Robert Adams, Outdoor Theater and Cheyenne Mountain, 1968 (Fraenkel Gallery)

Robert Adams, Outdoor Theater and Cheyenne Mountain, 1968 (Fraenkel Gallery)

I just finished teaching a unit on landscape photography. Like my students, I don’t find landscapes to be intrinsically interesting—it doesn’t matter how majestic the scene or how dynamic the photograph. Until, that is, we get to the 1970s. Then we get to landscapes like this.

Robert Adams is particularly compelling to me, and not just because he took lots of photos in Colorado Springs where I grew up (I swear, for example, that I went to a movie at THAT drive-in sometime in high school). No, I am really intrigued by the questions his photographs seem to ask.

Take this one.

The photograph has three parts: the dirt, the sky, and the band between them. He includes a LOT of sky, with tuffs of clouds that add texture but also pull that part of the photo forward. The dirt has texture too, of course, and poles that draw the viewer into the image (if not into the actual space in the photo).

Adams situates his camera so that the top edge of the screen intersects the contour of the mountain just as the range descends sharply, so the screen’s sharp edge becomes the horizon until it again intersects the gradual incline of the earth on the left. The continuity of the resulting band is enhanced by the similar gray values across the whole width. Only the dark vertical line on the right edge of the screen offers a firm break between nature’s spectacle and a human-made one.

Which I think is the point. The Colorado front range is a spectacle. From any window on the west side of my childhood home, I could watch the mountains change throughout the day. On almost every afternoon in the spring a little drama would unfold as a weather front moved through, bringing huge dark clouds, lightening, and sheets of rain. Even without weather, the movement of the sun would change the appearance and the feel of those mountains.

I did watch. But not often. Certainly not often enough.

I think too often I was caught up in other things to pay attention. Too busy watching human-made spectacles, perhaps.

In photos like this, Adams was documenting the new topography that humans had created. It is easy to read some criticism about how humans have ruined nature, but I think this photo could also point to the fact that it is often precisely because of human insertions into the landscape that we actually notice the beauty of the land. Just look at me right now. I’m not sure I would have given a photograph of Cheyenne Mountain a second look without the screen, the fence, and the speaker poles.

Looking at this photo, I’m feeling nostalgic and regretful. I don’t have a panoramic view of the Colorado Rockies anymore. Oh, to be able to tell my 16-year-old self sitting at that kitchen table to slow down, look out, and just watch.

I can’t do that, but I can try to pay attention now–in the not-quite-as-spectacular landscape where I live now. I can tell my 42-year-old self to slow down, look out, and watch.

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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.

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.