Indiana University Bloomington

Two States, Two Stories: The Creation of Adam

Will Adams, atmospheric science, informatics, Portuguese

Written for COLL-C103: Word Hard, Pray Hard

Instructor: Prof. Sonia Velazquez


An analysis of the image in question, which depicts a biblical creation story, reveals several features remarkably distinct from many other representations of the story of Genesis or the creation of Adam. Specifically, the three most striking elements of this piece are the depiction of characters as peacefully motionless, suggesting perhaps a more harmonic interpretation to the origin of Creation; the depiction of God in multiple places within a single image, which further forces the viewer to question of whether nor not God “labored” in the making of His Creation; and the decision to replace the image of God with a Tetragrammaton in later versions of the engraving, offering two different perspectives on the level of intimacy shared by God and humans at the time of Creation. These peculiarities might convey an interpretation of the story of Genesis with noticeable differences from the version of the story offered in the King James bible that we read at the beginning of the semester, despite that text and this engraving being produced roughly around the same time.

The subject of this visual analysis is the black-and-white image of a 17th century engraving on copper plate, by Johan Sadeler I. The image is aptly titled, “THE CREATION OF ADAM” and is part of the series of engravings known as “THE CREATION AND THE FALL OF MAN”. Johan was the head of the Sadeler clan, a family of renowned Flemish engravers, working primarily out of Antwerp in the 16th century. It is believe that one of Sadeler’s sons (also master engravers) altered the engraving, which went through two different evolutionary states, each one distinct in details, contrast, and context to the engravings, and each one proposing a different interpretation of the Story of Creation. Sadeler likely created the original engraving sometime between 1550 and 1600 CE, but the final state of the engraving was not published until 1643 in Copenhagen, where it is currently kept.

As the title suggests, the engraving is depicting the creation of Adam in a forest-like setting. Despite being a black-and-white image of a monochromatic copperplate engraving, the landscape looks fertile, luscious and paradise-like. The sun is never depicted, but the light is clearly coming from the top left corner of the engraving and seems natural and pleasant. There is a detailed contrast between light and shadow, with some animals being shaded and others in the sun, although the decision to shade some animals and highlight others does not seem significant or indicative of further meaning. The image is populated by various commonly recognized animals and livestock; rabbits, deer, cows, horses, some more exotic creatures (elephants, camels, ostrich, and even a unicorn) in the furthest perspective of the image. There is also a snake or viper in the foreground, seemingly observing the man. Presumably, the title of this engraving suggests that the man in the foreground of the image is Adam and the snake is the one that will later tempt Adam and Eve in The Fall. Very little movement or directional change is depicted, as most of the animals—both predator and prey alike—are portrayed as being docile or in a state of rest. The lack of movement and the overall organizational composition of the image could be representative of the order and harmony of the world at the time of Adam’s creation, at least according to the artist. By portraying the animals in this way, the image seems to be suggesting that the natural condition of the world is peaceful, harmonious, and balanced—rather than painful, violent, and chaotic. However, illustrating animals as inactive is a frustrating contrast, since the story of Creation is very much a story of action; the conclusions we reached on the first week of class described creation as the product of action or work, yet none of the animals are “working” or engaging in animal behaviors. This aspect of the engraving represents the Garden where Adam was created as a paradise without labor or work, an interpretation that flatly rejects Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s depiction of a lack of work as leading to idleness and interminable purposelessness.

However, one place in the engraving where work or active creation is portrayed is in the creation of Adam. In the foreground, Adam, a naked man with a thin beard and close cropped hair, is rising to his feet as life is blown into him in a bright, thin breath. Where, or who, this breath is coming from depends heavily upon the state of the engraving that is being analyzed. The first state of the engraving depicts the full form of God, amidst all the other creatures and animals God had previously created. God is portrayed clothed, bearded, sage-like figure surrounded by starbursts. God appears to be holding the arm of Adam as He breathes life into him, suggesting a level of ‘intimacy’ between Adam and God not often seen in other religious imagery. The implication of this closeness could be that Sadeler idealized the initial relationship between God and Adam as one born of compassion and caring, also insinuating, perhaps, that this sort of familiar relationship with the divine is what humans should strive for.

