Simplicity and Clarity: A Look At Past Interpretations

I realised pretty quickly after my last two posts that I could very easily get overwhelmed by the areas to look at, and decided to slow myself down and do a little bit more research into previous artistic interpretations of Adam & Eve, and the motives behind each.

Pretty quickly I discovered the answer to why I wasn’t finding any pre-Christian imagery of the Fall. I was asking this question because it seems pretty logical to me that to get the purest source of a story you go back as far as you can. As Genesis was originally only part of the Jewish texts, it would make sense that they would be the first to depict their creation story, the downfall of man. It’s pretty big stuff, so there must be someone who’s doodled something, no? Well actually no, not really, and “why?” I hear you ask. Simply put: the 2nd commandment: No graven images or likenesses.


There is always one sneaky little art lover out there. I should know.

The only examples anyone seems to be willing to point out to me are the wall paintings on a synagogue of Dura-Europas. The only reason they seem to have been less strict with the 2nd commandment here is to teach, to “tell the sacred tale in visual form”. The way they got around it was the interpretation of “likeness”: they made the imagery as simple, flat and clear as possible, therefore, avoiding a realism or likeness which could tempt them into idolatry (the whole reason behind the image thing).

What’s awesome about this is how much it says about art as a teaching tool, particularly when it comes to stories. The images they created on the walls of the synagogue were there to tell a story of God and what had happened through the history of the Jewish people. They had other Old Testament stories also painted on the walls, but every one was incredibly simple, almost akin to cave paintings.

What is also pretty amazing is that this basically started the flow of Christian art because the Christians that followed in Dura knew very well that the new revelation of Jesus was tightly tied to the Old Testament prophecies and teaching. So they added images to tie them together in the same way – with clarity but not for art’s sake. An example of this would be a 3rd century wall painting in Priscilla’s Catacomb, Rome of “three men in fiery furnace”.

“The Three Men in Fiery Furnace”, 3rd century AD, wall-painting, Priscilla Catacomb, Rome.

“The picture no longer existed as a beautiful thing in its own right. It’s main purpose was to remind the faithful of one of the examples of God’s mercy and power… The painter in the catacombs did not want to represent a dramatic scene for its own sake… Everything which was not strictly relevant was better left out.”

This highlights the attitude that the Jews knew from the start, but the newly formed Christian groups were being reminded of: there was something other than earthly beauty.

“Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read.” Pope Gregory the Great

Moving on, I decided to look at the postures, the style, and the arrangement of the early images of Adam & Eve that I could get hold of. The first should, of course, be the Dura imagery. The only problem was that the image available was so simple it was barely there (understandable when you think of how long ago it was created!):

Adam & Eve beside the Tree of Knowledge, and the Good Shepherd and his flock.

Dura transcription

I attempted to copy the image, the stance, the simplicity, and this was harder than I expected, particularly when I needed to ignore every little bit of my brain that complained about the proportions. What I loved about this image was the emphasis. In general if you want something to hold more important you make it bigger and bolder, which means I can probably happily infer that the more important image was that of the Good Shepherd, an image of God guiding and caring for His flock, despite the sin that came before. If anything this is a grace-filled thought.

“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” 1 Corinthians 15:22, St Paul.

The doctrinal stress is for deliverance and this I think is something that fits very well with some of my hopes for the redeemed image of Eve – her deliverance from the label of sinner by looking at her through God’s ideas and her first moments with Him.

Another option hinted at in my reading (although I never did find the example image) was that of a painting in the Catacomb of Januarius in Naples. This would have been of great interest as the postures are meant to have Adam and Eve guilty and turned away from each other, with a gesture of dismissal from Adam towards Eve (Gen.3:12). This is familiar when looking at the didactic scenes, and Adam and Eve specifically, in the Corinthian columns on the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

Photo 30-04-2013 21 49 55

Despite the distance between these examples and Dura in the East there is a strong resemblance of the posture and proportions, suggesting a continued theme of the story in its simplicity.

Another example was that of the gold glass from the Ashmolean Museum, where, alongside other Biblical scenes, Adam & Eve seem to be happily sharing the fruit from the tree. They are turned towards each other, hands out, and yet are already covering themselves which gives a slightly ambiguous view of events.

Upside down in bottom right “corner” of the glass.

Gold glass example

These examples are easily not the most bold view of this scene, as Adam & Eve after the Fall, c.1015 from the Hildesheim Cathedral, gives such simplicity and yet a forceful suggestion of blame and guilt. As the painters in Dura did, this view is simple, the background is plain and so the figures are even more striking against it. What is clear to see is God pointing to Adam, maybe questioning, maybe already stating the sin that they’ve committed. Adam is simultaneously pointing, whilst the other hand covers himself hunched over, to Eve to pass the blame on. Eve is even lower down than Adam, perhaps due to holding the weight of the accusation on her shoulders, covering herself but also pointing downwards to the serpent at her feet as it looks up to her. This shifting of the guilt, passing the blame, is almost like pointing to the origin of evil in the world, and somewhat suggesting that the closer you are to the end of the line the more to blame you are. The proportions do not need to be correct, and Adam & Eve do not need to be beautiful by our standards for this message, this story, to be passed on. None of that matters; the clarity and the lesson are the point of it all.

Hildesheim Cathedral example

It was these examples, that Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” looked back on in the “Age of Faith” as their inspiration. They aimed to read scripture and the Biblical narrative with a devout heart, visualise the scene, and with simplicity and sincerity use a fresh mind to tell the ancient story. Whether they succeeded or even came close is up for debate, but I feel somewhat in tune with the ambition of it.

All these examples have seen beauty of the art as secondary to the message. Each has portrayed a stark and blunt teaching through the art form, and I think this is far too often something artist’s forget. We live in a time where art is often for art’s sake and the acclaim the artist might receive (or the controversy). I think I would rather grasp a little bit of this simplicity as I move forward and attempt to see the lesson behind it all.


Attridge, Harld W. (General Editor). The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books with Concordance, (Harper Collins Publishers, San Francisco, 2006).

Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art, (Phaidon Press Ltd, London, 1995).

Gough, Michael. The Origins of Christian Art, (Thames and Hudson, London, 1973).

Murray, Peter & Linda. The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture: Explore the Christian tradition in western art, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996).

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