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On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, anchored among eight other frescoes, sits one particularly celebrated piece of art, pictorial guide to the Gospel message. This fourth panel tells the tale of the creation of Adam, a decisive event in the book of Genesis that should have sparked life and marked the beginning of humanity. Although this scene was a popular pick for artists wishing to contribute their part to the already extensive heritage of Renaissance religious art, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam remains among the most well-known interpretations. De facto, artists liked to include religious symbolism in their art and Michelangelo was no exception. Through the use of various symbolic patterns, Michelangelo shows us his perception of a perfect birth and introduces the notion of terribilità: the expression of God’s potency as a central theme in the iconography of the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling, but especially in his depiction of The Creation of Adam. 16th century contemporaries liked to describe terribilità as the quality of inspiring terror, awe or a sense of the sublime through art. To begin with, it is important to note that the word terribilità, was not part of the artistic language before Michelangelo. The first person to describe his frescoes as terribilità was Giorgio Vasari, Italian painter and writer who wrote a collection of biographies of artists. Vasari implies that artists, just like God, possess the Divine Manu, divine hands, capable of creating as well as destroying. Michelangelo would therefore be the counterpart of a wrathful God that inspires terror, as he himself inspires terror through his art. It should be noted that in the context of his painting the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s inspiration for creating such art came from his own vengeful wrath against the pope Julius II, who imitated God himself through his furious outbursts. As an act of defiance, Michelangelo should have transposed the Pope’s rage onto the figure of God as a way to mock him.
In the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Creation of Adam is a prime example of the peremptory will and potency of God the Father, expressed though gestures, expressions and even proportions of the characters’ bodies. The Creator seems to fly across the painting, each of his gestures is an order, each instant is an explosion of power that culminates in this scene of The Creation of Adam, further emphasizing the notion of terribilità. Adam, brought to life by God the Creator, props himself up on an elbow, his uncertain gaze meets God’s resolute one in a mute exchange of will and power. The tiny interspace separating God and Adam’s index fingers symbolizes the materialization of the difference between the nature of the terrestrial universe and the divine world. This space, however small in the painting, remains symbolically immeasurable and can never be filled nor crossed. We can also notice a distinct contrast between the hands of Adam and God, the former being quite limp and the latter conferring real vigour and vitality. The command in finger demonstrates that the gift of life remains the founding act of religion which only God can possess.
Through his extended arm, God communicates his own spiritual and physical energy to his creation. The passage of the spark of life from Creator to Creation marks an important turn of event in the Genesis and all the scenes following this depiction of The Creation of Adam seem to be the consequence of this fatal act, from the creation of Eve to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden to The Great Flood. These scenes are all the result of God’s wrath, in which the Creator becomes a destroyer.
The character of God is a figurative invention of Michelangelo that is both effective and impressive in conveying the notion of terribilita. He is shown with the features of an elderly man who, despite his greying hair, remains physically robust and whose gesture is resolute. The scene exhibits a sublime sense of power coming from God’s side, who has a choir of angels backing him, the whole choir wrapped in God’s cloak. Far from simply producing Archangels and Seraphins and placing them in the frame of his fresco, Michelangelo gives these celestial beings a seizing sense of realism, as if caught in a strong gust of wind and taken away with God, accompanying him in his endeavour to create life. God can therefore be seen as the center and the point from which power emanates. Many are those who have presented an analogy between God’s purple cloak and the cranial box containing the brain. The brain is the source of all energies, a core from which stems intelligence, will and resolution. (Meshberger, Frank Lynn) In parallel to this, God transfers intelligence and free will to his creation, thus allowing him to think and to make decisions. This parallel between God’s function and a brain pushes forward the idea of that God is the epitome of Divine power who does more than only creating life, he can remove it too. Not only is this fresco great for displaying God the Creator’s power, but it also serves as an example of the perfect birth. God has one arm extended, one arm bent and one leg extended one leg bent. This position is transposed onto Adam’s body position as well, making evident through body language that God made man in his image.
Furthermore, Adam is at birth already a man. Young and athletic, he shares a great number of common features with the Creator, as opposed to baby Jesus in the Old Testament who is an infant. The only capital difference being Adam’s nudity, a symptom of a purity that he will lose as soon as he commits the original sin. Far from simply being an effigy of a young, healthy young man, Adam’s figure soon becomes the paragon of the ideal divine man in the eyes of contemporary artists. We can observe that God himself is clothed. This can seem strange as nudity was a tribute to the classical sculptures of Ancient Rome and, hence, were a symbol of the ‘‘perfect’’ man. The reason for this is that God is, in fact, a synthesis of good and evil, as he possesses both within him.
Michelangelo, through his art, has managed to convey the different aspects of God as the Creator as well as the destroyer. His depiction of the Creation of Adam ties in with the rest of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as it seems to be the event that triggers all the following panels of the book of Genesis. There is so much that can be understood through his art, especially through his sculptures, as he mainly considered himself as a sculptor.
In the end, Adam is not “born” in the usual sense. Jiang 5 Michelangelo will forever remain a crucial contributor to Renaissance art and the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, his magnum opus.
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