The Anticipation of Touch

In what is one of the most recognizable frescoes of the Renaissance, and arguably in the history of Western art, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, commissioned for the Sistine Chapel, draws our attention to a small yet immensely impactful detail: the space between the fingers of Adam and God. Adam lays nude on a land mass, presumably representing Earth, while a bearded depiction of God floats with a group of his angels, cloaked in divinity. Special attention is placed on the anatomy of the figures that exemplify the humanist principles of the Renaissance and the beauty of the human body. God extends his index finger, as the title suggests, to create mankind. Adam interacts with God by elegantly extending his arm to meet God’s touch. However, as famously noted, there is a divide between God and Adam. Art historians and Renaissance enthusiasts have speculated at the various interpretations of the space between God and his creation. Art historian Paul Barosky alludes to the tension this divide creates by saying that God’s act of filling Man with spirit is incomplete, calling it “the ultimate divine non finito”. Others have interpreted the space between their fingers as a reference to the insurmountable divide between the physical and the divine. Whatever theological or philosophical interpretation may be offered, the tension created by the approximation of touch, but not its completion, has left viewers of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in awe. Michelangelo plays with our emotions as the anticipation of touch strikes excitement and angst as we wait for contact to be made. 

The anticipation of touch is also represented in a work of art that precedes Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam by approximately 500 years. The Doors of Bishop Bernward, commissioned and designed by Bernward of Hildesheim for the abbey church of St. Michael, are adorned by sixteen remarkable panels depicting different scenes of the Bible, a prime example of the beauty and intricacy of Medieval Art. One scene in particular is that of the introduction of Eve to Adam. As Harvey Stahl mentions, the scene depicted shows the “electrifying moment before the first human contact”. Both Adam and Eve extend their arms to embrace each other as God introduces Adam to Eve for the first time. God stands behind as Adam awaits to meet his companion, his first human connection, his lover. However, their introduction is halted in time as the figures approximate each other, but do not touch. Similar to the Creation of Adam, the scene depicted in The Doors of Bishop Bernward alludes to contact, but does not realize it, leaving the viewer in anticipation of the wondrous meeting about to occur. Viewers of the Ottonian period, the period in which these cast bronze doors were created, would have been marvelled at the dramatic depiction of this story; 1000 years later, we too are moved as we anticipate their touch. 

In the times of COVID-19, we are all unable to touch and hug and kiss those we love. The longing for physical contact is something we can all relate to in these times. As Michelangelo and Bernward of Hildesheim were able to capture so wonderfully in their respective works, may the anticipation of touch we find ourselves in make our reunion with those we love that much sweeter, that much more meaningful, that much more appreciated.