Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: The Creation of Adam
In 1508, Pope Julius II (1444–1513) commissioned Michelangelo to paint a series of ceiling frescos for the Sistine Chapel, a project that became one of the artist’s most celebrated achievements.
The nine images that adorn the central axis of the ceiling illustrate important scenes from the Book of Genesis. The first three are devoted to the creation of the world, the second three to the creation and fall of Adam and Eve, and the last three to the story of Noah.
Perhaps the best-known image from the Sistine Ceiling today is Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, in which God stretches out his finger to endow Adam with the spark of life. In this scene, the two focal characters are set in contrast. Adam is depicted as earthbound and slightly sluggish, while God has a commanding presence and appears to be barreling through the heavens surrounded by a cadre of angels. Yet Adam’s muscular, well-formed body, echoing the position of the Creator, communicates the true significance of the scene—that Man is created in the image of God.
Michelangelo’s work was created at a time when scholars and statesmen as well as artists were adopting humanist ideals. At the core of Humanism was the study of Greek and Roman arts and sciences. By applying the lessons learned from the ancients within the context of Christianity, it was believed that the great civilizations of the past could be not merely imitated, but also surpassed. For artists like Michelangelo, this meant modeling Christian subjects on the idealized nudes of classical antiquity.
Michelangelo clearly draws on classical examples for his work in the Sistine Chapel. However, combining his study of ancient sculpture with his first-hand knowledge of human anatomy and a confidence in the artist’s imaginative power, he takes the body somewhere entirely new. This can be seen most clearly in the naked, youthful figures placed at the corners of each central panel. As Michelangelo painted the ceiling, moving forward from the entrance, these figures become progressively more animated, more robust. Whether or not this is evidence of a learning curve on the part of the artist as some scholars suggest, the increasingly dynamic energy of these figures activates the space, culminating when it reaches the altar, where the most sacred rite of Christianity, the Eucharist, was performed. The figures on the Sistine ceiling reflect Michelangelo’s firmly held belief that the body should be celebrated as a reflection of both divine beauty and the beauty of the human soul.
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