Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sistine Chapel: Noah and Adam

Last night I heard Gary M. Radke give a lecture on the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512). Radke pointed out an interesting similarity between two scenes on the ceiling, the Creation of Adam (detail on left) and the Drunkenness of Noah (detail on right). Both of these figures are positioned in the same manner, and Radke finds that to be quite significant.

In order to understand the significance, though, I should explain more about the program of the Sistine Chapel. The panels on the ceiling depict early moments in biblical history, which mainly focus on events around/during the Creation, Fall, and Flood. What is interesting, though, is that one who enters the chapel sees the panels in an anachronistic manner. In other words, the last panel, The Drunkenness of Noah, is the one that is placed over the entrance to the chapel (The Drunkenness of Noah is at the top of this image of the ceiling). As one walks further and further into the chapel, the biblical scenes go backwards in time, showing the Flood, then the Expulsion from the Garden, then the Creation of Adam. Scenes of the Creation appear at the other end of the chapel, culminating in God's Separation of Light from Darkness (which is located over the altar).

Radke pointed out that it this reversed order is intentional. As one moves closer to the altar and celebration of the mass, one moves closer to God and closer to the moment of purity in the Creation. I think that's beautiful symbolism; it is as if one moves closer to purity as he/she walks further away from the chapel doorway and the sin that exists in the world. That point is even further emphasized by the choir screen that bisects the length of the Sistine Chapel. The Creation of Adam is placed directly above the choir screen. Therefore, the visitor arrives at that depiction of purity and innocence as he or she walks through the choir screen partition.*

With all this in mind, it's interesting to see a similarity between Adam and Noah. Noah is shown as a fallen, sinful, elderly man. In contrast, Adam represents the innocence, purity, and youth of the Creation. Yet the two figures are shown in the same position, which emphasizes that Adam and Noah also serve as broader symbols of humanity. I really like that.

*Granted, not everyone would have been able to walk through the choir screen. The lay people would have been expected to stay on the side of the screen which is closest to the doorway. (Too bad for them, huh? They would never be able to approach the pure, sinless moments depicted in the Creation scenes.) Nonetheless, one can still see how the choir screen fits into the program and symbolism of the ceiling.