Michelangelo's Sistene Chapel

The loss of grace through original sin and its consequence.

This painting is part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It was commission by the Pope for his personal worship space. It will, therefore, conform to the Catholic thinking of the time. The theory of evolution would not be put forward for several hundred years. The story in Genesis was considered history. Even now we must believe that God intervened at the time of mankind's emergence to give us a soul. We responded with some act to cause original sin.

"The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.'" Gen. 2:15-17.

"'Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?' The man said, 'The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.' Then the LORD God said to the woman, 'What is this that you have done?' The woman said, 'The serpent tricked me, and I ate.'"Gen. 3:11-13.

Gen. 3:17: "And to the man he said, 'Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life..." Gen. 3:19: "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." NRSV

At first glance, this painting may not look that dramatic. Adam and Eve are tempted and make the mistake that costs them Eden. However, we need to think of what exactly was lost. In Catholic theology, the time before the fall was also a time of peace, happiness, without sickness or even death. God created man in God's own image ( Gen. 1:27). We were created good, and established in friendship with the Creator and in harmony with each other and creation around us. Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 374f. "As long as [we] remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die." Ibid., sec. 376. However, we clearly suffer now; we are prone to illness; we age; we die. The God of goodness did not create us to exist in this state, so how could it happen? We did it to ourselves.

Restored Fall and Expulsion from Eden

To see the larger un-restored image click the image above or here.

Michelangelo is able to dramatically demonstrate what this transition means to all of us. On one side of the image, there is a richer green. There are the leaves of the tree. On the other side, the land is flat, barren, more like a savanna. Eve is reclining on the Eden side, to indicate the rest and the lack of any need that was present in paradise. On the other side, both are walking, to signify their lack of rest or ease.

The dividing line between eden and sorrow is the tree and especially the snake. It is the serpent who suggests the evil but who could not cause it. We had to agree. (I don't know why Michelangelo chose to shape the serpent in feminine guise, unless it would be a product of a male dominated culture. Perhaps he felt that a woman would be more effective tempting a woman.) The snake also represents wisdom in the ancient world. Thus, the snake would represent a wisdom gone wrong, a wisdom not of God.


Eve before the fall.Eve after the fall

The most powerful expression of the change is to look at the change in Eve. This is what sin can do.

Before the fall, pictured on the left, she looks physically healthy, very strong, beautiful, alert, assertive, curious, and intelligent. Contrast how she looks after she is expelled from Eden, aging, unwell, and frightened. Her arms cover her breasts out deep emotion, and perhaps shame. Cf. Gen. 3:10.



Adam after the fall.

Adam at Creation.Adam has not fared well either. Note how he looks older, and stressed compared to how he looked at creation. You might think it natural for Adam to look older but Adam would not age until the fall, it is a consequence of original sin. Also, notice how the angel doesn't just threaten with the sword. Adam cannot go back, not with the angel's sword on the back of his neck. There is deadly purpose here. Adam's hands appear to be warding off the angel, surrendering, saying that he is going. Could it also be that he is warding off God? He seems to be pushing God away, demonstrated by pushing away the angel. This would seem foolish and yet is it not what he really did? By sin, by desiring his own interests to God's, he has pushed God and paradise out of his life.

Adam's tragedy becomes ours. He represents all of us who have rejected what is good, wise, and loving. Our lives are poisoned as a result. Although original sin is passed by propagation and not imitation (Ibid. sec. 419), nevertheless, as evil echoes down to us, do we not reinforce it when we do the same? Do we not pass it on to our victims who learn victimizing from us?

See generally the material on original sin in the current catechism, the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, and the Council of Trent.

I am not an art critic or artist. I just invite others to think about the message presented by the work of art and then in meditation reflect on its application in your life. In addition, use your imagination. Put yourself in the position of one of the people depicted and feel what they feel. A painting may have tremendous spiritual meaning for you whether or not the artist intended it, or the art critics would agree. If you find meaning, work with that meaning thanking God.

These images from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel are used with permission of the copyright holder, Christus Rex. Images are displayed here for non-profit religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended or permitted. The text is by the Rev. Roger J. Smith, unless attributed to someone else, and is presented "as is". ©1997, Roger J. Smith. Comments can be sent to him.

The Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

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