Did you know that the fear of belly buttons is called omphalophobia? I can’t really imagine being afraid of, what is essentially a scar which reminds you of your own creation, but I don’t like people on stilts, so each to their own.
Michelangelo, was a bit of a rock star of art, having the ability to turn his hand to move mediums, and was incredibly famous while he was still alive, meaning that his life and work were extremely well documented, as well as biographies and auto-biographies written while he was still alive. I have written about this master before, so if you want to read about his life, click the handy link I have inserted.
The Sistine chapel was not a project that Michelangelo wanted to undertake. In 1506, Pope Julius II decided that the ceiling needed painting as the walls had been done 20 years earlier. Michelangelo was approached to do the work, but he was in the middle of a large sculpture for the Pope’s tomb and frankly preferred sculpture to painting. The Pope however was insistent, which left no choice. When a wat broke out with the French, Michelangelo fled Rome, pretty much while the Pope wasn’t looking so he could go back to sculpting.
In 1508, when the Pope returned to Rome, Michelangelo was summoned back and a contract was signed for the work. The Pope had wanted 12 large figures depicting the apostles, but Michelangelo had different plans and managed to negotiate his much grander scheme, being given free reign over the design. The ceiling now has over 300 figures and took nearly 4 years to complete. Only very slightly longer than getting a job lot of magnolia paint and working with a roller.
There is some speculation around if Michelangelo devised the plan himself or if he took advice from a cardinal and a friar for the theological aspects of the ceiling, but Michelangelo was well read and apparently continually referred to the old testament while working on the project, taking inspiration from the words, rather than the art that was already on the walls within the chapel.
Michelangelo designed his own scaffolding to work on the ceiling (because he obviously didn’t have enough to do at the time), which was made of planks and brackets which meant that no large scale scaffolding was used, probably to keep the costs lower.
I couldn’t possibly attempt to write about every piece of the Sistine Chapel in one article, so I am only going to concentrate on “The Creation of Adam”, and while this piece has been extensively written about, I find the themes within it fascinating, so decided to throw my thoughts into the arena.
On the face of this painting, it sticks to the religious themes and shows the moment that God bought Adam to life. God is shown in his transcended state, swathed in a red cloak with a cherubs and angels surrounding him. Adam lounges on the newly created Earth, looking at the heavenly spectral, reflecting the pose of God, reaching toward him to receive the spark of life, as he gazes upwards. You can see the movement of God from the way in which his hair and beard has been painted, they appear to be swept back by a breeze, which indicates a forward motion towards Adam, the green material from the bottom of the cape reflecting this motion.
The technique of the painting is realism, as we can see the amazing detail that has been put in to each figure, but the themes seem to get confused between theology and scientific thinking. Michelangelo was definitely devout to the faith, but this shows a level of questioning which perhaps shows that he was not as on board with the theory of a man sat in the clouds creating everything as he appeared.
I am sure that you have all read an article which details how the positioning of God and his cloak in this painting symbolises a brain, as this is fairly common observation, but it goes a lot deeper than just being an anatomically correct rendition of the brain.
The borders of the cloak in the painting correlate with sulci in the inner and outer surface of the brain, the brain stem, the basilar artery, the pituitary gland and the optic chiasm. God’s hand does not touch Adam, yet Adam is already alive as if the spark of life is being transmitted across a synaptic cleft. Below the right arm of God is a sad angel in an area of the brain that is sometimes activated on brain scans when someone experiences a sad thought. God is superimposed over the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain and possibly the anatomical counterpart of the human soul. God’s right arm extends to the prefrontal cortex, the most creative and most uniquely human region of the brain.
There are two strains of thought in this, firstly man is made in Gods image, therefore the gift of intellect is that which separates us from all other life, and makes us “Gods on Earth”. Conscious thought and understanding being the key to being the divine creators image, and allowing blind faith in something we cannot see. The second theory is less religious, and really leans on God being a creation of the human brain. As beings with conscious thought, one of the questions which ultimately plagues us on a grand scale, is why are we here? What is the purpose? For some that question needs an answer, otherwise it could feel that life is meaningless and would create a nihilistic outlook, therefore a subconscious unity of a story among individuals whether the story be Christian, Muslim or any other religion gives a common goal and understanding which assist with easing the mind that life is not meaningless.
