Variations on a Theme: Adam and Eve

The Arts Religion

 

Notes* on the evolution of the depiction of the infamous Biblical allegory of Adam and Eve.

 

The text:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

 

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

 

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

 

But the LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?"

 

He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid."

 

And he said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?"

 

- Genesis, 3:6-11

 

The story goes on, wherein blame is placed on a deceiving serpent and the woman (Eve), shame is put upon the two innocents (Adam and Eve), and humanity is doomed to a downward spiral. I'm not going to get into the many implications of this troubling story—it's been done a thousand times before. Here, though, is a peek into how the imagery of Adam and Eve has evolved over the centuries.

 

The story of Adam and Eve was often depicted in short story form. That is, a series of images conveyed the garden, eating of the apple, admonishment from God, and then expulsion from paradise, as seen here in this 15th century painting.

The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise (c. early 1400s) by Jean Limbourg Adam and Eve The Mantle
The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise (c. early 1400s) by Jean Limbourg

 

The short story form was not limited to painting. Wooden panels in churches, stone friezes, and sculpture all attempted to capture the complete story for a passing viewer.

 

Sometimes, though, the story was shortened to just one or two events, as in this image from the Sistine Chapel:

The fall from Paradise, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel Adam and Eve The Mantle (1508-12)
The fall from Paradise, as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (1508-12)

 

The center of attention in the story has always been Adam and Eve. The focus of attention is drawn not to the serpent deceiving Eve or to Eve sharing the apple with Adam, but to the discovery by the two of their nudity and their resulting modesty (covering genitalia with leaves).

Adam and Eve, from the Escorial Beatus a 10th century illuminated manuscript. Adam and Eve The Mantle
Adam and Eve, from the Escorial Beatus a 10th century illuminated manuscript.

 

In the 10th century rendering above, Adam and Eve are wary of the deceiving serpent. They've already been made aware of their nakedness, but their askance looks seem to ask "What more trouble does this snake bring?" Notice how the snake maintains its focus on Eve.

 

In artful depictions of Adam and Eve, the shame is not directed at each other, but to the viewer (or to the artist?).

Adam and Eve (1520) by Jan Mabuse The Mantle
Adam and Eve (1520) by Jan Mabuse

 

The Flemish painter Jan Mabuse did a few versions of Adam and Eve, including one in which Eve remains fully naked while Adam is covered, and another where both are nude and ready to indulge in the sweet apple. In the above image, Adam and Eve's anguish is striking. They put their arms around each other in a show of mutual support. These two are not strangers; they are comfortable partners. The foliage covering their genitalia seems coincidental to their posing; Eve holds an apple whose branch just happens to cover her. The modesty seems not for the benefit of Adam and Eve, but for us, the modest (pious) viewer.

 

Dürer, Titian, and other 16th and 17th century masters continued to portray the nude Adam and Eve, foregoing most of the rest of the story. Over four hundred years the focal point of the Genesis story has not changed.

Adam and Eve (1932) by Tamara de Lempicka The Mantle
Adam and Eve (1932) by Tamara de Lempicka

 

Lempicka may have brought Adam and Eve into a modern era, but the nude-shame remains the fixation.

 

The nude Adam and Eve have been depicted (but not re-imagined) so often they have become Warhol-like commodities. Pop culture can't resist a take on the age-old tale.

Homer Simpson and Marge Simpson as Adam and Eve The Mantle
Homer and Marge Simpson as Adam and Eve

 

After art, the next logical place for Adam and Eve to go was the marketplace. In this image, the story has been co-opted by marketers looking to sell underwear. The story of shame has been flipped on its head. Adam and Eve are now about sex.

Adam and Even underwear ad The Mantle
Adam and Even underwear ad

 

In the commercial below, the imagery is not quite correct, but the details are wholly beside the point. Eve, while strolling through the garden, bypasses the apple. It has not yet been eaten, and yet she and Adam wear the fig leaves, incorrectly displaying modicums of immodesty before they even knew how to be embarrassed. The fig leaves are for us, the prudish audience. Adam is depicted as being gay, adding an amusing twist to an age-old tale, and bringing the story into the 21st century.

 

 

The story of Adam and Eve is now not only fully secular, it laughs in the face of religious morality.

 

*Inspired by commentary in John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972)

Consumerism, Homosexuality, John Berger, Morality, Sex, Variations on a Theme