Creation of Adam. Why is it Michelangelo’s Masterpiece

Mochelangelo. Creation of Adam

I have not met people who would not like Michelangelo’s fresco “Creation of Adam”. There are those who are indifferent. But there are no people who will say “this is terrible”.

Look, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508-1512 by order of Pope Julius II. He created several dozen figures in just four years!

It was enough for the customer to draw twelve figures of the apostles, and cover the rest with floral ornaments.

But the master insisted on his own concept, depicting scenes from the Old Testament, including The Creation of Adam. As well as a considerable number of figures of Old Testament prophets, ancient Greek Sibyls and ancestors of Christ.

Phenomenally difficult work was done in an incredibly short time. But despite such hellish work, the frescos came out amazing. And The Creation of Adam is especially brilliant. Perhaps this is the most famous image of the Sistine Chapel. But what is the reason for this?

Why, for example, is the “Creation of Eve” not so well known?

Michelangelo. Creation of Eve
Michelangelo. Creation of Eve (ceiling fresco of the Sistine Chapel). 1508-1512. Sistine Chapel.

This fresco is also located in the central part of the ceiling, next to The Creation of Adam.

Or why is this image of this sibyl less well-known than the fresco we are considering?

Michelangelo. The Eritrean sibyl.
Michelangelo. The Eritrean sibyl. 1508-1512. Sistine Chapel. Wikimedia Commons.

Not to mention the fact that The Creation of Adam is much more famous than any fresco by another artist in the Sistine Chapel. By the way its walls were painted by both Perugino and Botticelli.

Perugino. Handing over the keys to the Apostle Peter.
Perugino. Handing over the keys to the Apostle Peter. 1481-1482. Fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

Let’s figure out what makes the fresco “Creation of Adam” so recognizable and unique.

Anatomically correct figure of Adam

For his time, Michelangelo created anatomically accurate figures. And the most amazing thing is that in his time he was one of the first!

The fact is that the masters of older generations did not depict naked bodies at all. It cannot be said that it was forbidden. After all, there were stories where nudity was appropriate. For example, Adam and Eve in the garden of the paradise.

Other things were not allowed: it was impossible to use models for nude posing. And even more – to visit morgues to study human anatomy. All this was considered a sin.

As a result, the artists hid their heroes in spacious clothes. Like Giotto.

Giotto. The Last Supper.
Giotto. The Last Supper. 1315. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Wikimedia Commons.

Either the figures were anatomically inaccurate.

Mantegna. Crucifix. 1457-1459. Louvre, Paris.
Mantegna. Crucifix. 1457-1459. Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

But closer to the middle of the XV century, several factors coincided.

Ancient Greek sculptures began to be excavated. And they were anatomically very realistic.

Belvedere torso
Belvedere torso. 1st century BC Pio-Clementino Museum, Vatican. Wikimedia Commons.

And images that are much closer to the real anatomy of the human body have already begun to appear. The first was Masaccio.

Masaccio. Exile from Paradise.
Masaccio. Exile from Paradise. 1426-1427. Fresco in the Brancacci Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy.

In addition, in the XV century Florence was quite independent of the influence of the Pope. The artists felt freedom. One master, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, plucked up the courage and started visiting the morgue.

There he studied how muscles are attached to the body. And he created works in which unique knowledge for that time was manifested. But, of course, under the influence of ancient Greek sculptures, the same Belvedere torso.

As a result, such images were born.

Pollaiolo. Hercules and hydra.
Antonio del Pollaiuolo. Hercules and hydra. 1475. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Michelangelo was fascinated by the works of Masaccio and Pollaiuolo. From them he learned the realism of the human body.

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And so the beautiful figure of physically strong Adam appeared. Few people were able to do that at the time.

Mochelangelo. Creation of Adam
Michelangelo. Creation of Adam. 1508-1512. Sistine Chapel, Vatican. Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s compare it with a nude figure created by Raphael. He was very talented. But in terms of the image of the anatomically correct human body, Michelangelo could not surpass.

This fresco shows that Raphael did not correctly depict part of the muscles, especially on the foot, lower leg and thigh.

Raphael. Fragment of the fresco "Fire in the Borgo"
Raphael. Fragment of the fresco “Fire in the Borgo”. 1514-1517. Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican. Wikimedia Commons.