There is a lesser talked about theory around the cloak, in that it also resembles the shape of a uterus. The green scarf acting as the umbilical chord rather than the spinal chord. This lends itself to the theory that man is bore from God, but perhaps actually has an underlying acceptance that the cycle of life doesn’t need a god, as god is always depicted as a man, but in reality life can’t exist without both male and female counterparts, so this could have been a little hit back about the patriarchal hierarchy which has been created within religion. It is here that I will note that just next to God (in fact he has his arm around her) in the brain/uterus is a blond female, who reflects Adam’s gaze. It is thought that this is Eve (although some theories suggest it is the Virgin Mary, but I am discounting this completely as it makes no sense to the theme of the painting), as Eve was a concept to be Adam’s mate, and was in the thought process of God once Adam had been bought to life, but does also reflect the need for the woman in the population of the Earth.
Articles about this piece usually only concentrate on the element of God in this painting, as the representation of him is quite different in it, he is not shown in regal attire as we are used to – rather in a simple white tunic. Personally I attribute this to the overall progression of the Sistine Chapel. The entire ceiling moves through the motions of the creation of humanity (some would say God’s greatest achievement) only for humanity to let God down, and make him withdraw from his creation and serve punishment upon them through floods, plagues and death, only then to send a saviour. God at the beginning of his relationship with man is on his own journey of understanding that he is a higher being and can’t generally accept that the creations of his own making fall in to such disgrace, so he becomes more authoritative the worse the behavior of man gets, serving as a moralist view point as to how humans should live their lives, even though we were granted with free will.
What is rarely talked about is Adam, as actually he is simply there to serve the purpose to show God’s ability to bring life to the land he created, but… he is there to interpret the fact that we see ourselves as Gods image, so there are some observations I have about this. If Michelangelo really felt that we are in God’s image why does Adam have a belly button? I bet you thought I was crazy with the opener for this article… God being a divinity come from the ether would certainly not have a belly button, but more over, Adam wasn’t born, but made, so we wouldn’t have one either, unless there was an acceptance that the biblical stories are just that – stories created to suit the needs of conscious thought.
I am briefly going to talk about Adam’s penis… I know it doesn’t look like much to talk about, which is a disappointment in the stakes of being created in Gods image, but actually it is quite well known that Michelangelo used men’s genitalia to represent the mood of the subject. The most well known being his status of David, with its disproportionate penis. The theory behind this being that David is about to fight Goliath, therefore he is frightened and blood flow being used for other things, therefore this appendage not as anatomically important for what is happening around him. The same theory applies here to Adam, he has just had life breathed into him, therefore not the most important organ to the situation, which seems an odd thing to display in art, as you would think that artistic licence could be at play here and Michelangelo could have been kinder, but I think he is more of a stickler to reality.
Finally lets talk about the hands. They are momentous in this piece. It is the moment life bursts from God to man – yet they don’t touch, like the electric firings from the brain which I spoke about earlier, but there is another thought process in that Adam will never achieve the divinity of God. The gap between the fingers is exactly 3/4 of an inch apart, which scholars attribute to the attainability of divinity due to the preciseness of the gap (art scholars are fun like that). The theory of this is very deep and not something I feel I can fully explain within this article, but if you are interested, try a google search on Apophatic theory, which concentrates on the negative theory of what God isn’t rather than the positive that we are used to around what he is. The only comment I will give to this is that we are also told about how loving and accepting God is, but hear a lot of stories where he punishes humans for basically being human and failing at certain tasks, you never hear a story where God pops down and pats someone on the back for being brilliant.
For me, I think that while Michelangelo had a deep faith, there are questions which the bible didn’t answer for him, and those come out loud and clear in his work, especially within the Sistine Chapel, possibly because of his artistic temperament and well educated background which made him ever searching for answers.
What do you see in “The Creation of Adam?” Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?