Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In the Divine Image He Created Them

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam
Italian, 1508-1512
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel
God created man in his image;
(Et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam)

in the divine image He created him;
(ad imaginem Dei creavit illum)

male and female He created them.
(masculum et feminam creavit eos.)
Genesis 1:27 in the New American Bible and Latin Vulgate translations.

High above the heads of those who stand or sit in the Sistine Chapel (Rome, Vatican), be they tourists craning upward with open mouths, the cardinals in solemn conclave to elect a Pope or the Pope celebrating Mass, fly the great ceiling frescos of Michelangelo. Painted between 1508 and 1512, by commission of Pope Julius II, these paintings are one of the great monuments of Western art.

Detail showing Eve in God's left arm
In those four years, Michelangelo took a bland, early Renaissance ceiling, painted dark blue with silver stars, and transformed it into a ceiling of majesty, with central scenic panels, divided by illusory architecture and telling the story of salvation from the Creation of Light to the Flood. In the areas between the vaults he also presented the prophets of the Old Testament, the sibyls of the ancient pagan world and the ancestors of Christ.

Probably the most familiar of all the images from the ceiling is the one that illustrates the passage of Genesis 1:27 from today’s readings (reproduced above right). Usually called the “Creation of Adam”, it actually shows something more complex. Yes, God is reaching out to the reclining (and not yet fully alive) Adam to animate him. But look further. As He animates Adam with His right hand, the left arm of God is wrapped around the shoulders of the already created Eve. She for her part grasps His arm and looks with evident interest at the about to be animated Adam.

Michelangelo, Creation of Eve
Italian, 1508-1512
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel

There is another account in Genesis, also familiar to us, of the creation of Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. Michelangelo also painted that story on the Sistine ceiling.  This is the more traditional artistic view of the Creation of Eve but it lacks much of the energy, the grace and the mystery of Michelangelo's first image.