Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Art in Lent 2: Contemplation
Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Pope Julius II and began work when he was 33 years old, completing it 4 years later in 1512. The Creation of Adam is part of nine scenes from the book of Genesis, that itself forms the centerpiece to a complex series of paintings involving around 300 figures. Michelangelo undertook this great work somewhat reluctantly, even running back to his favoured medium – sculpture – until the Pope demanded that he return to work on the Sistine Chapel. This image is one of the three most famous paintings of all time – the others being Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Last Supper – and like them it has spawned many playful reworkings of the scene.
The Creation of Adam shows God the Father reaching towards a reclining Adam. The fingers are not touching, and it is unclear whether the spark of life has already passed from God to Adam; Adam is clearly ‘alive’ yet strangely vacant. If it is ‘pre-spark’ as it were, then Adam is engaged in the act – actively receiving the force of life. True life is absent until the Father’s touch kickstarts not just Adam but the succession of events depicted across the rest of the ceiling.
Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo’s interest in and study of human anatomy informed his painting and sculpture. Take ‘David’, the renowned gigantic sculpture of the shepherd boy-king that he completed 8 years prior to finishing the Sistine Chapel; the hand alone is perfect, in its rendering of each vein and fingernail. David’s hand and that of Adam are very similar; beautifully elegant, graceful hands, that are relaxed in their pose. God’s hand, in contrast, is a strong workman’s hand, straining to reach forward and close the gap. It is tempting to think that Michelangelo chose one of the scaffolders who helped with the practicalities of the work as the life model, rather than the more delicate model used for Adam. God is busy about his work, getting things done, making it happen; life is no accident for him.
We are used to seeing that tantalizing gap between the fingers closed by a bolt of lightening, as in the title sequence from the old South Bank Show. It has even been postulated that Michelangelo’s knowledge of anatomy stretched to an understanding of the synapses between nerve cells, where the gap between two cells is breached by chemical messengers. This seems fanciful to me, as does speculation that the material on which God rests is the shape of the uterus, or the human brain. Did Michelangelo imagine such a bolt of lightening? I like to think that he instead imagined a gentle prod – after all, he was painting the equivalent of the breath of God, itself an inherently gentle image. God is prodding Adam awake, as a Father might do to a sleepy child – and a touch from such a father, however gentle, has the most overwhelming consequences. No wonder Adam looks vacant: he is in the process of awakening, not from a dream, but from oblivion. And yet the gap remains, between God and Adam. God strains to meet Adam; Adam has only to reach a little to close the gap, and receive the life-spark. In this way this image is perhaps a better depiction not of creation but of our new birth in Christ, when God asks of us that we turn towards him and reach but a little so that we might receive all that he offers.
Within the shape of the cloth that God inhabits exist other beings, including, in the crook of God’s arm, the figure of Eve. This is woman existing yet not created; she exists only as an idea and an intention, in the imagination of God. Perhaps after all this cloth does represent the mind of the Divine Being. Both Adam and Eve, man and woman, are depicted in this moment, at different stages of their creation through to awakening realization of the presence of God.
During Lent it is often a goal to take time out to notice God: in the actions of the day, in the time set aside, and in the wonder of nature around us. In this process we may also notice our own lack of animation, our spiritual lassitude. We are like the dry bones of Ezekiel, rattling around but with no life and breath. To take notice of the beauty around us, to stop and stare and appreciate, is part of what it is to be human. It is also part of what it is to be divine – so in this way we are reflecting the nature of God. As Adam mirrors the position of God as painted by Michelangelo, so we too mirror his image, and reflect back his nature as Creator and sustainer. God gazes on Adam, seeing that his creation is good, and contemplates him even as he breathes life into him; Adam breathes in that life, and then goes on to his task, the naming of the animals – in which he looks, appreciates and stewards them.
Adam’s appreciation of all that God had made took the form of naming, because that was what was required of him, and what was in his heart. It was, in a sense, his spiritual gift. When searching for a definition of a spiritual gift I came across this:
A spiritual gift is the God-given capacity of every Christian to carry out his function in the body of Christ.
I would alter that slightly: A spiritual gift is the God-given capacity of every Christian to carry out his function with flair, where flair denotes something of our individuality and the joy that the exercise of that gift brings. Adam was bringing all that he was to God’s service, with joy.
Each of us will appreciate what is around us in a way that both reflects the image of God in us and the unique take on life that God has granted to us. I tend to turn to words, to poetry, and to photography; those with a background in mathematics may be more likely to contemplate the intricate simplicity of the Fibonacci sequence – the numbers that are repeated again and again throughout nature, dictating its order and beauty. However you contemplate, it should be something that is innate and true to you; not borrowed words, or borrowed sentiments, but something real and unique.
This Lent is an opportunity to wake from the slumber of everyday life, and to catch a glimpse of God-life – life in all its fullness. In order to do this we, like Adam in Michelangelo’s painting, should make a move towards God – reach out our hand, even as he strains towards us. In contemplation of the wonderful things around us we make such a move. Contemplation of creation is never an end in itself, but a gateway to the Creator. It is, if you like, an icon – an image of the one who draws us to himself. Contemplation of the Creator is a fundamental practice of those believers who wish to develop relationship with God.