Maria del Valle Coello
Written for COLL-C 103: Work Hard, Pray Hard
Instructor: Prof. Sonia Velázquez
Jan Brueghel the Elder, the painter to whom the painting Garden of Eden with Creation of Eve is attributed, lived between 1568 and 1625 and worked on a broad array of paintings, from biblical, mythological, and classical history scenes to still lifes and portraits. Much of his work was commissioned by foreign, wealthy patrons, such as King Sigismund of Poland and Cardinal Borromeo of Milan, and he was the center of a prestigious network of painters including Frans Snyders and Peter Paul Rubens (“Brueghel Family”).
This particular painting, Garden of Eden with Creation of Eve, displays the allegorical story of Adam of Eve from Genesis, their fall from grace, and their subsequent exile from the Garden of Eden. Demonstrated by changes in positioning, color, and lighting, their story parallels mankind’s own shifting relationship with God.
The narrative consists of three separate scenes from the early lives of Adam and Eve placed in a rural setting, with a vibrant and colorful foreground full of animals and a background of mixed forest and meadow vegetation. The artistic account begins in the lower left corner of the foreground, in which Adam and Eve are depicted before God. Adam lies asleep, as God “caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam” while he made Eve, and Eve kneels before God (King James, Gen. 2:21). Continuing in the right side of the background, the chronicle displays Adam and Eve underneath an apple tree, later in time judging from their distance from the foreground, which is the focal point of the piece. Further behind this second depiction, near the center of the image, Adam and Eve appear as small figures in the distance running from an angel, likely one of the Cherubims whom God “placed at the east of the garden of Eden” as guards (King James, Gen. 3:24).
In the beginning of the pair’s story in the painting, Adam and Eve are dimensionally smaller than God and exhibit an intimate connection with him. For instance, both Adam and Eve are naked before God, and Adam lies asleep before him, demonstrating the pair’s ease in his presence. Additionally, Adam and Eve’s body positioning before God indicates an understanding of their relative importance to him: as God is their creator, they are lower in height to him. In fact, Eve, with her hands clasped together, appears to be in prayer before God. The staging of Adam and Eve in the presence of God shows a central truth about mankind’s relationship to God: mankind is born with trust and intimacy with God, as well as a clear understanding of his importance. Reflected by Jan Brueghel the Elder’s painting, this relationship of trust and intimacy appears textually in Genesis as well. God made “man in [his] image, after [his] likeness,” cementing a strong bond between man and God as “creation is of the order of love” (King James, Gen. 1:26; Pope Francis 77).
Man also is born with innocence, as emphasized by the colors surrounding Adam and Eve. The two lie under the shade of a tree, Eve born in semi-darkness, with God as a major source of light. The shadow surrounding them emphasizes their naiveté; they are kept in the dark, unknowing of sin and innocent.
As time passes, Adam and Eve, now further from God in the second depiction, turn away from him and partake in the fruit of the tree of life, seen behind them with the snake hidden on the tree’s trunk. Their body language conveys their sense of power and grandeur; Eve stands tall, with one hand stretched carelessly above her head and the other offering the apple to Adam, who sits comfortably next to her. They are no longer genuflecting before God and appear to have distanced themselves from him, and consequently no longer heed his commands never to eat the fruit of the tree of life. Interestingly, a change in surrounding light accompanies their second depiction. Adam and Eve are bathed in the light of the sky rather than in the dark, highlighting their newfound knowledge and loss of naiveté. Adam and Eve’s “eyes…were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (King James, Gen. 3:7).
This change in their obedience of God illuminates that of mankind’s changing relationship to God: as time progresses, mankind distances itself from him. In turn, man’s personal vision of the world experiences change. No longer is God the focus, nor are God’s commands obeyed; in fact, God is no longer depicted near man. As man ages, much like Adam and Eve age in the painting, his perception of God, of the world, and of his own place in the world undergoes a fundamental shift, and God’s words are no longer heeded as they were before. Temptation, as represented by the snake hidden in the tree who instructs Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of life, as she “shall not surely die,” takes root in the minds of men, leading them further astray (King James, Gen. 3:4).
At the end of the painting’s narrative, Adam and Eve flee from the garden, pursued by a winged angel carrying what appears to be a flaming torch. The pair appears fearful and aware at last of their nakedness, as they are hunched over and attempt to cover their eyes and their bodies. Brueghel emphasizes the rift between Adam and Eve and their creator; previously, he paints them surrounded by animals, trees, and flowers, but as the two run from the Cherubim, they run through an empty field, devoid of the beauty of the foreground. The colors enhance this shift; as Adam and Eve flee, their surroundings lack the vibrant hues of their carefree days in the Garden. The painting reveals another parallel between Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and mankind’s shifting relationship to God over time. As Adam and Eve become more distanced from God, they are persecuted and exiled from his garden. Psychologically, this is similar to what mankind experiences as its spiritual distance from God increases or when he sins; when man strays from God, he feels persecuted and exiled from God’s grace. In fact, this phenomenon reappears in the story of Cain, wherein God drives Cain “from the face of the earth” and “from [his] face” (King James, Gen. 4:14).
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Garden of Eden with Creation of Eve thus displays the full, shifting relationship between the pair, Adam and Eve, and God. The two begin their lives close to God and humble before him; as their distance from God grows, they no longer exhibit this same deference and hence give into temptation, leading them further from God and to a fall from his grace and hence exile from his garden. Man’s fate lies along the lines of Adam and Eve’s; as time passes in life, temptations rise and man’s detachment from God grows. Man then begins to feel persecuted by God, a stark contrast to the initial familiarity and understanding with God that man enjoys.
This idea of gradual distancing from God recurs in the works discussed in class. For instance, in Hesiod’s Works and Days, Hesiod describes the races of men created by the gods, namely the gold, silver, bronze, demigods, and iron races. As time passes, each race becomes more removed from God; the silver men “would not serve the immortals” and the demigods were destroyed by “ugly war and fearful fighting” (Hesiod 41). Additionally, as time passes, each race replacing the one before it becomes less attuned to the gods’ wishes, ending with “ignorance of the gods’ punishment” in the iron race (Hesiod 42). Distancing from God is a repeated theme reflected by both Hesiod and Jan Brueghel the Elder, and it points to a single truth across several religions: man’s ability to choose to ignore God and suffer the consequences, be they banishment from the Garden of Eden or eradication from Earth.