The two portraits of Christ

There are two unique portraits of Christ in the Sistine Chapel. The most well-known is the Resurrected Christ that dominates Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the altar wall. The other is less obvious, but the inclusion of the Christ Child in the Creation of Adam panel reveals Michelangelo’s grasp not only of scripture and theology, but also his genius ability to convey those theological themes through commanding visuals.  

Let us begin with the portrait of Christ in the Last Judgment. The Last Judgment was a common subject for artists before Michelangelo, but how he imagined the setting was thoroughly new, if not terrifying in its content. Michelangelo’s favorite subject matter, the human body, is on full display with the Resurrected Christ. He is muscular, confident, uncompromising, with the supreme air of authority that is His right as the judge of the living and the dead.  

Yet while there is no confusion over the identity of this figure in the fresco, Christ here resembles less the typical representation of the Redeemer we are accustomed, namely, bearded and dark-haired, and more akin to a Greek god. In fact, Michelangelo’s model for this particular version of the Resurrected Christ was the nearby “Apollo Belvedere,” named because of its placement in the sculpture court of the Belvedere in the Vatican. This marble seven-foot statue of Apollo, dating from the 2nd century, was rediscovered in 1489, and was kept in the personal collection of Pope Julius II, patron of the arts and Michelangelo’s benefactor on a number of projects, including the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Loren Partridge in his analysis on the Last Judgment noted, “[I]t was a common Renaissance trope to understand Apollo as the classical prefiguration of Christ.”  

Recall another famous depiction of Christ by Michelangelo, however: the Pietà, inside St. Peter’s. Though Mary is the central figure in the image, cradling her crucified son, an overhead study of the sculpture reveals the familiar imagery of Christ: the parted, long hair and light beard. Rome foreign correspondent Paul Baddebelieves the model used by Michelangelo in 1498 for the Pietà was no longer available when Michelangelo returned to the Vatican for work on the Last Judgment nearly 40 years later.  

That is because, Baddebelieves, the venerated icon of Christ, the Veil of Veronica, the central draw for pilgrims to Rome through the Middle Ages, was stolen from St. Peter’s in the Sack of Rome in 1527. Sowhen Michelangelo sought his model for Christ for the Last Judgment, what he previously relied on, the veil of Veronica, was now gone. (For more about this image see Paul Badde’s“The Face of God: Rediscovering the Face of Jesus” published by Ignatius Press). 

In between carving the Pietà and painting the Last Judgment, Michelangelo spent four years on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Christ appears there, too. The Creation of Adam is considered the fifth panel of the ceiling, after the Separation of Water from Firmament and before the Creation of Eve. The iconic image is packed with imagery and theological implications. For our purposes here, let us focus within the multitude clustered around the Creator God in the shell-shaped, some say brain-like, maroon casing. While God’s right hand effusively stretches towards a rather laconic Adam, His left hand, particularly His left index finger and thumb, are firmly placed on the right shoulder of a somewhat rotund babe. Loren Partridge has observed the way the finger and thumb are positioned is reminiscent of how a priest holds a host during consecration. That is no accident. Michelangelo knows what transubstantiation is: the host becoming the Real Presence of Christ. 

Therefore, this child is none other than Christ Himself. By including the child, Michelangelo is here evoking the axiom from the Nicene Creed about the Second Person of the Trinity: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.” Also, Michelangelo connects the New Testament concept that Jesus Christ is the new Adam, the Redeemer of Man by His Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension.  

Lastly, there is a female figure between God the Father and God the Son in this fresco, draped around God’s left arm. This character personifies both Eve, not yet physically born but already existent in the mind of God, as well as the Blessed Virgin Mary, often referenced as the new Eve to Christ’s new Adam. 

The new Adam and the new Eve, present in the moment of creation, and present again at the time of final judgment. Just as Michelangelo depicted the woman and child next to each other on the ceiling, so too in the Last Judgment does the new Adam and new Eve stand together. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.  

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