Serpents, Seduction, and Sin: “The Fall” in Art Through the Ages

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The Fall of Mankind

Why is there evil in the world? Why do we feel tempted to do things we think we should not do? What are the consequences of becoming conscious of good, evil, our own consciousness, and our impending death? Why do we die?

These are fundamental questions of human existence addressed through the story of “The Fall”. The Fall refers to the Judeo-Christian origin story of humanity, in which the first humans transition from a harmonious and obedient relationship with God in a garden paradise (Eden) to a disobedient separation in a world filled with disobedience and death. The transition starts with a snake, as told in Genesis.

1887, John Collier, Lilith (The Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport, England)

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”  But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Genesis 3:1-7 English Standard Version

Artistic Interpretations

From the early days of Christianity, artists have used their imaginations and tradition to portray this pivotal scene. On a basic level, the portrayals are often meant to visually interpret the text, especially for illiterate viewers.

Beyond illustrating the text, artists have used the story to communicate many deeper themes that reinforced cultural norms, including the nature of temptation, or the relationship between man, woman, and nature.

The Original Sin.
12th-13th century mosaic, Cathedral of the Assumption, Monreale, Sicily

When the artist includes the three figures of the serpent, Adam, and Eve, the image can visually serve as an earthly mirror to the “Holy Trinity” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though the Genesis text doesn’t reveal this, the serpent is traditionally identified as Satan, a spiritual creature opposed to God the Father. Adam would be the contrast to the Son of God, and Eve is the counter to the Holy Spirit, the comforter.

Masaccio, 1424, The Holy Trinity in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Masolino, Temptation (from the Brancacci Chapel), 1425-1427, fresco

The concept of the pure and innocent first couple living in a perfect environment allows artists to present an ideal human form, or idyllic nature. Observing how the human figures are drawn through the ages reflects evolving knowledge of anatomy and cultural norms of personal beauty. How much detail is devoted to the garden and its inhabitants, both flora and fauna, also reveals contemporary knowledge of the environment, as well as a philosophy of mankind’s relation to nature.

1800-1829 Johann Wenzel Peter Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

The temptation to disobedience and evil via the snake also gives artists the opportunity to introduce a sensuous element in the image. When cultural mores allow, the snake can make an obvious phallic symbol, and Eve can be interpreted to have been seduced by the serpent. Thus, the way in which artists depict Eve, Adam, the Serpent, and the garden makes an interesting study of changes in areas such as artistic technique, philosophy, or cultural views of women, men, and evil.

1887, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope(1829-1908)  The Temptation of Eve

I’ve gathered 136 interpretations of the moment of The Fall, spanning from Roman times to the present. I will be updating this post on a regular basis by posting one or several images at a time. One can browse the images just to enjoy their beauty. To go deeper, we can use the series to follow the evolution of art over the ages, reflecting on how techniques or emphasis in subject matter have changed.

We may also ponder what the development of interpretations over time tells, if anything, about humanity’s condition. Is the human story a hero’s journey…humans expelled from a paradise because of their pride in thinking they could be god, followed by suffering due to overreaching ambition and malevolent action, but ending with increased knowledge over time that allows a return to Eden in an enlightened state?

Things to Ponder When Looking at The Fall

To enrich your experience as you view these images, I suggest some elements to consider.

Look at poses…Are the figures standing, sitting, fearful, seductive, curious, disinterested, dance-like?

Is the serpent in the middle, separating man and woman? Or are the man and woman united together facing the serpent?

Look at what is being emphasized—the snake, Eve’s body, the garden?

Are there man-made features, such as walls or buildings, that communicate something about the cultural context of the work?

How big is Adam, Eve, or the snake in relation to the rest of the scene?

Does the image’s main purpose seem to be a religious communication for educational or moral purposes? Or is the artist using the story as a medium to communicate beauty, seduction, or some other objective?

How does the image of the serpent change, and could it indicate different world views or psychological interpretations of temptation and evil?

Eyes Wide Open

Whether or not one believes the Genesis story literally, or sees it as myth, the message of The Fall has timeless and deep truths that address the human condition. It is the story of the awakening of human consciousness…opening our eyes to see our own nakedness, vulnerabilities, and potential for both good and evil.

It’s quite possible that the snake literally “opened our eyes” and pushed us on an evolutionary path to self-consciousness. In her book The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well, Primatologist and author Lynne A. Isbell proposes that as human primate ancestors co-evolved with their most dangerous predator, the snake, they developed an enhanced visual acuity for detecting the danger. The considerable neural requirements for advanced vision led to larger brains. Larger brains gave increased cognitive ability.

Eventually, primates not only saw physical objects better—their human descendants began to see the future…and even the possibility of multiple futures that depended on which action one took from a range of choices. Seeing better gave the gift of reason. Humans could reason that the snake in the tree was an immediate danger, but there was a source for the snake in the tree…and they could hunt down and eliminate that source as well. Reason told them that the fruit they were eating today was coming from a source that they could find and control. Sacrificing their labor to plant in the present meant food for the future. Reason opened their eyes to their own vulnerabilities, including the realization that they themselves faced death.

McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (p. 22). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

And that last insight opened up the possibility for humans to choose charitable or malevolent actions. Reason allowed humans to recognize that their own weaknesses existed in others, and that they could empathetically help people in need, or they could exploit weaknesses for their own gain. Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explains in his work The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, “The evolution of the frontal lobes prepares us at the same time to be exploiters of the world and of one another, and to be citizens one with another and guardians of the world. If it has made us the most powerful and destructive of animals, it has also turned us, famously, into the ‘social animal’, and into an animal with a spiritual dimension.”

When we look at these images of Adam, Eve, and the serpent, we are seeing the birth of self-consciousness and the ability to foresee. We can take notice of how many artists grasp the significance of the moment in the facial expressions of Eve and Adam as they manifest their self-consciousness and gaze upon the future of humanity.

Symbology of the Snake

The snake’s role in the images of the story is crucial.  The serpent opened our eyes, but that state of consciousness brought the possibility of people acting with intent to cause suffering or the death of others. Psychologist and philosopher Jordan Peterson identifies the snake in the Genesis story as a symbol of chaos, destruction, and the antithesis to ordered creation.

French photographer Marta Bevacqua Source

“The snake isn’t just the snake in the garden, and the snake isn’t just the possible snake, and the snake isn’t just the snake that’s your enemy. The snake is your friend, because your friend can betray you. And then it’s even worse than that, because you can betray you. So even if you get rid of all the outside snakes, you’ve got an inside snake.

If you’re a sophisticated human being with six million years of additional evolution, and you’re really trying to solve the problem of what it is that’s the great enemy of mankind…Well, it’s the human propensity for evil, right? That’s the figure of Satan. That’s what that figure means…. 

It’s motivated by absolutely nothing but malevolence and the willingness to destroy, and it has every reason for doing so.”

In the perfect garden, where all was stability and order, the snake appeared to destroy the perfection. The snake thus represents chaos that fights against creation. The German author Goethe captures the destructiveness of the serpent in his novel Faust. Faust is the man who makes a deal with the devil, Mephistopheles. At one point, the devil describes himself as a destroyer.

Ignacio Trelis, Spanish artist (b. 1960) Faust makes a pact with the Devil

“I am the spirit that negates.

And rightly so, for all that comes to be

Deserves to perish wretchedly;

‘Twere better nothing would begin.

Thus everything that that your terms, sin,

Destruction, evil represent—

That is my proper element.”

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust – Part One


The Duality of Our Existence

The presence of evil in a good paradise reflects a fundamental duality of existence that we experience as humans. Duality of existence can be imagined in several aspects: Order versus Chaos, Good versus Evil, Creative versus Destructive, Yin versus Yang, Known versus Unknown, Security versus Liberty. It may very well be that the perception of duality stems from the nature of our hemispherical brain.

Neuroscience research has revealed much about the function of our brain’s two hemispheres. Put very simply, the left brain is more analytical and focused on details. It houses our areas for speech and for using tools. It receives data from the senses and creates a very strict and self-assured construct of the world. The right brain, on the other hand, is open to and oriented to detecting new situations. Its attention is wide-ranging rather than narrowly focused.

Like any animal, our early ancestors’ survival depended on two contradictory demands of their attention. To track, capture, kill, and eat prey, they needed sharp, undistracted, calculating attention. But to avoid becoming some other predator’s meal, they needed to be aware of threats lurking in the unknown, attending to a wide variety of threats in the surrounding environment. The left brain presents a self-contained, ordered world, even if it doesn’t always match a changing reality. The right brain presents a fluid concept of reality, dealing with the chaos of change.

Iain McGilchrist puts it this way. “I believe the essential difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere is that the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation. It is deeply attracted to, and given life by, the relationship, the betweenness, that exists with this Other. By contrast, the left hemisphere pays attention to the virtual world that it has created, which is self-consistent, but self-contained, ultimately disconnected from the Other, making it powerful, but ultimately only able to operate on, and to know, itself.”

The Garden of Eden represents the ordered world, much like the brain’s left hemisphere: structured, civilized, regulated, secure, stable. Prior to The Fall incident, Adam and Eve live in an unchallenged, unconscious bliss. Many artists attempt to convey this sense of a utopian, ordered environment.

The Snake in our walled garden

Our experience in life, however, senses that comfort and order can also mean stagnation. At any rate, it appears that we can’t prevent the appearance of chaos, even in paradise. Chaos lurks just outside the walls of the garden, waiting for an opportunity to enter. Just recently, I moved into a newly-built house. The freshly-planted yard seemed pristine, surrounded by solid 3-meter-high walls. Within the first month, I spotted our first snake that had evidently burrowed underneath the wall from the adjacent wild field. It’s impossible for chaos to not encounter order…that’s just the way life is.

