Sistine Chapel … In the Beginning

June 11, 2012

Michelangelo, scenes of Creation, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

As you walk from the west door to the front altar in the Sistine Chapel, the scenes on the main panels of the ceiling go backwards in time. You start with scenes from the story of Noah, then comes the scenes dealing with Adam and Eve, and finally you see these three scenes of creation. Michelangelo actually painted the ceiling in this reverse chronological order, so here in these later images, we see some of his most dynamic and gutsy compositions.

The bottom (first) panel depicts the separation of light and darkness on the first day of creation. In the next panel, the third and fourth days are combined, so we see the creation of dry land and vegetation on the left and the creation of the sun and moon on the right. The top panel shows us the second day, when God separated the waters, although some assert that this could also show the fifth day when God filled the waters with living creatures.

One thing is immediately apparent: this not the usual way creation was depicted in art. Here we have a God who may have the grey beard, but is anything but an old man. His body is muscular and energetic. He flies through the air, twisting and turning, reaching and pointing. His authority over the universe is expressed in his powerful and commanding presence in space.

This approach solves a big representational problem. In the biblical account of creation, God speaks the universe into being. He says, “Let there be light,” and light appears in the darkness. He says, “Let there be plants,” and green things emerge from the new soil. But how do you paint that kind of speech act? Michelangelo doesn’t even try. Instead, he translates that speech into gesture. The force of God’s creative power is expressed in the force of his gestures. He points, pushes, raises a hand, and the universe is compelled to follow his command.

What I love about these paintings is the way they reach past the literal account of the creation found in Genesis 1, and get to the heart of the narrative—that is, God’s marvelous creative power. The story underscores the extent of God’s creative act (there was nothing, now there is everything), but also the simplicity of God’s power (he only spoke, but those words were enough to make the universe and everything in it). These paintings communicate that quiet but absolute authority.

I suppose that should make me nervous, but it actually is comforting, probably because I believe that God is good. The God that wields such power is not capricious or violent or maniacal. And so I breathe easier knowing that God has got everything under control, even when things seem to be falling apart.

Perhaps this is why, when I look at these paintings, my eye tends to gravitate towards the figure in the middle of the center panel—the one below the sun. He looks up at God with an expression of awe and admiration. On my better days, I feel like him. He is very aware of the great power and authority of God. And so he seems just slightly nervous, as if he’s not quite sure what to expect next, but he wants to keep close. His eyes are wide open. His eyes are fixed upon God.

Again … on my better days.

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