A 10th Century Multicultural Eve, Serpent, and Adam

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Today’s image of Eve, the Serpent, and Adam in our series on Serpents, Seduction, and Sin: “The Fall” in Art Through the Ages is another illuminated manuscript from the Iberian Peninsula. The Codex Vigilanus (named for one of the scribes), also known as Codex Albeldensis (after the monastery in which is was made), is a compilation of texts that were all important to the 10th century church, but also included secular knowledge. The Codex is the earliest recorded document in which Arabic numerals are mentioned, contains a life of Mohammed among other histories, and also is the first known document to illustrate Spanish monarchs. Unlike many ancient manuscripts, we know the three artists who produced the important work, as they provided a “10th century selfie”, drawn by Vigila, for us to admire.

A 10th Century “Wefie” of the 3 monks who produced the Codex Vigilanus–Vigila, Serracino, his friend, and García, his disciple. Source

Like the previous manuscript, the style is heavily influenced by Islamic art—the Mozarabic style. The illustrations also include Visigothic elements (the previous rulers of the Iberian Peninsula before the Muslim conquest), which inherited styles from Roman and Byzantine predecessors. This influence is particularly evident in the plant and animal motifs from the Mediterranean and Eastern traditions.

976 AD, Illustration in the Codex Vigilanus. Source.

In the “temptation of Adam and Eve” illustration, the label Lignum Fici means “fig tree”. The tree is very symmetrical and circular, which serves to balance the image and probably symbolizes its perfection as a tree of the Garden of Eden. Frankish styles (known as Carolingian after the ruler Charlemagne) from across the nearby Pyrenees might also influence the delicate patterning of the snake. 

In contrast to the previous two samples (Roman catacomb art and another Iberian manuscript), Eve stands on the left side of the tree, while the serpent presents her with a fig in its mouth. Adam, gazing not at Eve, but at the Serpent, is about to put a fig into his mouth. The couple rather matter-of-factly cover their nakedness with fig leaves, which seem more like stylish, patterned cloths.  The plump bodies of rolling flesh may be the illustrator’s ideal of life in paradise, without want of food…quite different than what current people might picture as a “perfect” body. 

The Cosmopolitan World of 10th Century Spain

Route followed by the Islamic Umayyad troops in the campaign to take back the upper marches. Source.

The combination of styles creating a unique work reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the religious site in which it was produced. The San Martín de Albelda monastery served as an engaged and important center of culture and scholarship for Spain and beyond during the 10th century. It was founded in 924 after a Christian coalition had tentatively taken back political control of the adjacent cities Nájera and Viguera from the Muslim overlords. Its position near the Ebro River and close to the Frankish frontier placed it within a strategic travel network that allowed communication far and wide.

Sancho II, King of Pamplona, from the Codex Vigilanus

The regional Christian victory didn’t suddenly end the Muslim influence on the arts and society or the flow of information about the ancient world via the Muslim occupied areas and other sources. In fact, only a few years after its foundation, Abd al-Rahman III in Cordoba declared himself Caliph and leader of the Muslim world, and by 934 he personally led forces to the north to take back control of the “upper marches” where the abbey was located (between Nájera and Viguera on the map). Fortunately for the Kingdom of Pamplona, the Queen Mother and regent of Sancho II of Pamplona was the Caliph’s aunt, and she personally persuaded Abd al-Rahman III to forgo sacking the region and to accept their submission as a vassal state. Sancho II would grow up to unsuccessfully battle the Muslims, personally submitting to the Cordoba Caliphate twice and presenting his own daughter in marriage to the de facto ruler, Almanzor. At the same time, Sancho II had family ties to the Kingdom of León, the County of Castile, and other Spanish monarch families. 

Thus the world in which the lovely Codex Vigilanus was born was not static or “dark”, but interconnected and vibrant. Despite the military clashes for political control, trade still flourished, as well as intellectual curiosity…just like Eve was curious to eat from the tree of knowledge. 

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