Buonarroti, Michelangelo: The Creation of Adam (1510)

The Independent's Great Art series

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About the artist

The two great continental landmasses - the narrow isthmus joining them - cut by a Panama Canal: that would be a geographical way of seeing it. And it's that canal, the central crucial minimal gap between the finger of Adam and the finger of God, which so often focuses our attention. A finger's breadth separates the two fingertips, 3/4 inch of picture surface. The not-quite-meeting of hands in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam is the most famous detail in Western art.

But when we look at these fingers now, we're strongly inclined to see something more, something that's not actually there. Art's most famous detail has been indelibly marked by one of art criticism's most influential suggestions. As Kenneth Clark put it, Adam "stretches out his hand so that it almost touches the hand of God, and an electric charge seems to pass between their fingers".

Ah yes - the electricity! Mind the gap, and then feel the force. It was probably Clark, with his 1969 book and TV series Civilisation, who put this idea into general currency. Michelangelo's invisible spark is now proverbial. It was magnified into a very visible big bang in the title sequence of The South Bank Show. It inspired the warm glow of contact between alien and human in the poster for ET - the Extra-Terrestrial.

Clark didn't originate this contagious metaphor, though. It had a history. In 1927 the English painter and writer, Wyndham Lewis, had come up with it: "Between the outstretched forefinger of Adam and the figure of the hurrying Jehovah there is an electric force." And in 1870 a French critic, Emile Montegut, had come up with it, too - while doing his best to explain away its overt anachronism. "One might even say that in this fresco Michelangelo intuitively discovered electricity a long time before Galvani and Volta," he proposed.

In fact, the great cliché goes back to the very start of the 19th century. It was inaugurated in 1801 by the Swiss-British artist Henry Fuseli. He observed how "the Creator, borne on a group of attendant spirits, moves on toward his last, best work... the immortal spark, issuing from his extended arm, electrifies the new-formed being, who tremblingly alive, half raised half reclined, hastens to meet his maker".

Electricity was much in the air then. In the late 18th century it had become an important field of research and a fashionable form of entertainment. Luigi Galvani twitched - galvanised - frogs' legs with electric currents. Alessandro Volta invented the battery. Glasses of brandy were ignited by a spark from a man's finger. The king of France was amused by the spectacle of a line of monks being given a shock and jumping simultaneously in the air. There was speculation that the dead could be shocked back into life.

Electricity was on Mary Shelley's mind in the writing of Frankenstein. Though the force isn't mentioned by name in her book, she later explained that it had made the story seem possible: "Perhaps a corpse could be reanimated. Galvanism had given token of such things." And what Fuseli sees in the Creation of Adam is some kind of Frankenstein scenario.

After Fuseli, almost every critic of Michelangelo has taken up his electrifying hint and put it into their own words - though many of them must have known, better than he did, that the Frankenstein science behind it was dubious. An electric shock has-n't yet successfully created life. Never mind. The idea of electricity fits the image almost irresistibly.

There's the gap between the fingers, the sort of gap a spark could jump across. Or equally, if you imagine the fingers meeting, they only establish a narrow line of connection, a tangential point of contact, through which to transmit God's life-giving power - therefore this power must be like electricity, where a massive charge can be carried by the thinnest cable, the merest touch.

The electric theory can even overcome the problem of anachronism. Michelangelo didn't know about electricity, but he had an idea of the Divine Spark that infuses the human body with a soul. It's the theological equivalent to electricity in the Frankenstein scenario (and Fuseli happily mixes the two ideas up in the same sentence). The Divine Spark is what God is zapping Adam with. It's the power-source that gets human life going.

No doubt about it, the electrification of the Creation of Adam is one of the most successful critical memes ever. The only doubt is this. Why must the story - as so often with Michelangelo - be a story about power?

Look at the image again, and pretend you don't know what it's about. What do you see? You don't see a spark or a flash. You certainly don't see a body being electrified, twitched or jumped into life. You see two figures, of the same size, both powerful, one more passive, one more active, coming together.

Now the electric theory is helpful in one way. It stresses that these two big bodies come together in a very slight and delicate connection. It brings out the picture's overall drama of massive forms in fragile contact. But then it goes wrong. It dismisses any feeling of fragility, by claiming that a strong force is flowing through this connection, and flowing in one direction only.

The theory makes you blind to an obvious fact about these slightly parted hands. They reach out towards each other across a void, and as they reach, each hand is offered gently and tentatively, yearning and refraining, just on the point of touching. This is not a massive transfusion of energy. A pair of great and separate beings are meeting in an uncertain and enquiring encounter. It isn't a one-way act of animation, but a two-way act of getting to know.

That's the mind-blowing and rather heartbreaking aspect of this image. Michelangelo pictures God's creation of man as the hopeful beginning of a relationship.

About the artist

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) needs no introduction. "He is unique in Italy and perhaps in the universe," a contemporary said, and since he was 30 years old, up to the present, he has provoked unparalleled and uninterrupted amazement. He presents an image of total artistic power - in the imaginative scope of his conceptions, in the immense labour of their making, in the straining muscular force of the bodies he depicts.

He is in danger of becoming himself a cartoon super-hero among artists. So it is always good to notice in his work moments of tenderness, fragility, even comedy. There are many.

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