The Creation of Adam is a chef-d’oeuvre fresco painting by the famous Michelangelo, an Italian artist who was among the promoters of Renaissance arts in Europe in the 16th century. The painting was done between 1508 and 1512, and it depicts the story of creation where God made Adam in His image, thus marking the beginning of human life on Earth. The painting is part of a sophisticated iconography called the Sistine Chapel Ceiling,1 which is a combination of various images illustrating the narrative of the Biblical creation. In the painting, a relaxed, naked, and youthful Adam is lying on the left side while an old God, draped in white clothing, is on the right side, and both have their hands extended towards each other. However, the tips of their fingers are separated by small spaces. This image has drawn various interpretations, especially on the inherent meaning of the various aspects depicted in it. Michelangelo painted The Creation of Adam to highlight the story of creation, the fall of man, and the ultimate salvation as discussed in this paper.
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Socio-historical Context of the Painting
In the 1500s when The Creation of Adam (figure 1)2 was made, the Catholic Church was highly influential in Europe, especially in Italy where Christianity had been a widely practiced religion after it was legalized in 313 CE through the Edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine. In 380 CE, Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion in the Roman Empire by issuing the Edict of Thessalonica. Therefore, when Michelangelo made this painting, he was inspired by the religious beliefs at the time concerning the story of creation, which is central to the Christian faith.
Analysis: Meaning and Composition
From a general perspective informed by background religious knowledge about the creation story, the painting depicts how God gave life to Adam to start the human species. The image of Adam, lying naked and stretching his hand towards God echoes how he (Adam) received life from the creator. The closeness of the two figures is symbolic, showing that God and human beings are alike, and they are created in His image. God is not presented as a majestic being living in the heavenly realms, but as a simple old man, who is accessible and close to his creation. This message was and still is important to Christianity as believers can always reach to God – Jesus, also called Immanuel, means God with us, residing in the hearts of the Christian faithful.
Other details and figures in the painting point to a deeper meaning more than just the creation story. God is surrounded by twelve beings, which could be angels. However, they do not have wings, which are characteristic of the conventional depiction of angelic beings. This understanding gives the image a different interpretation. Under God’s left arm is a woman and His hand rests on a baby. The woman is believed to be the Virgin Mary and the baby is Jesus, the savior of humanity. Therefore, the painting captures the creation of man, his fall from grace, and his ultimate salvation through Christ. As such, Michelangelo glorifies God by presenting Him as an all-knowing Supreme Being, seeing the end from the beginning. In other words, the painter insinuates that God already knew that man would sin, and thus He came up with a plan for salvation. The other figures surrounding God are arguably the human race that resulted from the creation story.
However, the painting has been interpreted from a scientific perspective, with a specific focus on the symbolism of the uterus that appears to enclose God and other figures. The uterus underscores the birthing process, the bringing forth of new life, which is what God did by creating Adam. According to Tranquilli, Luccarini, and Emanuelli, two arms intersect, “the right arm of God, together with the left arm of Adam with the muscle torsion of the arms reproducing the torsion of umbilical arteries around the vein…the anatomic proportion of this ‘umbilical cord’ to the placenta is perfectly maintained.”3 Additionally, water can be seen flowing on the lower right side of God, which symbolizes amniotic fluid, flowing through the “dilated cervix out of the vagina, whose shape and axis is somehow hidden and outlined by the two legs that protrude from the lower profile.”4 Moreover, God is dressed in a transparent white garment – a representation of amniotic membranes.
Stokes supports this theory by noting that God is enclosed in a “uterine filled with attendants who clamber close, souls yet to be born, attributes as yet of his own essence.”5 The birthing concept is validated by the fact that Adam is depicted to have a navel, which is controversial because he was created, not born, according to biblical accounts. Therefore, it suffices to argue that while Michelangelo sought to capture the story of creation, he also wanted to highlight the concept of giving birth, something that people could identify with, as it is a natural process that anyone can attest to through experience – the birth of humankind.6 As such, anyone doubting the story of creation could most probably identify with the theory of birthing. Regardless of the perspective that the painting is viewed from, it depicts that God gave life to Adam, which is the central message in the Biblical creation narrative.
In The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo captures the story of creation as narrated in the Bible. God appears to be reaching out to Adam to give him life. Virgin Mary and Jesus are also in the picture implying that God, in His wisdom, knew that Adam would sin, hence the need for a redemption plan. From a scientific perspective, the painter insinuates the birth of Adam, which explains why he has a navel – an indication of natural birth as opposed to creation. Perhaps Michelangelo included this aspect to convince the doubters of creationism by indicating that regardless of how Adam came into being, he received life from God.
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- Di Bella, Stefano, Fabrizio Taglietti, Andrea Iacobuzio, Emma Johnson, Andrea Baiocchini, and Nicola Petrosillo. “The “Delivery” of Adam: A Medical Interpretation of Michelangelo.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 90, no. 4 (2015): 505-508.
- Meshberger, Frank. “An interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy.” JAMA 264, no. 14 (1990): 1837-1841.
- Partridge, Loren. Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Rome. New York: George Braziller Inc., 1996.
- Stokes, Adrian, ed. Michelangelo: A Study in the Nature of Art. Abingdon: Routledge, 2001.
- Tranquilli, Andrea, Antonio Luccarini, and Monica Emanuelli. “The Creation of Adam and God-placenta.” The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine 20, no. 2 (2007): 83-87.
- Loren Partridge, Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Rome (New York: George Braziller Inc., 1996), 10.
- Frank Meshberger, “An interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy,” JAMA 264, no.14 (1990): 1837.
- Andrea Tranquilli, Antonio Luccarini, and Monica Emanuelli, “The Creation of Adam and God-placenta,” The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine 20, no. 2 (2007): 83.
- Tranquilli, Luccarini, and Emanuelli, 83.
- Adrian Stokes, ed., Michelangelo: A Study in the Nature of Art (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001), 89.
- Stefano Di Bella et al., “The “Delivery” of Adam: A Medical Interpretation of Michelangelo,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 90, no. 4 (2015): 505.