Apart from narrative images, portraits of Adam and Eve are not common. Those one does find are likely to be nude sculptures of the first parents in their prelapsarian state – attractive young adults, as in the statues at right or
from Notre-Dame de Paris
this willowy Eve
Narrative images are seen in six different categories as follows.
THE CREATION OF ADAM AND EVE
In the first account of creation God makes "man" in his image and likeness, "male and female" (1:26-31). In the second Adam is created from mud and Eve from Adam's rib (2:7, 21-22).
The creation of Adam is seen in some Genesis sequences, for example the reliefs on the façade of Orvieto Cathedral and the mosaic sequence at the cathedral in Monreale, Sicily. We see the creation of Eve as early as a 4th-century Roman sarcophagus, where she is created by one of the earliest images of the Trinity. In the sarcophagus relief Eve is already standing by the side of the sleeping Adam, but later works such as the 12th-century mosaics at Monreale Cathedral and Palermo's Palatine Chapel and the reliefs on the 14th-century façade of Orvieto Cathedral all show her emerging from Adam's ribcage or torso.
Eve's creation seems to be a more popular subject than Adam's. In a 13th-century Swiss manuscript page with a medallion for each day of creation, the sixth day has God creating a human who is almost certainly Eve.
In modern illustrations the Creator will often be an old man with a beard, but in all the images mentioned here he is visualized as the Son, not the Father. The Son, who was to become incarnate as the man Jesus, is the "Word" of John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God and the Word was God.… And the Word was made flesh." At least as early as the 2nd century Christian writers extended this to imply that it was the Son who interacted with Adam and Eve in the garden, and the artists followed this cue.1
THE FALL OF MAN
In Genesis 3:1-8 the serpent persuades Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God had forbidden. Eve then gives some of the fruit to Adam and they immediately realize they are in big trouble. From the earliest times Christian writers identified the serpent with what Revelation 12:9 calls "that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduceth the whole world."2 The iconography of this narrative is exemplified in the second picture at right. This iconographic type has been in use since at least the 4th-century and has experienced little change. The couple stand on either side of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, with Adam usually on the left. The serpent coils around the trunk of the tree, which carries fruit. Eve will be variously reaching for the fruit, taking it, and/or passing some to Adam. The couple is sometimes shown completely naked when they take the fruit, as stated in Genesis 2:24 and illustrated in the second picture at right. But most artists either pose them so as to preserve modesty (example) or simply neglect to include the genitalia (example).
Before the Gothic era the serpent was just a generic snake, but in the mid-12th century Peter Comestor wrote that there is a certain species of serpent that has the face of a young girl, and that Satan had chosen to use that kind of serpent to beguile Eve because "like heeds like."3 This claim was repeated by subsequent commentators, the putative species acquired a name ("Draconcopedes"), and by the early 13th century female faces started to appear on the serpent.4 The earliest may be this relief at Amiens. By the 14th and 15th centuries they become quite common (example). The most illustrious example is Michelangelo's panel on the Temptation in the Sistine Chapel.
GOD CONFRONTS THE COUPLE AND EXPELS THEM FROM PARADISE
After they eat the fruit the couple realize they are naked and make themselves garments of fig leaves. These are almost always represented as single leaves covering the genitals, as in the third picture at right, where we see God confront them. The confrontation is less common in the art than the actual expulsion from Eden, in which God "cast out Adam; and placed before the paradise of pleasure Cherubims and a flaming sword turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life" (Genesis 3:24). The images usually have an angel do the casting out, as in the fourth picture at right. That picture also portrays the "garments of skins" (3:21) that God made for the couple. These vary in the art, sometimes taking the form of shaggy tunics as at right and sometimes more leather-like as in this sarcophagus relief.
The fourth picture at right portrays a Cherub in addition to the angel, but that is much less common in the art.
THE ASSIGNMENT OF LABORS
As part of their punishment God tells Adam he will have to work to eat: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (3:19). The point is repeated a few verses later: "The Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth from which he was taken" (3:23). In the 8th century Bede commented on 3:19 that the curse of work applied to Eve as well (In Pentateuchum Commentarii, col. 213), and she has always been included in images of God's assigning labor to mankind.
There have been two ways of looking at the curse. One was to see it as a plain hardship, as in this 12th-century relief where Adam and Eve bend sadly over a little hillock with their hoes, or this mosaic where Eve looks up disconsolately from her spinning. (The stereotypically female task of spinning thread is the one most commonly given to Eve in images of this kind.)
The other way of looking at the curse is to accentuate the positive. Sarcophagi of the 4th century, for example, symbolize the assignment of labor to the couple by showing Adam with a sheaf of wheat and Eve with a lamb (example). The sheaf represents the fruit of Adam's labor. The lamb refers to the task of spinning, but with an emphasis on the lamb's closeness to Eve and possibly a reference to the "lamb of God" that will be borne by Eve's counterpart, Mary. A catacomb painting from the same century seems to show the couple's progression from wearing animal skins to the more comfortable life that results from the labors God has assigned.
We see this optimism again in the Middle Ages in this example of domestic contentment in Adam's family and in Bede's remark that Adam "…was sent out from the paradise of bliss ‘to till the earth,’ that is, to labor in the body and gain for himself the merit to return to life, which is what the name of Paradise signifies, and be able to touch the tree of life and live forever" (ibid., col. 215, my translation). In the early sarcophagi this optimistic emphasis is so strong that the sculptors almost invariably place the sheaf of wheat in the scene of eating the fruit, as in this sarcophagus. There is another sarcophagus that puts both the sheaf and the lamb in the picture.
ADAM PICTURED AT THE CRUCIFIXION
Medieval and earlier images of the Crucifixion sometimes include Adam in a coffin below the base of the cross (example). This is to remind the viewer that "as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive" (I Corinthians 15:22), a point especially stressed in this manuscript illumination, where Adam holds a chalice to collect the blood falling from Jesus' body on the cross.
THE ANASTASIS OR HARROWING OF HELL
In "Anastasis" or "Harrowing of Hell" images the risen Christ rescues the souls of those who were faithful in the years before the Redemption. Adam and Eve are always the first of these. In western images they may be naked (example); in eastern ones they will be clothed (example).
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-09-16, 2017-04-13.