As you will recall from a previous post, I’ve been teaching a course this semester on the Bible and visual exegesis, exploring visual culture as a source of biblical interpretation. Classes have been going well, so I thought I’d share some images and insights we’ve covered in some of the lectures. I’ll start off with our lecture from a few weeks back on Adam and Eve in art and advertising.
We began with an overview of some of the ambiguities in the text of Genesis 2-3, particularly in relation to what Genesis 3 – the story of the ‘Fall’ – says about gender and female sexuality. Does Eve’s creation after Adam – and from Adam – suggest that woman is subordinate to man within the divinely mandated created order? Why does the snake talk to Eve, rather than Adam – does it suggest women’s greater vulnerability to temptation and disobedience? Why did Adam eat the fruit given to him by Eve – did she have to persuade or tempt him to eat it or did he bite into it quite willingly? And what was the forbidden fruit anyway – and why was it forbidden by God in the first place?
Countless interpretations of these textual ambiguities have been put forward over the centuries, many of which have pointed not only to woman’s secondary status in the created order but also to her textual characterisation as weak-willed and naive, prone to sin and solely to blame for the ‘fall’ of humanity and the loss of Edenic relations between both male and female and humanity and God. Moreover, Eve also stands accused of being the archetypal temptress, who uses her sexual allure to entice men away from their natural godliness and to indulge in the ‘forbidden fruit’ of untrammelled sexual desire. As the early Christian and Jewish readings of Genesis 2-3 quoted below suggest, this biblical narrative does not only recount the misdeeds of the first female biblical character, it advances an ideology about all women, explaining their dangerous nature and justifying the need for male dominance and control.
- 1 Timothy 2.12-14: ‘I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’.
- Ben Sirach 25.24 (2nd Century BCE wisdom text): ‘From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die’.
- Philo (Jewish philosopher, 25 BCE-50 CE): Women are ‘the beginning of blameworthy life’. Their bodily appetites are ‘the beginning of wrongs and violation of law, the pleasure for the sake of which men bring on themselves the life of mortality and wretchedness in lieu of that of immortality and bliss’.
- Augustine (Christian theologian, 354-430 CE): ‘[Eve] was of small intelligence and … lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by the superior reason’.
- Clement of Alexandria (Christian theologian, 150-215 CE): ‘Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman…the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame’.
- Tertullian (Christian theologian, 155-245 CE): ‘And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die’.
- Jerome (priest, theologian 347-430 CE): ‘Woman is the root of all evil
- 15th Century with-hunter’s manual, Malleus Maleficarum: ‘In the Old Testament, the Scriptures have much that is evil to say about women, and this because of the first temptress Eve and her imitators’.
Yes, throughout the long history of interpretation surrounding Genesis 2-3, Eve gets the blame for all humanity’s woes; moreover, all women are Eve, all women are associated with sin, guilt, temptation, and evil. No wonder men have to exert power over us, lest our evil natures wreak further havoc in this divinely ordained patriarchal world. We might be tempted to roll our eyes at the outdated views of these early interpretive efforts, dismissing their horrible misogyny as the result of archaic responses that no longer wield power in our contemporary Bible-reading cultures. Alternatively, we may tend to agree with their general interpretation of Genesis 2-3, but seek to whitewash the violence and vitriol of of such readings with platitudinous appeals to the far more equitable creation account of Genesis 1, where ‘male and female’ are both created – concurrently it seems – in the ‘image of God’. And yet, despite the fact that these early interpretations of Genesis 2-3 are indeed products of their time, their legacy across time and space has been ubiquitous and far from harmless; indeed, it’s almost a truism to say that the Genesis 2-3 text has had and continues to have a real and deleterious effect on women’s social, political, and religious lives: as feminist theologian Mary Daly noted:
‘The myth [of Gen 2-3] has projected a malignant image of the male-female relationship and of the “nature” of women that is still deeply imbedded in the modern psyche … The myth has in fact affected doctrines and laws that concern women’s status in society and it has contributed to the mind-set of those who continue to grind out biased, male-centred ethical theories … [It] undergirds destructive patterns in the fabric of our culture’.
Beyond God the Father, 1973.
