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In this lesson, you will explore the process and results of the restoration of the ‘Creation of Adam’ and discover why this remains controversial. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Restoration

The Italian Renaissance was full of some incredible works of art. Many of these were deemed so important that they are actually considered parts of European heritage. That means that these pieces of art are connected to the very essence of Western identity. Whoa – that’s heavy.

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Clearly these are some very important pieces of art, so I have a question for you: What happens when they get dirty? Uh-oh.Despite the care given to art, soot and grime and pollution tend to build up over centuries, sometimes irreversibly damaging the original artwork. That’s when we turn to restoration, the scientific attempt to return a piece of art to its original condition.

But, restoration is tricky – the restorers need to remove the grime while preventing any damage to the original art, and this can prove to be tremendously difficult!

The Creation of Adam

One of the most famous works of art in the world is the Creation of Adam, a panel in the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti around 1512. I can pretty much guarantee that you have seen this painting before. Here it is – recognize it?

The Creation of Adam
The Creation of Adam in the mid-1900s
creation of adam with grime and soot

At this point, 400 years of grime, soot, humidity and, eventually, pollution from cars had created a pretty nice layer of grime covering the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. At some points, the artwork was barely visible. Additionally, cracks in the ceiling threatened some of the images.

So, the Church decided in 1980 to undertake a massive restoration in order to preserve this masterpiece for future generations.

The Restoration of Adam

The restoration was a massive undertaking, lasting 14 years. The most advanced techniques were used in order to try and prevent any damage to this famous ceiling. After it was done, the result was a surprise to everyone.

Look at all of those colors!

The Creation of Adam after restoration
creation of adam restored

Everybody thought that Michelangelo only painted in subdued colors because the ceiling had always looked so dark, but it turns out that most of that darkness was just the grime! The newly restored Creation of Adam popped with vibrant colors, making it much easier to see from the floor.But, here’s the problem: many people claimed that the color was too bright. Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor, and one of the characteristics of his painting was to use shadows to create the impression of his figures being carved rather than painted. In stripping away the grime, many of the dramatic shadows were also eliminated, as were some people’s eyes.

But how could this happen?During the restoration, the workers used a single technique to restore the entire ceiling, because they assumed that Michelangelo only used a single technique to paint the ceiling. That technique is called buon fresco, in which pigment is mixed directly with water and then painted directly onto a plaster wall or ceiling. There are no binders, no primers; the plaster simply absorbs the pigment. This is what the restoration was expecting. However, Michelangelo may also have applied some of the paint a secco, or after the first layer dried. It seems possible that many details, including shadows, lines and even eyes in some cases, were added a secco.

The techniques used in the restoration may have removed much of the pigments applied this way, which would have become more absorbed into the grime.Look at the two images of the Creation of Adam again. Yes, the restored image is brighter, but there are less dramatic shadows. This is especially true of the cloak in which God sits. In the unrestored image, figures peer out of the shadows, including Adam’s future wife, Eve.

Did Michelangelo intend for these areas to be so dark, in order to create depth and drama? Or, did he intend for the painting to be so bright because it could only be viewed from a distance? We’ll never know for sure, and the restoration has been a continuing source of debate for many years.

Lesson Summary

The Creation of Adam is a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance. A part of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo in 1512, it is considered one of the most important pieces of art in the world. But, after 400 years, it was pretty dirty. The Church decided in 1980 that it was time for a major restoration, to attempt to restore the artwork to its original condition.After 14 years, the restored painting was revealed to be much brighter than expected, which made it much easier to see from the floor. However, some thought that it was too bright, claiming that the restoration had stripped away layers of paint used to create dramatic shadows and details.

The restoration was focused on preserving paint applied buon fresco, or pigments in water applied directly to plaster. However, it seems possible that Michelangelo also applied paint a secco, or after the first layer dried, for details and dramatic shadows. This layer of paint may have been removed during the restoration. Supporters and critics both have valid reasons for supporting or criticizing the restoration, and the debate is ongoing.

We may never know exactly what Michelangelo intended in the Creation of Adam, but at least this masterpiece still exists for us all to share and enjoy.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe the Creation of Adam and its origins
  • Identify how the Creation of Adam looked before and after its restoration
  • Explain why the Creation of Adam may have looked differently after its restoration
  • Summarize the debate surrounding this restoration

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