Michelangelo, The Fall of Man and Expulsion from Eden, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, just slightly past the midway point, is this two-part scene. On the left is Michelangelo’s depiction of the Fall of Humanity and on the right the Expulsion from Eden. Here we have a tight narrative in which Adam and Eve’s actions on the left lead inexorably to the event on the right. No turning back.

The story is found in the book of Genesis, right after the story(s) of Creation. God has told Adam and Eve that they can eat anything in the Garden of Eden, except for the fruit of one tree. For a while it seems like they are fine with that, until the Serpent comes along and convinces Eve that she should eat it and then she turns around and convinces Adam he should too. Bad idea. They immediately feel guilty and try to avoid God when he comes looking for them. When God eventually confronts them, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the Serpent, but all three get punished. Among other things, Adam and Eve get kicked out of paradise. And, because of their disobedience, now every human being is prone to disobeying God—that’s the “Fall of Humanity.

Michelangelo puts his own little spin on the text, which has some theological implications. Notice how both Adam and Eve reach for the fruit. Eve has to twist around and reach behind her to take fruit from the Serpent (yes, the Serpent has a female torso … don’t get me started). The awkwardness of her gesture is heightened by the dead tree branch that follows the same line. For his part, Adam grips the tree and seems to pull it towards himself in order to get what he’s after. In this way, Michelangelo underscores how both are complicit in the Fall, but he seems to suggest that while Eve was passively receptive to the Serpent’s manipulation, Adam’s disobedience was assertive and willful. He’s going to take what God has forbidden.

Of course, the story doesn’t stop there. Our eye moves to the other side of the painting by following all those parallel and arching arms over to the angel at the top and then further to the pained faces of Adam and Eve. My, how things have changed.

The two look so young and innocent on the left, now they look old and gruesome. Sin has clearly taken its toll. Michelangelo has depicted the new state of their souls—that is, guilt-ridden and depraved—in their physical bodies. Their faces are weathered and wrinkled, their hair has become disheveled and stringy, and Eve covers her naked torso as she cowers and turns away. Adam also turns away, but it looks like he is trying to straight-arm the angel who is driving them out of Eden. If his posture is feebly defensive, the angel’s is forceful and aggressive, as if Michelangelo wants the angel to embody the anger of God.

I am struck by how incisively Michelangelo conveys the effects of sin here. First, he shows how sin has made us into despicable creatures. We are no longer the humans that God originally created us to be, for sin has eroded the innocence and dignity that characterized humanity before the Fall. At the same time, Michelangelo also portrays the shame and deep regret we sometimes feel when we become deeply aware of our sin and its consequences. I personally relate to Eve. I, too, have wanted to curl up in a little ball and hide because I have screwed up. Agh, what have I done!?!?

There’s not really any good news in this panel. Adam and Eve are left in this regrettable state. God is no where to be seen. There is no hint of any plan that God might have to reconcile with these two, or with humanity in general. Michelangelo leaves us with a pit in our stomach. While I would like a glimpse of hope, perhaps it’s better this way. It makes us live with this stark reality for a while.

Then, we start looking around for a sign of God’s grace. Don’t worry, it’s there.

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

Moving chronologically (at least for now), I’m turning to the panel that depicts the Creation of Eve. Michelangelo takes a pretty traditional approach in this case, but a few unique details pack a punch.

Like countless artists before him, he based his depiction on Genesis 2, and not Genesis 1. In this version of events, God decides Adam needs a helper, so he puts Adam into a deep sleep and removes one of his ribs, out of which he forms a woman. Artists tend to abbreviate the story, skipping the whole rib part and showing Eve stepping fully-formed from Adam’s side. Michelangelo does the same. In this way, these artists clearly make the point that Eve (and thus all women) may be a special creation, but she still came from Adam (the man).

