Reimagining Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam

“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

—Johann Wolfgang Goethe,

23 August 1787

I love the Sistine Chapel:  that jewel of the Vatican, repository of some of the best art of the Renaissance:  the dramatic frescoes on the life of Moses and the life of Christ, painted by Perugino, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio; the papal portraits; the trompe l’oeil draperies which adorn the walls—all inspire and amaze.

White smoke signifies that a new Pope has been elected

Since 1483, the Sistine Chapel has been the site of papal conclaves where the Cardinals have gathered to elect a new pope.  The mystery and romance of the black smoke/white smoke “secret message” in the sky when the Cardinals cast their ballots is the stuff of legend.

But the pièce de résistance in the chapel is the ceiling, where Michelangelo has rendered the Creation and the Last Judgment, with its heavily muscled and tortured figures glancing fearfully at a righteous God.  That Michelangelo painted one of his enemies, a cardinal who opposed his work, in hell adds humor and pathos to the masterpiece.

But what do you most remember of the Sistine ceiling?  The iconic image which comes to mind most frequently is Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam—with God extending his divine Finger to instill the spark of life.

It’s the sketch most often reproduced:  I have a serving tray and an umbrella emblazoned with the familiar image.

It’s also often parodied, as evidenced here:

(I’ll bet that formed the basis for the “God and the Machine” blog, written by fellow Patheos writer Tom McDonald.)

It’s used in advocacy and advertising:

And in humor:

New Advent featured an article this week about a 1990 paper by Philip Meshberger (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) alleging that the depiction in God Creating Adam in the central panel on the ceiling was a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section.  According to Meshberger, Michelangelo had depicted God the Father surrounded by a shroud which corresponded to a cross section of the human brain.  Michelangelo, who had elsewhere painted anatomical sketches, was conveying that God was endowing Man not only with life, but also with supreme human intelligence.

For those who cannot explore the treasures of the Sistine themselves, the Vatican now offers a virtual tour.  Check it out:  It’s well worth your time!




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  • Peter Baker

    I took a look at the cameo, thanks. It could be that Michelangelo saw it, or a copy, or the original, and adapted the pose for his own use. But the person depicted is not Augustus, it is Michelangelo’s nephew Iohannes, son of his elder brother, who had a Northern European alias. The name Iohannes is there on his body, in his hair, on his face… and, most significantly, if you look at that tense gap between the fingers, you will find… Let’s put it this way: in the gap if you do some digital enhancement to reveal the minor changes in tonality, you will find the start of the word ‘chiave’.

    In Italian this means ‘key’, and beneath the word we find two names. That of Iohannes, and that of Felice, who was at the time believed to be Pope Julius II’s daughter. Actually she was a cover for his sexual attraction to young men, commented on with great sarcasm by Erasmus (she was really the daughter of Sixtus IV, who built the chapel, and who was Julius’ father, not his uncle). What seems to have happened is that Iohannes was part of a plot to create a baby uniting the resources of various branches of one powerful family, including the della Rovere offshoot, and pass him off as the child of Felice’s husband, who was capo of the Orsini clan, one of the two richest and most powerful families in Rome, and, incidentally, also Julius II one time lover. Once the child was born (he’s the most prominent of the cherubs in ‘God’s cloud) Orsini could then be disposed of, and the boy would inherit all the wealth of the della Rovere’s and the Orsinis, and the rest of the family who I would rather not mention here. But Orsini found out, and Iohannes was murdered.

    You can see the lad again in the fresco – he is the languid youth gesticulating at ‘God’ in the so-called ‘Separation of Light from Darkness’. The gesture is the same that Adam uses in the Temptation scene to the serpent, and which appears elsewhere – there are two cherubs doing it also in one of the pen datives. It is a rude way of saying go away. And that is because nothing is as it seems in this fresco. Adam is not Adam, the cherub is not a cherub, the naked lady is actually Felice, and God is not God, he is Julius, and he had the hots for Iohannes.

    I’m leaving most of the story out because what Michelangelo says is so utterly different to the one Pope Julius thought he was buying that the scandal would not be good for my health, but this is part of it.

    By the way, and I’m stopping now before this turns into a book… look above the bulge of the uppermost muscle in ‘God’s left arm. There is a shadow there just to the right of a cherub. Hidden in there is someone very important. If you look (I can provide the visuals if you can’t see it) there is the profile of the face of an African lad. Where you would expect his hair to be, very very well disguised, is the name ‘Ali’, and running vertically downwards the phrase ‘ti amo’. It’s the boy Michelangelo sketched for the most shocked-looking of all the naked youths on the ceiling, except he changed the skin colour and the head. Look at the preparatory sketch and you see the model was African – the face is not a Caucasian face at all. And Ali’s name appears there too, well hidden in the musculature, and elsewhere (behind his head) it again says ‘io ti amo’; and he sketched the same boy before this, in his sketch for the Tomb of Julius, again labeled with his name. And Leonardo sketched him also, younger still; and the child in Mantegna’s Three Kings has ‘Ali’ written across his forehead, again, obviously, since no one noticed it for 500 years, very faintly. And he also tells us who the boy’s mother was, Fatima, and who the father was, but his name I can’t tell you because of the storm it would trigger. Go look for yourself.

    I’ve left all the most important bits out of this story, but the central message is that there is hidden text which tells us what the fresco is really about. If you look, seriously, and with an open mind, you will find it. Being familiar with Photoshop also helps.