If the Garden of Eden did exist and everything had gone as planned, we’d be living a much better life. But then Adam and Eve went and ruined everything for all of us, from having to toil for our daily bread to painful childbirth, from having to clothe ourselves to worrying about the lion and the lamb not getting along anymore, and now armed with nuclear weapons. Despite their legacy of shafting humanity for eternity, Adam and Eve are two of the most popular characters in the Bible to be depicted in art. Most of those works of art show them at their worst, about to be banished for breaking the rules, instead of what preceded that, when they were happily romping around Paradise. And just about all of them have made me wonder why they were portrayed as being in excellent shape. Neither had to lift a finger all day to do any work or manual labor; they both should be the “before” pictures in gym advertisements instead of muscular and shapely. Despite the uniformity of their physiques, the portrayal of their critical moment varies widely in the world’s best paintings, sculptures, and other media. These are my favorites.
#1 The Rebuke of Adam and Eve (by Domenichino, 1626, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Completed in 1626 by Domenico Zampieri, better known as Domenichino, The Rebuke of Adam and Eve captures that fateful moment when God is ticked off for the first time. The oil painting is both a straight-forward narrative and an unintentionally amusing work of art. Chubby cherubim carry a leonine God into the scene, apparently straight from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (except now he’s wearing a silky blue mini-robe more appropriate for, perhaps, Hugh Hefner). He reprimands Adam for breaking the only rule He gave him: Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But Adam begins the blame game, affecting a contrite expression, with his head tilted and shoulders slightly raised as he gestures with both arms and hands toward Eve, as if to say, “I’m sorry, God, but it really wasn’t my fault. You should castigate her.” Eve, sporting her fig-leaf bikini, shoots Adam a look of contemptuous disbelief (“How dare you blame me, you coward!”) and passes the blame off to the serpent, pointing at the slithering creature in the lower left-hand corner of the painting and trying to make it the scapegoat. The serpent, for its part, looks at Eve, as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding. You’re the weak-willed woman who surrendered to temptation and brought all this about.” It’s the moment when everything changes in Eden, and no one seems to know it better than the lion at the lower right-hand corner. A lamb has turned its head to the humans to see what the ruckus is, but it’s the lion lying next to it that’s a step ahead, his eyes turning a voracious orange as he no longer considers his fluffy mate a friend but rather a delicious dinner with mint sauce, putting an end to peace and harmony.
#2 Adamo ed Eva (Il Duomo, Pisa, Italy)
In an unobtrusive niche in the Duomo in Pisa, Italy, I found a curious depiction of Adam and Eve, although it’s easy to miss. With its millennial anniversary only a few decades away, this cathedral — one of the most beautiful in the world — teems with impressive architecture, magnificent art, brilliant mosaics, an astounding ceiling, a fantastic pulpit, and lots of tourists. Make your way through all those visitors to this marble sculpture. The scene is simple — Adam and Eve flank the tree of knowledge — but the timing presents a conundrum. The tree is blossoming with its tempting figs (not apples), and the serpent, with a human head not unlike a bust of an ancient goddess, wraps around the tree’s branches but does not present its bounty to Eve. Has the serpent already done so, or is it about to happen? Hard to tell, especially when you view the figures. Adam, looking strikingly like Jesus, is relaxed and open, naked and unconcerned about it. Eve, too, has not sported her fig-leaf cover-up yet, but she uses her hands to cover a breast and her private parts, indicating she knows something is amiss. The ambiguity of the timing of the scene makes it a captivating depiction of Adam and Eve, in addition to being an outstanding sculpture in and of itself.
