Depictions of Creation Across Religions and Cultures
The complexity of the universe has long been a topic of contention throughout history. For years, scientists have theorized various cosmological models — the most popular one being the Big Bang — to explain the origins of the world. In more recent centuries, these explanations are more of a scientific pursuit than a spiritual one.
Knowledge of how the world came to be is quite limited. While studies answer several questions, they also produce newer ones. The design of the universe continues to evade even the smartest of minds, and many of us seek to answer the question of creation with religious and spiritual beliefs.
Here are some popular depictions of creation from different religions in the world.
Christianity: God, Humankind, and Divine Nature
The Book of Genesis is one of the most referenced texts regarding the origins of the world. In the Christian tradition, it’s one of the founding principles of divinity. It’s where people have come to recognize the sacredness and divinity of human life.
In Christianity, people believe that God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Here’s the order in which the world was created, according to the book of Genesis:
- Day 1: Day and night. “Let there be light,” said God, and then there was light. He called this day and separated it from darkness, which He called night.
- Day 2: The sky. God made a “dome” to separate the waters and called it the sky. No longer was the world a formless void.
- Day 3: The earth. God made land appear — giving it the blessing of fertility. He filled it with plants, trees, and vegetation.
- Day 4: The sun, the moon, and the stars. The “greater light” — the sun — ruled the day; the moon and stars ruled the night.
- Day 5: Creatures of the sea and sky. God made fish and birds, and He made them plentiful.
- Day 6: Land animals and humankind. God made life in land flourish. He also made humans: creatures in His image and likeness. Everything He made thus far, He made for the nourishment and stewardship of these humans.
- Day 7: God rests. Pleased with everything He had made, God declared the seventh day a day of rest — for him and all humankind.
Following the account of these seven days is the story of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman on earth. As it goes, Adam and Eve lived in the paradise called Eden. But they disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit after being prodded by a serpent. Filled with shame, they were driven out of paradise.
Reimaginings of the Genesis
Many artists take inspiration from the book of Genesis. One of the most celebrated works of art — within and outside the Christian world — is Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (ca. 1510), found in the Sistine Chapel.
This painting encapsulates what was narrated in the Genesis account: Adam, the first man, lonesomely sits on earth. He reaches out to the touch of God, who’s surrounded by His angels.
Scholars believe that Michaelangelo incorporated elements that were considered secular in his time — such as the juxtaposition of the human brain with God. Many consider this as an allusion to human consciousness. Others interpret this ambiguous shape as a womb or a uterus — implying that God is a life-giving being.
Aside from Michaelangelo’s iconic art technique, The Creation of Adam is especially legendary because of its allusions, which portrayed the beliefs behind the story of creation. This depiction validates the Christian belief that God is the omnipotent source of all things. It also poses that acknowledging God at the center of human life keeps us dignified with divine nature.
The concept of paradise also seems to be a recurring theme for Christian artists. Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens rendered an iconic interpretation of The Garden of Eden with The Fall of Man (ca. 1610-1615). It illustrated man’s initial harmony with God and all of nature — until the serpent's temptation desecrated this relationship.
Astonishingly, Brueghel and Rubens, both masters of art, were known to be close friends. This painting is known as one of many collaborations between the two. Brueghel’s work on flora and fauna — the elements he contributed to this particular piece — is described as one with “encyclopedic precision.”
Many artists explored the Fall of Man because of the theme it recounted: the divide between man and God, driven by temptation and sin. From Michaelangelo to Raphael, Christian artists reinterpreted the concept of human shame.
Italian painter Giovanni di Paolo’s The Creation of the World and Expulsion from Paradise (ca. 1445) embodied it holistically. It’s said that this painting takes great influence from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Instead of focusing on man alone, Giovanni di Paolo depicts the universe — including the earth — within a celestial sphere. Beside it is an angel driving Adam and Eve away from this sphere and God.
Islam: The Permanence of Allah and His Work
The Islamic faith doesn’t dwell much on mythological stories, and as such, there’s no actual narrative that recounted the story of creation. These principles were inferred from many references throughout the Qur’an.
Both Islamic and Christian beliefs are categorized as creations ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), which philosophizes that the universe is wholly dependent on the hands of a divine creator. In Islam, Allah as the source of all life is a principle acknowledged as truth.
Some elements in the Islamic story of creation are similar to those in the book of Genesis. They both believed that Adam and Eve existed as the first humans: “We created man from sounding clay, from mud molded into shape…” (Al Qur’an, 15:26). They also believed that the universe was created in six days (7:54).
However, the context of days is distinctive from Christianity because, to Muslims, the process of creation — like Allah Himself — is not constrained by the laws of nature. A “day” (“youm” in the Qur’an) can refer to a period as long as eons.
But there’s little interpretation artists can take liberty from. The nature of Allah is a divine one, and as such, it’s far beyond the realm and imagination of men. Although there are hardly any visual interpretations of this creation story, we can find a multitude of their rich traditions through centuries of art and culture.
Hinduism: A Cycle of Birth and Rebirth
To Hindus, creation is just as multifaceted as the concept of existence and the universe itself. Hindus believe in reincarnation — a divine cycle that involves birth, death, and rebirth — and this is reflected in the way they view the universe (which is neither the first nor the last).
For this particular universe, the story begins with three elements: a limitless ocean, a serpent named Ananta-Shesh, and Lord Vishnu. The serpent lies on the surface of the ocean with Vishnu resting in its coils. From Vishnu’s navel sprouted a lotus flower, and on it sat the god Brahma. He’s unaware of his purpose or his existence.
Then Vishnu instructs him to create a universe using the materials around him. He achieved this after eons and eons of meditation, and he hears a sound from the depths of the ocean: the sacred om.
Brahma, evermore known as the creator god, split the lotus into three: the heavens (or the cosmos), the sky, and finally, the earth. Finally, he split himself into a male and a female, and they birthed all forms of beings. Since then, Brahma has maintained this universe by working closely with Vishnu and Shiva: Vishnu as the preserver, Shiva as the destroyer.
The Hymn of Creation acknowledges the divine, mysterious nature of the creation. It even wonders if Brahma himself knows it.
Influences of the Creation Myth in Folk Art
Diverse kinds of art define Hindu culture — most of them found in design and architecture. But because the origins of the universe vary among cultures, the creation story is not as often depicted.
Nonetheless, the influences of its themes still remain ever symbolic in Hindu folk art. The lotus flower — which grew from the navel of Vishnu — is found everywhere: in sculptures, in mandalas, in temples.
The roles of these deities in the universe are also often highlighted in art. For instance: The preserver and protector of life, Vishnu, is often portrayed at the center of all. In many cultural pieces, Shiva the destroyer is the Lord of the Dance: He controls the movement of the universe. When he stops dancing, so does life.
Modern Insights on Creation Myths
Although it has been millennia since these stories have been told, they continue to hold fundamental beliefs and principles of the world. They fascinate and provide a framework on a matter with which no framework seems to be provided.
People still seem to follow the line of philosophy these creation myths have set — even as it evades awareness: that human life is sacred, that we must rest amid days of toil, and that the divide between humanity and the spiritual can be remedied by deep faith.
Even some modern thinkers agree that the need to explain the unique phenomena of the cosmos is rooted in the connection towards something transcendental. In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”
While many people continue to scrutinize beliefs that are not supported by scientific thinking, many others choose to believe in such — trusting that the thirst to understand the world is rooted in spirituality as much as it is rooted in science.