The Creation of Adam (detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling),
fresco, 1508-12, Michelangelo, 1475-1564
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” is a much-quoted statement that sometimes is attributed to Confucius, but this observation is neither completely true nor oriental in origin. The quote originated in America and gained attention from commercial advertising in the 1920s. In some instances a picture or schematic image may be clearer than a complex verbal description, but there are times also when ideas found in words are impossible to illustrate by means of art. The creation story in the Book of Geneses is far less than a thousand words, yet a single painting cannot depict adequately all of the events contained in the narrative.
When artists depict subject matter from the creation, they tend to select the more dramatic events. Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel excludes the third day when grass, herbs and trees were created, and omits the fish and fowl that were created on the fifth day. The frescos begin with God separating light from darkness and is followed by the separation of water from the land. In the third panel God is shown creating the sun, moon and planets. The well-known fourth panel depicts the moment God gave life to Adam.
In, The Creation of Adam, Adam is reclining on the earth in the relaxed manner of Roman river gods. His left forearm is resting on a knee and his hand is extended as God reaches into the empty space that separates them. They do not touch but there is a sense that in the small space between their fingers, the spark of life, like an electrical arc, has been passed from God to Adam.
An oval shaped cloak serves as a backdrop for God and he is surrounded by figures. It is in our nature as humans to make connections and project meaning onto things we see. A long-standing belief is that the woman in the crook of God’s left arm is Eve. Because God’s hand is touching a child that is next to the woman, however, it has been suggested recently that she may be the future Virgin Mary and the child is Jesus.
Much has been written about what Michelangelo was attempting to communicate in this painting and most of it is speculation. When an imaginative medical student saw, The Creation of Adam, the cloak and figures around God, brought to mind the shape of a human brain. From this, he thought it was possible that Michelangelo was intending to indicate symbolically that while life was being given to Adam, the gift of intellect also was being bestowed. This interpretation has captured the fancy of people who look for secret meanings. The suggestion that intellect was being given to Adam is repeated now even by tour guides at the Sistine Chapel. There is no incontrovertible evidence that a cryptic message was placed in this painting.
Hovak Najarian © 2017