#3 Adam and Eve (by Giovanni della Robbia, c. 1515, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland)
In Baltimore’s outstanding Walters Art Museum, you’ll find a trove of striking religious art. Key among them is Adam and Eve. Created for Pope Leo X’s triumphal entrance into Florence, Italy, in 1515 (the central coat of arms at the bottom of the work is the pope’s), this colorful terracotta with glaze sculpture contains lots of wonderful curiosities and anomalies. Adam and Eve, both a stark white (in a nod toward marble rather than terracotta) stand on either side of the tree of knowledge, before a lush, verdant background. A handful of birds and a squirrel are perched in the branches, among the plump figs. The serpent wraps its body all the way up the tree trunk, and its human head can easily pass for Eve’s twin sister, reflecting the 1500s notion that women were untrustworthy. Eve shamefully offers the forbidden fruit to Adam, unable to look at him as she clandestinely slips the fruit to him out of the serpent’s line of sight. Adam, for his part, looks directly at Eve, with an expression of either total trust or impending regret; it remains ambiguous. It’s also hard to tell why they are both wearing fig leafs over their genitals. According to Genesis, they did not know they were naked until after eating the fruit, yet here, at least Adam has not done so yet. Even more curious are what appear to be a few stalks of corn or maize among the foliage. In 1515, this North American grain would have still been virtually unknown in Europe. Either della Robbia was psychic or there was a corn-like plant growing somewhere in Europe.
#4 The Fall of Man (by Cornelis Cornelisz., 1592, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
Housed in the Rijksmuseum, one of the top five museums in Amsterdam, Cornelis Cornelisz.’s The Fall of Man comes to life with lots of details I missed on first glance. Adam and Eve stand front and center, clad in their fig leaves and sharing the apple. The combination human-serpent tries to hand Eve yet another forbidden fruit. Now for those wonderful little elements that make this painting a standout: Perched in the tree of knowledge of good and evil, beside the serpent, is the wise owl; a white butterfly clings to the left side of the tree trunk. On the left side, in the background, a cloud-like God with karate arms gestures to a second, smaller Adam and Eve, warning them not to eat from that tree. A proud peacock stands a little farther apart from the other animals assembled, too good to be in the company of the plain-Jane crane, porcupine, turkey, and sheep. On the ground at the base of the tree, a frightened monkey and cat embrace each other, aware that Paradise is over. The symbolism here is clear and strong. The monkey represents man (descended from apes), the cat represents woman, and they’re both scared of what comes next, and that they’ve been lowered to the same level as the slugs and toads depicted around them. A spiky hedgehog next to Eve’s right foot indicates the pain she’s about to feel in childbirth; the rock at her left foot can be seen as a rough road ahead. The right side of the painting, darker now that man has fallen, harbors an angry lion in the shadows, ready to wreak some havoc in what had been a utopian land.
#5 The Story of Adam and Eve (St. Sebaldus Church, Nuremberg, Germany)
Inside the medieval St. Sebaldus Church, rebuilt after the destruction of World War II and still one of the five most beautiful buildings in Nuremberg, Germany, I found the landscape-oriented depiction of Adam and Eve’s story, told in four parts, with four pairs of the world’s first man and woman. In this elongated painting, the creation of Eve takes center stage, with God holding her hand as she looks down at a sleeping Adam, apparently still under the effects of God’s divine anesthesia that allowed Him to remove Adam’s rib to create his mate. The story shifts to the left, with God presenting Eden to them with an uplifted arm, as if to say, “Welcome! Enjoy!” Moving right, Adam and Eve are having a pretty good time among the plants and animals, including a sleepy lion lying next to two unconcerned birds, as well as what could possibly be a glacier (which would make this rendition of Eden unlike any other I’ve ever seen). On the right side of the painting, however, nothing is as cheery. In an angry flash in the sky, God banishes Adam and Eve for disobeying His one behest. Clad in their fig leaves, the disconsolate couple flees Paradise, shamed by the enormity of their Original Sin, into a darker world, where a wolf bears its teeth with a flash of its red mouth, and a creepy lion, barely discernible except for its sinister glowing white eyes, gets ready to emerge from the dark shadows to devour everything around it.
- Original Sin (by Marco Benefial, 1700s, National Gallery of Antique Art, Rome, Italy)
- The Garden of Eden (by Michael Lucas Leopold Willmann, c. 1670, National Museum, Wrocław, Poland)
- The Fall of Man (by Hendrik Goltzius, 1616, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
- The Rebuke of Adam and Eve (by Charles Joseph Natoire, 1740, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York)
- The Expulsion From Earthly Paradise (by Marco Benefial, 1700s, National Gallery of Antique Art, Rome, Italy)