The second state of the engraving, however, features the replacement of the image of God with the blazing four-letter Tetragrammaton, encircled by the inscription: “IEHOVA DEUS INSPIRABAT … VIVENS.” This alteration of this engraving (and others like it) yield a great deal of insight to the political, cultural, and religious flux that was occurring at the time of its creation. It should be noted that Sadeler originally completed his work at the end of the 16th century (1585), yet the second state of this series of engravings was not published until almost 60 years later, during the height of Reformationist theology in Europe. The engravings were presumably altered by one of Sadeler’s sons (also Flemish master engravers) and the date of the publication of the second state of engravings coincides with the rise of the Dutch Reformed Church—which was heavily influenced by John Calvin and his teachings. Aniconism is rare in Christian imagery, with one of the major exceptions being the Calvinist rejection of all images of God in churches. As logic would follow, the image of God was likely stricken from the engraving and replaced by a Tetragrammaton in order to allow the engraving to be used as religious imagery throughout the Netherlands, where it was produced. In addition to the iconoclastic motivations for altering the engraving, the removal of God’s physical presence in the scene also drastically changes the relationship depicted between man and his Creator. Whereas God seemed to be carefully helping Adam to his feet in the first state, the absence of God’s figure in the second state makes the creation of Adam seem indifferent, effortless, and without compassion. The first state shows God actively being, doing, creating—working even. However, suggesting that God had to ‘work’ during his Creation of Earth and its creatures in when referencing the second state of Sadeler’s engraving is much more difficult, as God is portrayed as ephemeral—more idea than figure. Each state of the engraving could be used as supportive evidence to the claim that God did (or did not) work in the creation of Adam.

The question of whether or not God worked during the making of His creation, is further complicated by the final important element in the engraving. In the background, to the left of Adam, God is depicted a second time speaking with another naked human figure. Identifying this figure can be done only with limited certainty, due to a number of contextual limitations. Closer examination of the finer details of the engraving reveals that the figure is undoubtedly masculine, but does not have the same markings as Adam does (e.g. the second figure does not have a beard, whereas Adam does), although this lack of detail could be misleading. In this instance God seems to be gesturing to the other animals while speaking to the human figure, as if to provide instruction. It is unclear whether Sadeler intended to depict two different scenes in one image—the physical creation of Adam and God’s instruction to Adam regarding the keeping of the other animals—or if Sadeler is portraying the physical manifestation of God in two different places at once: simultaneously creating Adam and speaking with some other human figure. Furthermore, if God needed to be physically present in two places at once, as Sadeler could very well be depicting, could it not also be claimed that God labored physically in His creation of Earth? Would he not tire from being the sole responsibility for the creation of the known and unknown universe? Perhaps the laborious nature of God’s creative efforts depicted in the first state of the engraving are what motivated God to take a rest day on the Seventh Day.

However, the idea that Sadeler depicted two different scenes in a single engraving is a cogently more plausible explanation, as God (although he is often described as omniscient and omnipresent on a spiritual level) is very rarely described as actually being physically present in two places at once, either in scripture or biblical imagery. In Christian tradition the creation of Adam is also often thought of as God’s literal creation of humanity; thus, there should be no other humans at the time of Adam’s creation. However, even if this interpretation is correct, Sadeler’s decision to include both scenes in one engraving disrupts the observer’s expectation of sequential order in the story of creation and instead offers a sensation of timelessness to God’s presence with Adam in the Garden. If God is as the alterations to the engraving suggest—without form, or lacking physical action, and  capable of creating by simply willing it into being—than God must naturally also be free from the burden of physical labor that the first state illustrates.

As we can see, analysis of each state of the engraving allows for distinctly unique and sometimes conflicting interpretations of the Story of Creation. The first state hints at an intimate and careful creation of man, in which God labored, while the second state insinuates God’s creation of Adam was detached and effortless. The same is true when identifying of the second human figure in the background of the scene; if this second figure is not Adam, the theoretical implications of God being physically present in two places at once build a case for a laborious creation. Regardless of which rendition appeals most to the viewer, it is truly fascinating that these minor changes in the engraving could allow for such massively different interpretations of the Creation of Man.


 image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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