Michiel Coxcie The Elder, The Temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 1530,
Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney

In this blog post I would like to explore the biblical theme of Adam and Eve and the garden. This origin story is so famous that many artists have attempted to capture the essence of the story on canvas. I was prompted to blog about this subject when I visited the Chau Chak Wing museum at the University of Sydney and had my photo taken next to a version of the story painted by Michiel Coxcie The Elder, entitled The Temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 1530. The painting is attributed to the artist who was born in 1499 in Mechlin, Belgium and died in 1592. It was donated by Sir Charles Nicholson (Chancellor of the University from 1854 to 1862) and is displayed proudly in the new museum. Interestingly, it is a classic example of Renaissance art where Adam and Eve are naked except for fig leaves which cover their genitals, except in this case Eve is fully naked although demure.

As Europe was dominated by religious and monarchical institutions at the time, the story of Adam and Eve was as much about sexual immorality as it was about the creation of humans by a divine being. In the painting both characters hold an apple, traditionally accepted as the forbidden fruit that God specifically instructed Adam and Eve not to partake of. The fruit of this tree was to bestow on them the knowledge of good and evil and when they ate it they became aware of their nakedness and thus ashamed, made coverings for themselves. The knowledge of good and evil made them godlike but it also awakened them to sexual desires and in the churches eyes, to sin, punishment by God, and banishment from the garden.

The creation story enlightens humans about their origins but has moral overtones from the beginning. Renaissance and Enlightenment paintings are heavily loaded with moralistic messages equating sex and sin whose nuances carry down the centuries to the present day. There is an engraving and painting in the Northern Renaissance style by Albrecht Durer entitled Adam and Evedeveloped in 1507; a fresco entitled Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio in 1425 in the Early Renaissance period; the Sistine Chapel ceiling entitled Creation of Eve by Michelangelo in 1510 during the High Renaissance era; the Fall of Man by the Venetian artist Titian dating around 1550 in a style labelled Mannerism and a painting entitled The First Mourning by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This last painting was painted in the style of Realism and was created in 1888 but portrays the sorrow experienced by humans when another sin, jealousy and murder, manifests itself in creation. Many of these works fall under the category of Christian art as the Christian message of sexual purity and man’s propensity to sin is the dominant ideology. It is hard to know whether the artists who created these works actually believed in the message or practised it in their everyday life. They were compelled to paint and amplify the story as their patrons saw it.

Many of the works have a similar symbolic style in that the part of the biblical story where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and become conscious of their nakedness is represented by fig leaves covering their genitals. This symbolises their awareness of sexuality but also of knowledge and perhaps a development of emotions both good and bad. Their faces often reflect the awareness of a higher consciousness. The colours are often muted and the brush strokes are soft, conveying to the viewer that this story comes from the mists of time. The garden and the animals portrayed in the background are beautifully executed seemingly to say to the audience that indeed, this is paradise lost.

Humans are curious about the world around them and often ask the question as to why are we here? The biblical story of Adam and Eve explains the origin of man but puts him in a subordinate position to a divine being whose nature is questionable to many. From the Enlightenment period on man has questioned his beginnings and science has given us alternatives in the form of the theory of evolution and the concept of putting the individual first. Is Adam and Eve a story only told to children, a naïve ancient belief, or is it a doctrine to live by?