Comparison between a Michelangelo drawing in the margins of a letter and his depiction of God in the “Creation of Adam” (images courtesy Adriano Marinazzo)

According to a new theory, Michelangelo may have secretly modeled his portrayal of God after himself in his masterpiece “The Creation of Adam.” Painted on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, the iconic fresco is one of the most widely replicated religious artworks of all time. In the legendary work, God is depicted as an elderly, bearded man with his legs crossed and arm outstretched, giving life to Adam, the first man according to The Book of Genesis. 

The theory, published in the peer-reviewed art journal Critica d’Arte in December 2022 and reported by the Wall Street Journal last week, has been greeted with both support and resistance among art scholars since its release. The author of the paper is art historian and Michelangelo expert Adriano Marinazzo, a curator of special projects at Virginia’s Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary.

At the center of his claim, Marinazzo points to a letter the Italian artist wrote to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia while he was painting the chapel ceiling. In the margins of this letter, there is a rough sketch of an individual standing with their left leg slightly crossed in front of the other and painting what appears to be a face overhead. 

This drawing, which has been presumed by many scholars to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo working on the ceiling, is held in the Buonarroti Archive in Florence. Several years ago, Marinazzo studied the original sketch, among other documents in the archive, in person. Fortunately, he also has digital copies of the entire collection in his office.

Marinazzo explained that he made his most recent discovery while putting together a syllabus for a new class on Renaissance art and computer-generated 3D modeling. Throughout his career, the scholar has regularly relied on “visual literacy” tools, like digital models, to conduct his research.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, “The Creation of Adam” (1511) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

“Since I wanted students to learn to present and summarize their ideas and research with one picture, I thought of my previous comparisons on Michelangelo: the Sistine Ceiling architectural outline and the profile carved on the facade of Palazzo Vecchio,” Marinazzo told Hyperallergic.

“While considering additional effective comparisons, I thought of Michelangelo’s self-portrait in the Buonarroti Archive,” he continued. “I used the computer to compare the drawing and the fresco, and the magic happened!”

This instance is not the first time Marinazzo has had a breakthrough finding related to Michelangelo. In 2013, he uncovered what he claims to be the first architectural sketch of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Additionally, in 2020, he discovered evidence that the master artist was behind a mysterious well-known carving on the front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. 

In response to skepticism of his latest hypothesis, Marinazzo is unfazed. “I usually publish my studies in rigorous blind peer-reviewed journals; some of my ideas have been accepted, but others will take longer,” he said. “It is not a problem. I like to research and try to say something new; this is my reward.”

“I want to stress that Michelangelo was a very sophisticated intellectual who used to hide his sources and ideas,” Marinazzo continued. “I think he still ‘plays’ with us!”

Maya Pontone (she/her) is a Staff News Writer at Hyperallergic. Originally from Northern New Jersey, she currently resides in Brooklyn, where she covers daily news, both within and outside New York City....