Sunday, December 27, 2015

In the Beginning

It's an old art history trivia question that speaks to the gospel reading for Christmas 2C (John 1:1-18). Here's the set up: in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, we know that God's right hand reaches out to the newly created Adam. (Detail below.) Here's the question: where is God's left hand and arm? Don't look at the full view until you've made a guess.
Michelangelo. Creation of Adam (detail). Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512. Vatican City, Italy.
OK, now look at the bottom of the page for the full view. Was it what you thought? And, actually what is it? Obviously it's God and a number of other figures floating in space on a cloak-like background. God's left arm is around a female figure, and God's left hand is touching an infant. Who are they?

There is no definitive answer, but there are theories. All the theories wind up with the infant as the Christ Child, so it is the identity of the woman that shapes the meaning of the composition. One theory identifies the female figure as Eve, waiting her turn to be created. Eve, whose name means life, will be the mother of all humanity. A second casting of the figures calls the female figure Mary, who will be the literal mother of Jesus. A third option is that the female figure is Wisdom (see Proverbs 8:22ff.). Yet another proposal is that the female figure is the Holy Spirit (ruach, a feminine noun, in the Hebrew). With this interpretation, the figures become the Trinity, all three persons present in the beginning.

Each of the above propositions concludes with the identification of the infant as the Christ Child. The interpretations by turn feature the Christ as the second Adam, the son of God and one person of the Trinity. However it is interpreted, Michelangelo has caused the hand of God to rest eternally on the child. The artist has placed the Word in the beginning, exactly where John's gospel said he was.

On Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page this week...Epiphany! Travel with the magi by clicking here.

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