Review of Michelangelo’s “The Temptation and Expulsion of Adam & Eve”

By Scott Rubin



            In 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint a fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which Pope Sistus IV had built in the fourteenth century.  Michelangelo, at first, was apprehensive about doing this painting because his primary focus had been on sculpting, but was talked into it by the Pope.  The painting was arranged along the spine of the ceiling in order of biblical events from the book of Genesis.  It reminded people when entering that they were all sinners who needed the church to redeem them.

            The picture this essay focuses on is of the tile titled “The Temptation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve.”  It is a scene that depicts Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  The scene is painted in a rectangular shape which is enclosed in an architectural framework that was painted on the walls and ceiling to make the scenes flow independently of each other, yet still tell the same story.  This painted framework creates the illusion that there are actually windows, frames and columns in the room.

            The fresco is actually a double scene divided down the middle by a large tree.  Two life-size figures, one male the other female, are displayed on each side of the composition.  Satan is being shown as a serpent coiled up around the tree from its base to its upper branches.  His left arm is outstretched to the two figures to the left of the tree.  Towards the top of the tree, and behind Satan, an Angel is shown with a sword in her hand pointing towards the right edge of the painting, directing Adam and Eve away from the tree.

            In the left foreground, under the tree, are Adam and Eve.  They are seen in a landscape setting that contains boulders, and dark green vegetation and grass.  Their bodies are muscular and young.  Eve is seated in a twisted contrapposto position.  Her body is large and bulky with large visible muscles.  She is leaning on her right arm, which is resting on a rock.  Her left arm is reaching to Satan’s outstretched arm, which contains a piece of fruit in it.

Adam is standing above her to her right reaching with both arms towards an upper branch of the tree.  He is heavier than Eve and has a large, stocky torso.  Their muscles are clearly visible and both bodies appear to be of youthful age.

            In the right foreground, Adam and Eve are walking towards the right edge of the painting.  Eve, standing to Adam’s left, is crouched over with her face hidden in Adam’s shadow.  Adam’s face is turned away from the tree, looking towards Eve.  Both of their faces are wrinkled and old in appearance.  Their bodies also do not look as tight.  The landscape in the part of the fresco is barren with the only detail being the line of the horizon in the background.

            There is a strong diagonal thrust created from the top left of the tree, down the branch, through the Angel’s arm and sword, and down to the left foot of Eve on the right edge.  The landscape also creates this thrust through the border of the boulders in the left foreground to the line of grass in the middle foreground.

            Color is used differently on each side of the tree.  At left, the bodies of Adam and Eve are painted with pink and skin colored flesh tones.  The bodies on the right are paler and less lifelike.  Satan is also shown in this paler skin color.  The color of the grass is also different. In the left foreground, the grass is much darker green than the light shaded grass of the right foreground.

            The light source of this painting is of a mysterious origin.  There are no heavy shadows, and the main use of light on the left is used to highlight the muscles on the bodies of the characters.  On the right, the only real shadow visible is the one Adam is projecting to cover Eve’s wrinkled face. 

All of the figures are located in the shallow space of the foreground.  Nothing is happening in the mid or backgrounds.  Foreshortening, a slightly aerial view, and overlapping are used to give the painting perspective and show a little bit of dimension.  The entire painting was done with broad and thick brush strokes, which were applied in layers due to the plasters’ absorptive properties.