Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Creation of Adam (c.1508 – 1512): Michelangelo’s Astounding Piece

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is one of the most iconic sections of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and one of his most famous paintings. In this article, Singulart discusses the life of this archetypal Renaissance man and one of his many masterpieces, The Creation of Adam. 

Who was Michelangelo? 

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 – 1564) was an Italian sculptor, painter and architect considered to be one of the most influential artists to come out of the Renaissance period. He was born in Caprese near Arezzo in Tuscany and raised in Florence where he studied grammar under the Humanist Francesco da Urbin. At the age of 13, he became artist Domenico Ghirlandaio’s apprentice. Ghirlandaio had one of the largest workshops in Florence and in 1489 he recommended Michelangelo to Lorenzo de Medici after being asked for his two best pupils. From 1490 to 1492, he studied at the Medici’s Humanist Academy, founded on their Neoplatonic beliefs. However, after Lorenzo de Medici’s death in 1492, Michelangelo left and returned to his father’s home.

After stints in Venice and Bologna, he returned to Florence but didn’t receive any work from the Savonarola who had taken control of the city. He accepted an invitation by Cardinal Raffaele Riario to move to Rome in 1496 and wouldn’t return to Florence until 1499 when he was commissioned by the Guild of Wool to complete an unfinished carrara marble statue. It was here that Michelangelo created one of his most famous works, David, which was completed in 1504.

michelangelo portrait
Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)

The following year he returned to Rome to build Pope Julius II’s tomb and was also commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, on which he worked from 1508-1512. The Sistine Chapel commission includes some of his most famous paintings and depicts nine episodes from the Book of Genesis, split into three sections: The Creation of Earth, The Creation of Humankind and The Fall from God’s Grace.

In 1520, the Medici’s commissioned Michelangelo to design a family funerary chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. He would continue to be a highly sought out figure, with him being appointed in 1546 as architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Michelangelo continued to work tirelessly up until his death, with the incomplete Rondanini Pieta being sculpted six days before his death in 1564. As the prolific artist that he was, he is perhaps the best documented artist of the 16th century and the only artist to have had his biography (by Giorgio Vasari) published during his lifetime. 

What’s happening in The Creation of Adam?

The Creation of Adam is a fresco painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512 on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City. It depicts the passage from the Book of Genesis which describes God creating Adam and giving life to the first man. It is one of the most iconic works of the Renaissance and one of the most reproduced religious works. 

Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel when he was in Rome working on the tomb of Pope Julius II. The original commission included paintings of the Twelve Apostles on the pendentives of the Sistine Chapel, however, Michelangelo persuaded the Pope to allow him to rethink the design. The final result is one of his most magnificent and complex works which covers over 500 square meters of ceiling, depicting over 300 figures.

Pope julius ii tomb
Tomb of Pope Julius II

The Creation of Adam has God in the right half of the composition as an aged, white-bearded man draped in a swirling red cloak while surrounded by a group of figures. His right arm is extended and it almost meets Adam’s in the center of the composition – symbolizing the act of creation. Adam is naked and lounges against a rock in the lower left hand section of the composition. Adam remains below God with their hands untouched to signify that they are not equals. Although it is not clear who the figures are in the group around God, it is thought that they represent Eve and the rest of the human race to be born of Adam and Eve. 

Michelangelo took inspiration from the Bible and the book of Genesis, which states: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him” (Gen 1:27). It is also thought he was inspired by the medieval hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” which mentions the “finger of the paternal right hand”. The composition of God surrounded by a group of people and a cloak continues to divide opinions. Some believe that it is an anatomically correct human brain whereas others believe that it depicts a human uterus, in line with the theme of creating life.

View our ‘Inspired by Michelangelo’ collection here.