So, if we turn to some of the visual depictions of Genesis 2-3 created across the centuries, what can we tell about the way artists have interpreted this biblical text? Do they likewise reflect the views of those early readings given above, pinning the blame on Eve for the whole sorry mess that was ‘the Fall’? Carrying out a survey of artists’ presentations of Genesis 3 from the Medieval period through to the nineteenth century fin de siècle and on to the present day, it becomes clear that the notion of Eve as Adam’s temptress – and her close affiliation with the snake, that source of sinful temptation – remained alive and well in visual culture. In some artworks, for example, Eve and the snake share a rather spooky resemblance, confirming the artists’ association of woman with this serpentine symbol of evil.
In other visual portrayals of Genesis 3, Eve may not look like the snake, but her close affiliation with it is clear to see. In William Blake’s Eve Tempted by the Serpent, this bizarre couple sashay around the tree of knowledge together, while Adam lies snoozing, oblivious to the disastrous events about to unfold.
In works by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Henry Fuseli, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, there’s even a wee bit of flirtation going on between Eve and the snake, while in Franz von Stuck’s work, Adam and Eve, Eve and the snake appear to become one flesh, the lapis lazuli creature mimicking the serpentine curves of the woman’s body until they coalesce to form one terrible fanged mouth that offers the man that fateful fruit.
Also, note how in some of these paintings, Eve is alone with the snake, accentuating the closeness of their relationship and, as J. Cheryl Exum has suggested, allowing Adam to be acquitted of at least some of the blame for his and Eve’s act of fruity disobedience. And even when he is present in the picture, some artists seem to insist that Adam was an unwilling partaker of the forbidden fruit, driven to this disastrous act as the result of Eve’s feminine wiles and skills of temptation.
But how did Eve tempt Adam to eat the forbidden fruit? And what was this fruit anyway – what did it represent? The biblical text doesn’t explicitly tell us, but as Katie Edwards has suggested (in her fabulous book Admen and Eve), given the rich biblical tradition of pairing together the themes of female sexuality and fruit (see Song of Songs 2:3-5 and 4:12-16 for example) – not to mention the sexualised implications of female nakedness found throughout the Hebrew biblical traditions – it may be that Eve’s ability to tempt her man to disobey the divine word was due to the overwhelming power of her sexuality. In other words, she didn’t simply persuade Adam to eat a piece of fruit – she seduced him until he was powerless to resist her charms, until he forgot about any divine prohibition and, throwing caution to the wind, sank his teeth into the delights of the flesh. And certainly, artists such as John Liston Byam Shaw make quite explicit this association between female sexuality and the sin of the ‘Fall’. Eve – as woman – is shamelessly seductive here – framed by the rich colours and exotic creatures of Eden (including a rather ginormous snake), she appears to have entranced poor Adam to the point of catatonia as he stands, trapped between those two most deadly of creatures – the woman and the snake – with nowhere left to run.
Even in contemporary depictions of the Adam and Eve biblical traditions – for example, advertising images that use iconography from the Genesis 2-3 text – this sexualising of Eve persists, along with that same insistence that Adam, while not entirely blameless, was rendered helpless by the overwhelming (and thus dangerous) power of woman’s sensual allure.
These contemporary images – although created under the banner of (hetero)sex positive postfeminism – may still convey an implicit message that such allure may need to be proscribed and policed. As Edwards notes in Admen and Eve, women’s sexuality and self-objectification before the male gaze can now be advertised as a source of their social and sexual power; yet, there is a concomitant claim that such potent female sexuality poses a threat to men and masculinity. Meanwhile, both of these ideological responses blissfully ignore the daily reality for countless women that their sexuality is less a source of their power than a site of shame, vulnerability, and violence. While Paul, Philo, the Church fathers, and countless others insist that women’s sexuality led man to lose his paradise, the reality may be that the paradise of patriarchy never did get lost in the first place, but remains very much a reality, sustained by those myths and misperceptions surrounding female sexuality – given voice in Genesis 2-3 and their interpretive traditions – that serve to keep women firmly in that marginal space of shame, subordination, and sexual sin.
I’ll be back soon with more reflections from our Danger and Desire course – next time, we’ll survey the cultural phenomenon of ‘Salomania’ – that centuries-long artistic love affair with the young royal dancer who caused John the Baptist to, quite literally, lose his head.
References for this discussion:
Edwards, Katie B. Admen and Eve: The Bible and Contemporary Advertising (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012).
Exum, J. Cheryl. “Notorious Biblical Women in Manchester: Spencer Stanhope’s Eve and Frederick Pickersgill’s Delilah.” In Bible Art Gallery, edited by Martin O’Kane, 69-96 (The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).