The painting of the Sistine Chapel seems to have been one of those projects which got wildly out of hand. The Pope (Pope Julius II) had originally commissioned Michelangelo to design and build his tomb, but handed him a number of side-projects. One of these was to paint the twelve apostles on the triangular pendentives that supported the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and cover the central part of the ceiling with ornamentation. Michelangelo envisaged something rather grander, and convinced Julius II to give him a free hand.
The result was a complex series of images spanning the creation of the world, the fall of man, the promise of salvation through Christ, and the genealogy of Christ. Together with other decorations illustrating key doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, they cover the entire interior of the chapel. It took four years, from 1508 to 1512, for Michelangelo to complete his share of the work, of which The Creation of Adam has become perhaps the most famous component.
The Creation of Adam, which, like the rest of the painting in the chapel, is a fresco, measures an impressive 280cm by 570cm (9ft 2in x 18ft 8in). In it God, depicted as a bearded, elderly, but still vigorous man, reaches out to impart the spark of life to the naked, languid Adam. Importantly, their fingers are not quite touching – Adam has yet to be brought fully alive.
God is surrounded by a number of figures, including an apparently female figure sheltered beneath his left arm. Is she Eve, yet to be created from the rib of the man she watches with a sideways glance? Sophia, the spirit of divine wisdom, described in the book of Proverbs as having been with God in the days of creation and sometimes identified with the Holy Spirit? The Virgin Mary, in Catholic theology styled ‘Queen of Heaven’ awaiting her own days on earth? An angel of no special significance? We may never know.
Likewise intriguing is the shape of the robe which billows behind God and his angels. Michelangelo was a true Renaissance Man, with a keen interest in human biology, and the more medically inclined have seen in the shape of that cloak a human brain, complete with such features as a brain stem and frontal lobe. Others have seen the shape of a uterus, the cradle of all human life, with the billowing green scarf representing a severed umbilical cord, and have pointed out that this last feature makes sense of Adam’s belly-button.
Years ago I queued with hundreds of others to enter the Sistine Chapel, and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of images (it doesn’t help that I have a tendency towards vertigo, and tilting my head back for any length of time doesn’t really work for me). As with so many paintings I’ve studied as part of this project, I wish now that I could go back and see it again with more knowledgeable eyes.
What do you think: Brain? Womb? Or just a swirly cloak frame thing?