The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo: Analysis & Overview

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  • 0:01 Introduction to Michelangelo
  • 0:50 Description of ''The…
  • 1:27 Spiritual…
  • 3:00 Anatomical…
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

In this lesson, we analyze various interpretations of Michelangelo's 'The Creation of Adam,' which depicts God creating Adam and is one of the most famous images in the art world. Following the analysis, test your knowledge with a quiz!

Introduction to Michelangelo

Michelangelo Buonarroti lived from 1475 to 1564 AD and became one of the most famous Italian Renaissance artists. Though Michelangelo always considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter, he painted one of the most awe-inspiring pieces in the entire art world: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. From 1508-1512, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a series of frescoes that portrayed several biblical stories. Perhaps the most famous image from the ceiling is The Creation of Adam, which depicts God giving life to the first human, Adam. Let's discuss the fascinating aspects and interpretations of this image.

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

Description of The Creation of Adam

On the left hand side of this particular fresco, we see Adam reclining on his back with one arm on the ground and the other arm stretched out. On the right hand side of the fresco, God is surrounded by several figures and floats above the ground against a backdrop of a red robe. God extends his hand towards Adam's outstretched hand, and their fingers almost touch. Michelangelo painted this scene with vibrant colors and incredible detail. Michelangelo's background in sculpture is evident in the way that his figures are idealized muscular forms of the human body.

Spiritual Interpretation of The Creation of Adam

Obviously, this image is spiritual in nature because it represents the moment when God gives life to Adam in the Book of Genesis. But what are we supposed to make of the way Michelangelo displays each of these figures? Are God and Adam reaching towards one another, or are they letting go of one another? If they're reaching towards one another, then the image could represent the mutual desire of God and humanity for one another. If they're letting go of one another, Michelangelo could be asserting humanity's independence or separation from God.

Close up of hands
Close up of hands

Let's look at Adam and God specifically. Adam looks almost relaxed the way he lounges on the ground. Michelangelo may have painted Adam in this rather passive stance to show that God hasn't actually given him life yet. In contrast to Adam's, well, lazy posture, God looks like a dynamic, active figure, as if he's hard at work at his greatest creation.

Now let's analyze all those figures who surround God. Maybe the figures are just meant to be angels, but maybe they represent specific biblical characters. The woman and the child on God's left are of special interest because God's left hand wraps around the woman and touches the child.

The woman might be Eve, who looks on and awaits her turn to be put on Earth with her husband. The woman may also be the Virgin Mary which could make the child on her left Jesus, whom the Bible refers to as the second Adam. If the child is Jesus, he may be looking away because he knows that Adam will soon sin, which will necessitate Jesus's future death in order to pay the price for that sin.

Anatomical Interpretation of The Creation of Adam

One of the most predominant and fascinating interpretations of this scene comes from analyzing the painting from an anatomical or medical perspective. Like many other Renaissance painters, Michelangelo was familiar with human anatomy and often attempted to make his paintings as scientifically accurate as possible. So, not only are the figures in this painting idealized and accurate portrayals of the human body, but the entire image itself might be a depiction of a segment of human anatomy.

Some scholars have argued that the God-cloud is shaped and colored like a uterus, or womb, which symbolizes how God literally births new life into Adam. God's arm and Adam's arm thus create a literal umbilical cord. Because Adam's finger and God's finger are not in fact touching, that could mean the umbilical cord has been cut, and Adam is now alone on Earth.

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