Movement as an important ingredient of Michelangelo

Notice how much illusion of movement there is in this image. This is manifested in an air-filled cloak around God the Father with angels, and in a flying angel with a fluttering green cape.

Mochelangelo. Creation of Adam
Michelangelo. Creation of Adam. 1508-1512. Sistine Chapel, Vatican. Wikimedia Commons.

The fact is that before Michelangelo, images were more static. Contemporaries of the master arranged the heroes in a row or placed them in a triangle, like Leonardo and Raphael.

Raphael Santi. Madonna in the green.
Raphael Santi. Madonna in the green. 1505-1506. Museum of Art History, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

The figures turned out frozen. There are no gusts or complex angles. The poses are calm, relaxed.

But Michelangelo literally “made” the heroes fly, and even at such a speed that the fabric swells like sails (I meen the red veil behind God and his retinue).

The result was a very spectacular contrast. There is a lot of illusion of movement on the right, in the image of God and angels. And Adam’s static, motionless figure. It was as if two epochs of arts collided. A calm and measured Quattrocento (Renaissance of the XV century) and a dynamic High Renaissance.

But this is not the only secret of the attractiveness of this fresco.

The main innovation in the “Creation of Adam”

Michelangelo uses another innovative technique. Pay attention to the hands of the heroes, who are about to touch their fingers.

Michelangelo. Fragment of the fresco "The Creation of Adam".
Michelangelo. Fragment of the fresco “The Creation of Adam”.

On the one hand, Michelangelo’s idea is very clear. The person already physically exists. His arm is outstretched. But it is more relaxed compared to the more tense and direct hand of God the Father. It is obvious that in order to become a full-fledged person, he lacks something. Namely, God’s spark, the soul.

It is God the father who will awaken a person with his touch, make him truly alive, filled with the spirit.

But the most interesting thing is something else. Michelangelo depicts… “A moment before”.

Their fingers don’t touch each other! That is, it still takes a second, and their fingers will touch.

Why didn’t the artist depict them touching? Why didn’t he show the climax, but only a second before it?

The fact is that there is a lot of energy in this “Moment before”. It holds our attention. We involuntarily tense up and wait for the climax to come.

But it will never come! This moment is frozen in time.

Michelangelo understood the magical effect of such an image on the human psyche. That it catches our eye.

And this is what makes this fresco the most memorable of all that the artist painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo. Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Michelangelo. Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 1508-1512. The Vatican. Wikimedia Commons.

But he applied this technique not only in this fresco. He guessed about the impact of such a compositional decision earlier. Even when he created his David.

Michelangelo. David.
Michelangelo. David. 1504. Academy of Fine Arts, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

After all, he also depicted it for a “moment before”. Masters before that, as a rule, portrayed David already as a winner. For example, Donatello created such an image.

Donatello. David. 1440.
Donatello. David. 1440. Bargello National Museum, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

But Michelangelo portrayed David a second before the hero swings and throws a stone at Goliath. The artist showed all the tension of his strength, gathering his will into a fist, tensing his muscles before a blow.

In the same way, he depicted the tense hand of God the father, which is ready in a moment to let the soul into a person, to put itself, its spark into him.

It is not surprising that this innovation, perhaps not fully realized, so impressed the contemporaries of the master. And it definitely does not leave us indifferent.

A task for those who have read the article to the end:)

Guess which of these works was created by Michelangelo, and which one was created by his imitator?

Michelangelo and Raphael. The Prophet Isaiah.

The answer to the task

This is the image of the prophet Isaiah. However, one of them was created by Michelangelo. And the second is Raphael.

According to their contemporaries, Raphael saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before the completion of the work. In general, Michelangelo worked behind closed doors and did not want to show unfinished frescoes to anyone.

But Raphael secretly entered the chapel. He was so impressed by what he saw that he made changes to his work at St. Augustine’s Church. He painted over the almost completed image and created another one, influenced by Michelangelo.

It is this prophet Isaiah that we see in the fresco on the left (1513. Church of St. Augustine, Rome. On the right is the same prophet, but created by the hand of Michelangelo (1508-1512. Sistine Chapel, Vatican.


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Author: Oksana Kopenkina

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