Saturday, 15 June 2013

Michelangelo's Creation of Man

Everyone recognises this picture. It has been reproduced over and over and even if you don't recall the details of where it originally comes from you know it is God and Adam and something to do with the creation, unless it is the version where Adam is replaced by a robot in which case it is... something else.
Let me remind you of some of the details because they are interesting. The picture is a detail from the Sistine Chapel in Rome and it was painted by Michelangelo around 1500AD. I've been lucky enough to see it twice, once before the major restoration work when it looked a bit gloomy and once afterwards when it looked like the version shown here. The Sistine Chapel was painted in two phases and this detail was from the second half.
Michelangelo was an astonishing artist. The first thing we know he did, a relief carving of the Virgin and Child in Florence, is just brilliant. Artists often trained themselves with a daily exercise involving drawing their left hand. Visari recounts that Michelangelo normally drew both, which probably means he was ambidextrous. That would have helped his painting and carving, but his genius was in conceiving the things in the first place. He was, however, primarily a sculptor and even once remarked 'I am no painter'.
In those days getting anything done at all was a huge challenge. You need to get 80 feet up to the ceiling to paint? Well you've got to design and build your scaffolding. And you'll need paint, you'll need to make it yourself. They often got apprentices to do this but Michelangelo had trouble keeping apprentices and ended up doing much of this himself. The technique for painting on ceilings like this involved putting plaster onto the stone, laying a drawing over the plastered section and punching holes into the outline, then painting directly into the plaster before it dried, ie quickly. All the while you have to have enough paint mixed and ready and you are working either lying on your back or bending your neck back.
Like I said he did it in two phases, reusing the scaffolding, so it wasn't until he had finished the first phase and taken down the scaffolding that he could stand on the floor and see what it really looked like from a distance.
It looked like this. The middle panel is Adam and Eve accepting the forbidden fruit and, in the second part, being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. it seems Michelangelo refined his ideas for the next phase of the work and the panels got bigger and more dynamic. It is all good stuff but the second half gets the most attention and is arguably better.
There's one more technical detail worth mentioning about the work. The shape of the ceiling mean he had to use perspective adjustments to make the figures look right, things like making the heads of those guys sitting around the edges bigger than they ought to be. The geometry involved makes my head hurt.
So it is brilliant both conceptually and technically and it was all done in spite of huge challenges and I haven't even mentioned the nagging pope who was paying for it.
But take a look at that first image again. There's Adam sitting on some kind of rock looking like a body builder, most of Michelangelo's figures look like they work out a lot, including the girls. And there's God, the one with the white beard floating on something that looks like a raft of angels and a cape. The image has been reproduced so many times now that some of us think this is what God is really like, an elderly but vigorous guy who floats in the sky somehow. Actually that's not quite what I mean. I think this is what people who don't believe in God think that people who do believe in God think we think He is like. You might want to read that sentence again.
But most believers I know see this for what it is, a brilliant artist's attempt to capture a moment in paint. When such moments involve God he has to resort to symbols, and fair enough. Any description of God resorts to symbols whether in paint or not. And most of us know that.