Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Eden in Art

The story of the Fall has been so central to the development of Western culture that Adam, Eve, the garden, the serpent, and the forbidden fruit have come to function as a constellation of archetypes, and these components are recognizable symbols even individually. When reading the first chapters of Genesis, note the differences between the text itself and what centuries of interpretation and popular culture have distorted it into. For example:

  • there is no indication that the serpent is Satan in disguise; it’s just a talking serpent.
  • it’s a forbidden fruit, not an apple. Apples in the near east? If a particular fruit was intended, it would have been the fig, which did have a sacred reputation and associations with mystical knowledge.
  • Eve didn’t “tempt” or “seduce” Adam into eating the fruit (which really makes no sense). She gave it to him and he ate.

Visual depictions from artwork to cartoons have affected how we imagine the story. But below are examples showing an interpretive feature of the story from the medieval period that manifested itself in a peculiar way.

Medieval art such as this Franco-Flemish piece can depict several scenes separated in time all within one frame. This one can be read from left to right, like a comic strip without frame divisions, with moments from the story in Genesis 2 and 3.

Perhaps most unexpected for us is the depiction of the serpent. Whom does it resemble and what are the interpretive implications of this?

God’s halo is represented as two-dimensional here, but this is actually more sensible than those neon rings one sees suspended above the heads of holy persons. The halo is a sort of aura, so it should be emanating, not depicted as a levitating crown.

[From Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1411-1416.]

The circle is an important, basic, mythological image, as Jung knew. Mandalas, rings, journeys, dances — whatever the circle, it is expressive of eternity and also of wholeness and completeness. The perfection of Eden is contained herein, and the first couple’s exit outside the circle, to the right, may be the beginning of an heroic adventure for humanity, but it’s also a grim expulsion from the safety of the happy enclosure.

[A Miniature from Florence.]

Here again, a peculiar-looking serpent. Why?

What else do you see depicted?

Why does the artist foreground this frozen moment at the tree? How does the placement of the figures make several interpretive points?

What is happening at the very center of the image and what does it mean?