The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
Evaluation of Sistine Chapel Ceiling Fresco Painting

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Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
The Creation of Adam
An iconic work of Biblical art
of the Italian Renaissance
by Michelangelo.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Creation of Adam (1511)


Interpretation/Meaning of The Creation of Adam
Further Resources


Artist: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
Medium: Fresco painting
Genre: Religious history painting
Movement: High Renaissance
Location: Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome.

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Analysis and Interpretation of Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

The celebrated mural painting known as The Creation of Adam is one of a series of Biblical images from the Book of Genesis, which were commissioned by Pope Julius II from Michelangelo, for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome. Seen as a key work of the Renaissance in Rome, its status as an iconic work of religious art is unrivalled, indeed, some art critics consider it to be Christianity's greatest pictorial work. Originally, the design for these Sistine Chapel frescoes was limited to the Twelve Apostles, together with a few other decorative works. But, as he began work, Michelangelo enlarged the whole concept, and by the time he finished in October 1512, he had painted more than 300 figures from the Book of Genesis and other Old Testament stories, as well as Classical mythology. In total, the decorations on the Sistine Chapel ceiling took him four years to complete, most of which he spent working in adverse conditions on a 60-foot high scaffold. What's more, he was principally a sculptor, though with some knowledge of painting tempera on panels (Tondo Doni 1504-6, Uffizi), and his practical expertise in the difficult art of true fresco was extremely limited. Despite all this, his Sistine ceiling - known as the Genesis Fresco - of which The Creation of Adam is the central work - is regarded as the quintessential expression of Renaissance art and one of the finest Renaissance paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries.



Iconic Image

Painted in 1511, The Creation of Adam is the fourth scene in the chronological order of the Genesis fresco narrative, but was one of the last main panels to be completed. One of the most famous religious paintings on the ceiling, it appears in the large field of the vault of the sixth bay, between the triangular spandrels. The picture illustrates the Book of Genesis story of God breathing life into Adam, the first human being. Michelangelo's powerful image of this scene - showing the spark of life being passed from one outstretched fingertip to another - is a visual masterstroke. It has become an iconic image of Christian art, as well as a modern graphic for the transfer of physical and spiritual energy, and has an almost electrical magnetism.

Note: Among the artists whose work exerted an influence on Michelangelo's Genesis fresco is the Italian painter Melozzo da Forli (1438-94), who was noted for his outstanding foreshortening skills.

Outstretched Hands

The painting is laid out in a rectangle, measuring roughly 10 feet by 19 feet. On the left, Adam's reclining, athletic figure - surely one of the most famous male nudes in art history - unites natural and ideal beauty, as Michelangelo's precise anatomical rendition demonstrates the harmony in human proportions. Adam lazily stretches out his limp left hand towards God - an elderly bearded man who floats horizontally, as if in motion, amid a cluster of angels. God extends his right hand towards Adam in order to discharge the spark of life. Their fingers are depicted only millimetres apart, set against a neutral background that suggests an electrically charged field. It is the first time in the history of art, that God has been painted in a horizontal position.

Divine Energy versus Human Lassitude

The major impression generated by this picture is the comparison between divine dynamic energy - illustrated in the illusionistic movement of the Creator who appears to radiate action - and human lassitude, represented by Adam's aura of slothfulness. The contrast is encapsulated in the nearly-touching fingers of the two hands, as the spark of life is transferred to Adam. God's index finger is fully stretched and tense with energy; Adam's fingers so limp that they cannot even be fully extended. No image better sums up the physical and conceptual chasm between God and Man.

In Renaissance terms, The Creation of Adam encapulates the triumph of disegno over the lesser art of colorito.

Symbolism or Empty Speculation

This is as far as we need go, although others have gone further. Some assert, for instance, that a shadowy shape - representing God's "breath of life" is visible in the space between God and Adam. Others claim that the figures and shapes surrounding the figure of God are an exact drawing of the human brain, in which the frontal lobe, brain stem and pituitary gland, are detectable, along with other parts of the cerebrum. Still others have speculated that the red cloth surrounding God is in the shape of a human uterus, while the green-coloured scarf at the bottom is actually a freshly cut umbilical cord.

Other issues include: the unknown identity of the feminine figure encircled by the left arm of the Almighty. One possibility is that she represents an as yet unrealized Eve. The comparative outlines of Adam and God have also attracted comment, to the effect that, while God and his angel group form an ellipse (that is, a perfectly formed oval) symbolizing the cosmic egg, while Adam forms only an incomplete oval. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether all this is complex symbolism or empty speculation.

The Creation of Adam demonstrates the power of a gesture, in painting. It influenced a host of contemporary works, including the Resurrection of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547).


A quarter of a century after completing this masterpiece of High Renaissance painting, Michelangelo was recalled to the Sistine Chapel by Pope Clement VII (1523-1534), who commissioned him to paint the Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall. This became yet another supreme work of cinquecento art, and not only makes him one of the best history painters, but also - together with his immortal sculptures Pieta (1500, St Peter's Basilica, Rome) and David (1501-04, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Florence) - makes him (in our humble opinion) the best artist of all time.

Further Resources

For more about the Renaissance in Rome, try these resources:

Best Renaissance Drawings (1400-1550)
High Renaissance Artists


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