Comparing the Restored and Unrestored Creation of Adam

Comparing the Restored and Unrestored Creation of Adam
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  • 0:01 Restoration
  • 1:02 The Creation of Adam
  • 2:08 The Restoration of Adam
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the process and results of the restoration of the 'Creation of Adam' and discover why this remains controversial. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


The Italian Renaissance was full of some incredible works of art. Many of these were deemed so important that they are actually considered parts of European heritage. That means that these pieces of art are connected to the very essence of Western identity. Whoa - that's heavy. Clearly these are some very important pieces of art, so I have a question for you: What happens when they get dirty? Uh-oh.

Despite the care given to art, soot and grime and pollution tend to build up over centuries, sometimes irreversibly damaging the original artwork. That's when we turn to restoration, the scientific attempt to return a piece of art to its original condition. But, restoration is tricky - the restorers need to remove the grime while preventing any damage to the original art, and this can prove to be tremendously difficult!

The Creation of Adam

One of the most famous works of art in the world is the Creation of Adam, a panel in the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti around 1512. I can pretty much guarantee that you have seen this painting before. Here it is - recognize it?

The Creation of Adam
creation of adam

It depicts the creation of the first human, Adam, as described in the Book of Genesis in the Christian Bible. This scene is just one of many in the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling famously painted by Michelangelo, which is part of the Vatican.

This is what the Creation of Adam looked like in the mid-1900s:

The Creation of Adam in the mid-1900s
creation of adam with grime and soot

At this point, 400 years of grime, soot, humidity and, eventually, pollution from cars had created a pretty nice layer of grime covering the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. At some points, the artwork was barely visible. Additionally, cracks in the ceiling threatened some of the images. So, the Church decided in 1980 to undertake a massive restoration in order to preserve this masterpiece for future generations.

The Restoration of Adam

The restoration was a massive undertaking, lasting 14 years. The most advanced techniques were used in order to try and prevent any damage to this famous ceiling. After it was done, the result was a surprise to everyone. Look at all of those colors!

The Creation of Adam after restoration
creation of adam restored

Everybody thought that Michelangelo only painted in subdued colors because the ceiling had always looked so dark, but it turns out that most of that darkness was just the grime! The newly restored Creation of Adam popped with vibrant colors, making it much easier to see from the floor.

But, here's the problem: many people claimed that the color was too bright. Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor, and one of the characteristics of his painting was to use shadows to create the impression of his figures being carved rather than painted. In stripping away the grime, many of the dramatic shadows were also eliminated, as were some people's eyes. But how could this happen?

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