As a woman (and something of a feminist), I could be offended by this emphasis on Eve’s secondary and derivative nature, but Michelangelo does a number of things in the painting to equalize the status of the first man and first woman. First, Adam looks like he has passed out rather awkwardly. His body is curved up and twisted slightly with his neck bent sharply to the side (oh, the neck-ache when he wakes up!). One arm is squished beneath him and the other crosses over his torso, and both wrists are folded forward. His body may be idealized, but here he looks weak and vulnerable. I appreciate the way his body position here echoes the one in the previous panel (the Creation of Adam), as if to remind viewers of Adam’s fundamental passiveness and (ahem) impotence.

Then, look at Eve. In contrast to Adam, every muscle in her body is flexed as she steps out toward God. She looks strong and sturdy, even as she balances in that awkward lunging stride. This is no feeble female. I like that. At the same time, she shows deference to her Creator. She keeps her head low and holds out her hands in a gesture of piety or subservience. Michelangelo calls our attention to this gesture by foregrounding it against the pale blue sky and adding the stumpy tree branch which follows the same line. He doesn’t want us to miss this.

And that gesture is an important detail because it reflects the relationship God is establishing with Eve. God has called her into being with a simple and controlled move of his hand; she responds by showing her respect and devotion to him. We see the relationship also in the way God bows his head ever-so-slightly to meet Eve’s gaze more directly. He reaches out to her with his eyes. I imagine that he wants her to get something—perhaps the uniqueness of what’s happening here, or maybe his desire for her trust him, or even (given what happens in the next panel) the crucial need for her to remain obedient.

God probably wishes he could make this kind of eye contact with each one of us on any given day.

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512 (Vatican, Rome)

I recently paired up with a student of mine to dialogue about an artwork in public. We chose The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel, in large part because we knew people would be more or less familiar with the artwork already. I’ve looked at this painting hundreds of times and analyzed it with students a bunch, but as we reflected on the painting in preparation for the event, some of the ideas sunk in a little deeper.

First, the basics. This panel is almost at the center of the ceiling, sandwiched between the creation scene of the separation of the waters  and the creation of Eve. The composition is relatively simple with God occupying the right half of the painting surrounded by heavenly creatures (angels?) and Adam on the left half lying back on a grassy slope. The largely warm tones of God’s side is contrasted with the cooler tones on Adam’s, and the white field in the middle emphasizes even further distinct separation between the two.

There is no doubt that Michelangelo is making a distinction between the human and the divine. God is all motion as he swoops in—the red mantle billows out behind him, his hair and beard are blown back, his garment and green sash seem to flutter with the wind. His arm reaches toward Adam with all his muscles bulging. Here, God is not an old guy in the clouds, but a dynamic and poweful force. In contrast, Adam seems sluggish. He does hoist himself up and extend his arm, but it seems like his whole body is heavy—he has to prop himself up on elbow and his arm rests on his knee as if he doesn’t have the strength to hold it up. Even his hand seems weak as he limply holds it out toward God’s. Adam may be alive, but he lacks vitality and energy. Michelangelo seems suggests that humanity is utterly weak in comparison to God’s power. We are fundamentally passive, inert, static. It is God who animates.

But here’s what I was thinking about this week. We don’t actually know if this is the moment after the divine touch that has brought Adam to life, or if this is the moment right before God touches Adam. If that’s the case, then Michelangelo may be getting at a deeper truth. The true moment of Adam’s creation is not when his body come alive, but when God touches Adam and something else happens. A Renaissance viewer might conclude that God is imparting to Adam those things that make us uniquely human—free will, a spirit, reason. That’s when humanity was created. Until then, we were just another animal in creation, but with spirit and reason, now we’re something altogether different, special, unique.

And part of that uniqueness is our relationship to God. Michelangelo makes that clear enough. The bodies of God and Adam rhyme with one another—they are positioned at the same angle, their right legs are aligned, and their arms and hands mirror one another. In this way, Michelangelo depicts the age-old doctrine of imago dei—the belief that Adam (and all humanity) was made in the image of God. This is underscored here in the way Michelangelo idealizes both their bodies. It makes sense (especially in the context of the Renaissance) that God’s body is idealized, but to have Adam’s body also exhibit well-defined muscles and perfect proportions imparts to him a certain dignity. Thus, Michelangelo expresses in Adam’s physical form the notion that humanity does have the spark of the divine.

