Having chosen Michelangelo Buonarroti's Sistine Chapel ceiling as the greatest painting in the last thousand years, I feel I should spend some time discussing the greatest painting in the greatest painting. There are nine central panels alternately large and small running the length of the ceiling. The Creation of Adam is the third one. The panel is not a small one. Designed to be seen from the floor, some seventy feet below, it measures over fifteen by seven feet. Michelangelo seems to have seen it as the centrepiece of the entire series. It was begun late in the ceiling's progression, only after many preliminary drawings in which he experimented with numerous figures in a variety of poses. Contemporaries indicate there were a number of colour and chiaroscuro studies as well.
Quite apart, however, from the obvious attention to colour and masterful handling of light and modelling, it is the wondrous composition of the painting that has made this work a living model for the relationship of man with his God. The painting can roughly be divided into two squares with the left square divided again diagonally between earth and sky. And on the right, God reaches out the paternal right hand from a host of attendants swirling down from a massive oval of fine cloth. Michelangelo took seriously the words of Genesis in his making of Adam in the mode of his Creator. The torsos of both figures are modelled almost identically which would account for the seemingly "heavy" body of the youthful Adam.
The centrepiece of this centrepiece is the sky, the negative space between the two figures wherein the powerful, outreaching, index finger of God makes psychological contact with the heavy, limp, digital appendage of man in his feeble attempt to reach for the divine spark of life. Secondary to this is the eye contact between the stern, yet loving God and the passive, awe-struck, Adam. Linking the two figures are a series of curved, parallel lines, the first between their eyes, then others along their arms, between their hips, their knees, and the feet of both figures. The result is a dynamic symmetry, a mirror image, God reflected in man, devoted, strong, and innocent. Michelangelo's biographer, Vasari considered him the culmination of an Italian painting tradition dating back two hundred years to Giotto, passing through Duccio, Masaccio, and Mantegna. If so, then the culmination of that line also finds its terminus in the Creation of Adam and beyond that, the creation of modern painting as we know it.