1508, and it is still viewable today in Vatican City.
An Origin Story
Like all of the panels on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Adam comes from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. While the story itself is fairly standard and doesn’t allow for much wiggle room, Michelangelo took some new creative licenses with his depiction.
Up until that point, plenty of creation stories had been painted, but all of them featured God as a fairly unattainable cosmic entity. This was consistent with the sort of awe and reverie that had always been applied to religious works. Instead, Michelangelo chose to focus on the fact that Adam was supposedly created in the divine image, and painted God looking strikingly human.
From his wrinkled face to his flowing white hair and casual garments, this version of God may feel so endearing simply because it is more approachable than conventional depictions.
Michelangelo belonged to an era in art history called the Italian Renaissance, due largely to him and two other prolific painters. Along with Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael were central to the Renaissance.
During this period, realism was the preferred method, and these masters depicted serene and impactful moments through their storied works. Whether the subject matter was religious, scientific, or personal, the art created during the Italian Renaissance is some of history’s best known. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam may not answer every burning question about the origin of man, but it certainly gives life to one of the most popular theories ever put forth.