A prophecy of modernity

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam is a fitting emblem of Pentecost.ility.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
One of the most compelling of all human images is Michelangelo's Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling - that one with the index fingers of God and his creature almost touching, as the creative impulse follows between them. It is the most fitting of images for Pentecost. Since 1989, it has been gloriously restored,thanks to Japanese funding. And you can now get the whole thing on video, courtesy of the National Gallery. Best of all, George Bull's recent biography of Michelangelo is about to burst into paperback.

The Creation was designed to fit into a great complex pattern of the Christian tradition. But the figure of Adam is stunning, even if you don't like naked men that much. (Michelangelo, of course, did.) That figure is so vital that it seems to leap out of its context. So striking is the image that the thought arises: which way does the creative impulse flow? Who is inspiring whom?

Michelangelo seems to be creating two things here. First he offers a splendid depiction of a central theme in the Christian tradition. That tradition has always been fascinated by the ambiguity that lies between divine inspiration and the human imagination, the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. At times the human spirit is more subdued, at times more assertive. As George Bull so wonderfully shows, that complexity is supremely present in Michelangelo himself.

But, second, Michelangelo suggests that something new is happening in his own time. He offers a prophecy of modernity, as man begins, ever more consciously, to imagine a world not given by the past. We have fulfilled Michelangelo's prophecy in the way that we have wrenched Adam from the tradition whose images lie all around him in the Sistine. And once Adam breaks out of those bounds, he looks rather threatening. His gaze no longer adores the creator; it calculates the succession. In another touch of prophetic perception, Michelangelo couches the soul of Eve in the crook of God's arm. She looks worried - as if something terrible is going to happen, and she is going to get the blame for it.

This creator of modernity denies his finitude. He has, so to say, unfallen himself. His imagination and his activity are unbounded. You wouldn't trust Michelangelo's Adam as far as you could throw his David, and the creature is on the loose; his beauty and power, and especially his ridiculous vanity, have shaped our world. What we have here is not man come of age. What we have is a perpetual adolescent, now nearly five centuries old.

Christians are clearly anxious that Western culture is simply not sustainable outside its given traditions. It once seemed different. Once we were confident in our freedom to remake the world according to the exercise of individual conscience. We were mistaken. That was just the old Adam with a small, moralising towel round him. What we have witnessed is the collapse of the claims of individual conscience into chatter about life-style choices.

Some Christian responses to that uncongenial modernity are familiar, and unhelpful. One is to retreat into a crabbed, abusive reaction - to be more Catholic than the Pope, so to speak. The other refuge is an ecstatic religiosity - to fall over giggling in the poshest parts of Kensington. This may be harmless, but it's hard to tell whether it is a form of therapy or an experience of God.

The tradition provides better insights into contemporary Christian anxieties, most forcibly in St Paul's reflections on what then passed for modernity. He speaks with an astonishingly contemporary voice. One of his great themes is the refusal to lose his nerve in the face of overweening human arrogance. He insists that we should not find refuge in reaction or hysteria. He is astonishingly tactful in talking the Corinthians down from the ceiling. Paul would contemplate Michelangelo's Adam with a familiar eye. He would note the continuing Gentile tendency to lounge about mother-naked; indeed he might be glad of such clear evidence that he had won on the circumcision issue.

Most importantly, Paul points to a feature of creation which makes sense to all but the totally depraved. He expounds it in the 13th chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. There he describes all the things that love is, and does. It is not arrogant, but self-effacing. it is not domineering, but shared, it is mutual, or it is nothing. Above all, it is grown-up.

Paul's insight helps us to reflect on the interaction between the Spirit of God and human creativity. If Paul is right about love, then the transaction between the human and the divine is mutual, or it is nothing. Between those outstretched hands the creative impulse flows in both directions. Having first been loved, we imagine how to love. Paul even suggests, at least on this occasion, that love transcends the specifics of Christian dogma; everything has its time, but this never passes away. It is that spirit which Christians invoke at Pentecost - the Spirit that reveals the shared divine and human nature, and which invites us to a shared and fulfilling life.

But there is a sharper edge to such reflection. The Creation of Adam seen in its whole context insists that the human appropriation of divine love is not a life-style option, at least for Western culture. For immediately below the Creation is a less familiar masterpiece, but it dominates the Sistine Chapel. It is Michelangelo's Last Judgement. Only the most crabbed reactionary takes this literally. And you have to be a particular kind of spiritual bigot to imagine that humanity can be frightened into a proper condition of mutual regard. But its terrifying images do chime with contemporary anxieties. They insist that careless, modern, adolescent humanity has to grow up sometime, and that sooner might be wiser.