This is on the short list of the most famous images in the world. It is a fresco painting, which means that it actually is part of the ceiling itself in the Sistine Chapel. These are only two of more than three hundred figures that cover over 5,800 square feet that Michelangelo alone painted on the ceiling of the chapel. The sheer physical demands of this task are mind-boggling (he wrote a sonnet about it). The artistry is nothing short of magnificent.
Here we see the moment just before God gave the spark of life to Adam. God, who hovers over the earth in front of what looks like a cosmic egg filled with personifications of his incipient ideas, his left arm around an adolescent Eve, reaches his right fingertip toward the fingertip of Adam. This type of storytelling, where we see the moment a split second before the high point in the narrative – this kind of “pregnant moment” – is typical of the art of Michelangelo. The Italians called it terribilità, which means powerfully expressive and awe-inspiring.
This image also betrays Michelangelo’s engagement with Neoplatonism, which is a philosophy based on the teachings of Plato’s followers in ancient Greece. During the Renaissance, the humanist philosopher, Marsilio Ficino, translated the ancient Greek texts to Latin after which other humanists began to incorporate the ancient ideas with Christian beliefs. One of the leading beliefs of the Neoplatanists that is also held in Christianity is that man was made in the image of God. Underscoring this idea, Michelangelo painted God and Adam’s bodies in a sort of parallel arabesque that visually demonstrates Adam’s divine potential before The Fall.