I kind of feel like Adam looks. I sense that I have a unique relationship with God, that God has given me special gifts of reason and spirit. But, frankly, oftentimes I feel heavy, inert, weak. I guess I’m experiencing one of those paradoxes of humanity—we do have the spark of the divine, but we are also burdened with what it means to be human. Call it sin, call it the human condition, call it existential angst—whatever it is, it provides a regular reminder of our limitations. That’s why I’m so glad that Michelangelo paints God the way he did. God is so active, and so intentional. He swoops in, he reaches out, he does the work. That’s the uniqueness of the Christian God, right? Boy, am I glad that’s my God. It gives me a little hope.


Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed position), 1432 (Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent, Belgium)

I’ve been looking at the Ghent Altarpiece this week. I love this one because it is so elaborate, so complicated, and so theologically rich—it summarizes the doctrine of salvation in a whopping 24 panels. I can’t possibly point out every amazing part of this artwork, but I’ll try to point out some sweet spots.

First, an overview.

When the wings are closed (the top image), the four lunettes at the top contain some prophets and sybils who foretold the coming of Christ. Directly below them, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her she will bear the son of God—in other words, the fulfillment of the prophecy. The bottom four panels are more perfunctory because they contain portraits of the two donors on the outside of two painted statues that could be their patron saints: John the Baptist (note the shaggy garment) and John of Revelation (note the cup of snakes). All of this is painted in relatively drab colors with a fair amount of empty—let’s say, pregnant—space. Lots of expectation here.

Ghent Altarpiece (open position)

Ghent Altarpiece (open position)

When the altarpiece is opened, we see the end of the story. On the top level, you can see God (is it Jesus or God the Father? I vote the latter) enthroned and flanked by Mary and John the Baptist and a choir of angels. He is seated in majesty, supreme king and lord of all. If you follow the vertical axis from God Enthroned down, you can see a small dove (symbolizing the Holy Spirit) in a bright yellow-white light and then the Lamb on an altar (symbolizing Christ). The Trinity. The Godhead. Angels surround the altar, carrying symbols of Christ’s passion (the column and cross) and incense burners. This is the scene of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, as told by John in the book of Revelation. Crowds of saints and martyrs from biblical texts and from the whole of church history have gathered in the field to honor and adore the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. As a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, the Lamb has a wound in its breast, and the blood pouring out collects in a chalice in a nod to the celebration of the Mass, the ritual that commemorates that sacrifice.

Two important features remain.

First, the figures of Adam and Eve. I’ve always loved the fact that the van Eycks included Adam and Eve in this altarpiece. Their presence drives home the message of salvation—it was their original sin that necessitated the unfolding story of salvation—the story that was authored by the Godhead, prophesied by believers and pagans, and then accomplished when Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb. This work of salvation is received throughout history by the people of God and will be celebrated by all the saints in heaven forever more. Without Adam and Eve hovering ominously, we might not appreciate just how significant Christ’s sacrifice is. What’s all the fuss about? Well, we were all dead because of sin, but now we have eternal life. Big difference.

Which brings us to the other important element: the fountain at the bottom. We know from the x-rays that the fountain was added later. Whether it was an afterthought or a part of the original design is unknown, but it is now an integral part of the message of the altarpiece. Without it, the painting is a neat and tidy doctrinal statement that I can give my intellectual assent to and move on. But with the fountain there, the painting speaks to me. The inscription on the fountain says, “This is the fountain of the water of life proceeding out of the throne of God.” It is flowing, to be sure, but what I find so amazing is the little spout that protrudes out of the base of the fountain and channels that water of life into a rough-cut ditch that leads directly down and seemingly out of the painting. The water flows out of the fountain to all who believe, including me, as I stand or sit or even kneel before this altarpiece. That little spout makes me a part of this grand narrative, or at least it invites me to participate. How do I respond?