A Hero’s Journey

The upside to the story of the Fall of Mankind is that chaos can challenge us to reach a higher level of life. Without the challenge to do evil, we would not be able to make a free choice for good. One could look at Eve and Adam’s decision to disobey God’s order and to desire knowledge of good and evil as a yearning for something beyond stability.  Yes, their self-awareness made them (and all humans by extension) capable of causing human suffering and death with malevolent behavior. But it also started mankind on a journey of redemption.

The “Hero’s Journey” is an archetypical story that appears in many versions of literature around the world—The Odyssey (Greek), The Journey West (Chinese), Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars. It is the story of an innocent but naïve person who departs a safe environment on a quest. In the quest, the hero meets his or her failings and sins, overcomes them through valiant effort, and eventually returns home wiser and stronger. Adam and Eve, or representatives of our first self-conscious ancestors, started humanity on the journey to solve the problem of what to do about the suffering and death that resulted from the knowledge of good, evil, and our own vulnerabilities.

In his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson states “It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.” That’s a pretty good prescription for dealing with chaos, and it shows how humans have been solving the problem of their own self-awareness for many millennia. Adam and Eve may have made a poor choice in their disobedience, leading to their expulsion from a walled paradise, but it has led to an increasing competence, and for the Christian tradition, a chance to know grace and redemption. For artists who realized this, it became a hopeful and forward-looking theme hidden in the background of The Fall.

And so we begin our journey of exploration of the images of this profound story. My plan is to present images in chronological order of their production, one or several per blog post, as I have time to properly present them. I will comment on each image, or sets of images in some cases, in order to give the background of the work, and add my own observations. I would love to hear comments and other observations!

The Gallery

Figure 1. 4th century Early Christian depiction of Adam and Eve in the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter

Perhaps the earliest extant example of The Fall can be seen in a late 3rd – early 4th century catacomb traditionally known as the burial place of Christian martyrs Marcellinus and Peter. The tomb features a mixture of pagan and Christian imagery, reflective of the transitioning times. The fresco places the first Roman-looking couple on either side of the Tree of Knowledge in what would become a very common arrangement. The artist emphasizes their self-consciousness, posing them in a shameful gesture covering their reproductive organs with grape leaves. It’s unclear to me, but it appears the snake might be at the base of the tree.

Figure 2. Circa 950-955, Illustration of Adam, Eve, and Serpent from the Escorial Beatus manuscript, likely created in the San Millán de la Cogolla Monastery

This depiction of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent comes from a Spanish illuminated manuscript produced some time around 950 AD. There’s a gap of about 700 years from the Roman catacomb scene, but we can see a standard way of describing the story has developed: Adam and Eve on either side of the tree (Eve is more often to the right), with the serpent in the middle. The images are flat, not anatomically proportional, each covering their reproductive organs with a large leaf. 

Despite the simplicity, the artist manages to create interesting expressions of the couples’ wide-open eyes looking at each other with a mixture of surprise and shame. The snake’s partially open mouth appears to be whispering his clever temptation into Eve’s ear. Notice that although some kind of fruit hangs in the tree, they are not apples, and neither Adam, Eve, nor the serpent are holding a fruit. This artistic style is known as Mozarabic, due to its heavy influence from Islamic art (which was itself influenced by Greek art). 

Spain in 950 had been under Muslim rule for over 200 years, since 711AD when Moors from North Africa invaded and defeated the Visigoth ruler Roderick (who appears by most accounts to have been a tyrannical ruler who many would have been glad to see go). The early centuries of Muslim rule over the Iberian Peninsula were relatively tolerant. The capital of the area during the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) was in Cordoba, where over 70 libraries served Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. Such libraries were crucial for keeping the Western European world connected to Greek scholarship. Non-Muslims were “second-class citizens”, but at least they were citizens; if they followed rules such as accepting Islamic political control and not proselytizing Muslims, they were free to pursue their faith.  

Monks in the San Millán de Cogolla monastery, in the wine-producing La Rioja area of Northeast Spain, had in fact just recently been freed from direct Islamic rule when this manuscript was produced around 950. A coalition of early Spanish monarchs conquered the Islamic forces in the nearby town of Nájera less than 30 years previously, although the local ruler was later forced submit to Cordoba as a vassal state. The Islamic influence on art lingered for some time in the see-saw world of Christian and Islamic struggle for political control.

The Escorial Beatus manuscript, in which today’s artwork can be found, was a commentary on an 8th century work about the “Apocalypse”. (The Apocalypse is the story of the end of the physical world as told in the Biblical work Revelation). The inclusion of “The Fall” scene in a work about the Apocalypse is likely included to set up the sweeping story of human corruption and then redemption. The story of the Apocalypse also symbolized Christian resistance to Muslim rule for many Christians of the time. In that story of the end of the earth, a menacing beast appears, who in early centuries was interpreted to be the pagan Roman Empire, but came to be seen as the Caliphates after the spread of Islam. 

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