Detail from the Orvieto Genesis relief: Tubalcain and Jubal

First half of the 14th century
Top register of the Genesis Relief
Leftmost pillar, façade of Orvieto Cathedral, Italy

The Genesis Relief as a whole illustrates that book's first four chapters in chronological order, from bottom to top and from left to right. Thus the first days of Creation are in the bottom left, followed by Adam and Eve, the Fall, Cain and Abel, and finally this topmost register with one man teaching a child and another playing some sort of carillon. Who are these men? The answer illuminates the entire iconographical program of the relief, and indeed of the four reliefs featured on the cathedral's façade.

At the end of Cain's story, Genesis 4:17-24 surveys the generations of his descendants. One of these is Tubalcain, the man on the left in this image, "an artificer in every work of brass and iron." According to Isidore he "taught" these arts and "through his works he aroused lust of the eyes, and his blacksmith arts introduced the cruelty of war." It was a commonplace in the Middle Ages to lament the day when people first grubbed metal from the ground, for it led to both warfare and a taste for luxury theretofore unknown.1

As for the identification of the man as Tubalcain, one might object that the child is holding a book, a thing surely unknown seven generations after Adam. But the relief is rigorously chronological and always goes left to right, and the next scene is definitely Tubalcain's brother Jubal. And the man is "teaching" something to the boy.

The Genesis Relief

On the right Jubal is "the father of them that play upon the harp and the organs" (Douay-Rheims 4:21). "Organs" translates the Latin organus, which can refer to any instrument or mechanism. Our artist ignores the harp and pictures a decidedly "mechanical" instrument with gears and cogs and some unseen power source. In an accident of etymology, Jubal's organus is thus what we would today call inorganic. As with Tubalcain's innovations, technology and artifice are the devil's work. Isidore comments on 4:21 that our enemy "tempts the ears with melodious music that gives them pleasure," a commonplace that he and several commentators adopt verbatim from Cyprian's "On Zeal and Envy."2

The two scenes at the top of the relief stand in a chiasmic opposition to the bottom register. As one raises the eyes the graceful lines of the bottom left scene give way to the awkward machine at the top right. And the luminous scene on the bottom right, where God draws Adam forth from the clay of the earth, contrasts with the top left scene of another progenitor teaching his son the dark arts of war and metallurgy.

The time traced as the eye ascends the relief is thus the time of the Adversary's plan for mankind, but God's plan is seen in the "Jesse Tree" carved on the next pillar. We remain in Old Testament time, but now the eye rises from "the root of Jesse," King David's father, up through the kings and prophets who kept the faith, to Mary and Jesus at the top. There is a similar progress in the first pillar on the right side of the façade, where the eleven minor prophets direct our attention upwards to Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection. Finally, the Last Judgment relief at the far right of the façade pictures the culmination of God's plan and the final defeat of the Adversary.

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Photographed at the cathedral by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 Glossa Ordinaria I, 101-102. Benson, 1083.

2 Glossa Ordinaria, ibid. For Cyprian see Migne, IV, 664-65 and quotations from Cyprian by Hugh of St. Victor (Migne CLXXVII, 1057) and by Bede, Works, VI, 241.