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Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Creation of Adam

Photo by Ezra Libillas
The Creation of  Adam, 1511, Michelangelo Buonarroti 
Several years ago I published a list of the greatest paintings of the last 1,000 years. I chose Michelangelo Buonarroti's Sistine Chapel ceiling as number one. Having done that, I feel I should spend some time discussing the greatest painting in the greatest painting. There are nine central panels alternately large and small running the length of the ceiling. The Creation of Adam is the third one. The panel is not a small one. Designed to be seen from the floor, some seventy feet below, it measures over fifteen by seven feet. Michelangelo seems to have seen it as the centerpiece of the entire series. It was begun late in the ceiling's progression, only after many preliminary drawings in which he experimented with numerous figures in a variety of poses. Contemporaries indicate there were a number of color and chiaroscuro studies as well.

The Creation of Adam (detail), 1511, Michelangelo, Buonarroti
(as seen before the Sistine ceiling restoration, 1980-92)
However, quite apart from the obvious attention to color and masterful handling of light and modeling, it is the wondrous composition of the painting that has made this work a living model for the relationship of man with his God. The painting can roughly be divided into two squares with the left squared divided again diagonally between earth and sky. And on the right, God reaches out the paternal right hand from a host of attendants swirling down from a massive oval of fine cloth.  Michelangelo took seriously the words of Genesis in his modeling of Adam in the mode of his Creator  The torsos of both figures are modeled almost identically which would account for the seemingly "heavy" body of the youthful Adam.

The centerpiece of this centerpiece is the sky, the negative space between the two figures wherein the powerful, outreaching, index finger of God makes psychological contact with the heavy, limp, digital appendage of man in his feeble attempt to reach for the divine spark of life. Secondary to this is the eye contact between the stern, yet loving God and the passive, awestruck, Adam. Linking the two figures are a series of curved, parallel lines, the first between the eyes, then others along the arms, between the hips, the knees, and the feet of both figures. The result is a dynamic symmetry, a mirror image, God reflected in man, devoted, strong, and innocent. Michelangelo's biographer, Vasari considered him the culmination of an Italian painting tradition dating back two hundred years to Giotto, passing through Duccio, Masaccio, and Mantegna. If so, then the culmination of that line also finds its terminus in The Creation of Adam and beyond that, the creation of modern painting as we know it.

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