There is academic debate over a female figure shown in the Creation of Adam. As God the Father stretches out one arm to Adam, his other arm curls around a female figure. Some have identified this figure as Wisdom, some as Mary.
Lev suggested it is best to identify this figure as Eve, both because the figure provides visual balance to Adam and because her gaze “connects her more intimately with Adam.”
The creation of Eve from Adam, depicted next on the chapel ceiling, shows Eve emerging from Adam’s side with her hands clasped in prayer, an image of the Church and the personification of Mary, the “Second Eve.”
Lev cited St. John Paul II’s 1999 homily inaugurating the newly restored Sistine Chapel, after centuries of grime and soot were removed. The pope called the chapel the “sanctuary of the theology of the human body,” alluding to his catecheses offered from 1979 to 1984. The pope suggested that Michelangelo allowed himself to be guided by the Book of Genesis’ depiction of mankind in Eden: “the man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.”
Before the fall, Lev commented, Michelangelo depicted Adam and Eve in the state of grace as “two of his most beautiful figures.”
“They are filled with dynamism. They’re buoyant. They’re luminous,” Lev said, adding that their bodies “suggest immortality.” After the fall, however, both of their bodies “lose their luminosity” and appear heavier, like a burden. Adam’s shoulder seems to force Eve into the background, “subjugating her.”
For Lev, the artistic depiction of the genealogy of Jesus Christ also deserves attention. The portrayal of the ancestors of Jesus Christ shows “a genealogy of men and women struggling from generation to generation.” These figures seem “more approachable” and “much more similar to candid family photographs.” Even though 22 women in Jesus’ genealogy are not named, Michelangelo pairs them with their husbands.
Lev noted that Michelangelo broke with artistic convention both by including mothers and by showing them as busy, everyday women “tending to toddlers, toilettes, and tasks.” His style of painting them with “incredible immediacy” adds observations of human nature: Eleazar’s wife holds the purse strings and the key to the house, and her husband looks “startled” as she surveys their son. Other depictions are “tender and intimate,” like the portrayal of the wife of Manasseh, who cradles a swaddled son while rocking an infant’s cradle.
Here, Lev drew on John Paul II’s 1995 “Letter to Women.” He wrote that womanhood and manhood are complementary at the physical, psychological, and even ontological level.
“It is only through the duality of the masculine and the feminine that the human finds full recognition,” the pope said. “To this unity of the two, God has entrusted not only the work of procreation and family life but the creation of history itself.”
Lev noted that the passing of generations “necessarily emphasizes the begetting of children.” This means that the complementarity of the sexes is essential for a population to form and for creation to continue.
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In Michelangelo’s portrayal of the Last Judgment, the artist still looks back to creation but also breaks new ground. He placed Mary next to Christ, as “a foil to Christ’s sternness.”
“She is the picture of mercy gazing down towards the elect, placed by the wound in Christ’s side whence the Church sprang,” Lev said. “Mary is transfigured into the Bride of Christ, for whom he gave his life and to whom he cannot say no. She is the conduit to Christ, as Eve was the link between God and man in the creation of woman.”
For Lev, the Sistine Chapel shows the “incredible gift of creation” from the beginning of the world down through the generations, “through which all of us today are a part of that continuation of creation.”