Creation of Adam


Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Fresco

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Mar-27-1998
  • Last revised: Jun-28-1999


Although the Creation of Adam has been portrayed many times in the history of Western art, no other image is as enduring as Michelangelo’s fresco. Adam lays back on a barren terrain, a small piece of the newly created earth. His languid pose belies his apparent physical strength. Based on classical Greek and Roman prototypes, Adam is the ideal human male with his rippling muscles and elegant contours.

However, at this particular moment, Adam is not complete. He extends his left hand out to meet the finger of God. God hovers in the air, surrounded by angels and a billowing cloak-like form. Adam is clearly made in God’s image, as seen in God’s muscular form. God stretches out with his right hand toward Adam; He looks intently and directly at Adam, who returns the gaze with longing.

As God’s outstretched finger almost meets Adam’s more passive finger, we are poised on the brink of creation. Adam is physically alive, but here God is about to endow Adam with what makes human beings truly alive: the spirit, the soul, the intellect. All of man’s potential, physical and spiritual, is contained in this one timeless moment.


Beyond this one powerful gesture, the image is full of other figures and is also part of a larger painting cycle. The main span of the Sistine Ceiling contains nine separate images, which arrange themselves into three sets of three: the Story of Noah, the Story of Adam and Eve, and the Story of Creation--all from the Book of Genesis.

A stylistic shift occurs in the Creation of Adam with more monumental figures and a reduction of narrative details. As the viewer moves from the entrance to the altar, the scenes unfold in reverse chronological order. The viewer also moves nearer to God and the act of creation, which symbolizes a union with God.

In the Creation of Adam, God’s left arm reaches out around a female figure interpreted as Eve (or Lilith? See Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem, Body's Beauty, this database) and His hand touches a child, who has been identified as the Christ Child. The child’s prominent position, larger scale, and direct contact with God indicate his status as Jesus Christ.

Thus the Creation of Adam encapsulates the Christian story of man’s relationship with God. In one broad motion, with both arms stretched wide, God creates man and anticipates man’s Savior. Man’s spiritual potential is about to spark in his union with God, but Adam’s future Sin and Fall are already foreseen, and Redemption through Christ is already present.


Executed 1511-1512.

Primary Source

Color reproductions exist in Hartt (before the ceiling's cleaning) and in Steinberg (after the cleaning): Hartt, Frederick. Michelangelo. New York: Harry N. Abrams (1984); Steinberg, Leo. Who's Who in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam: A Chronology of the Picture's Reluctant Self-Revelation, Art Bulletin, 74:4 (December 1992), pp. 552-566. For excellent color reproductions of the Sistine Chapel paintings see: Carlo Pietrangeli, et al. The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration. New York: Harry N. Abrams (1994).