Apart from narrative images, portraits of Adam and Eve are not common. Those one does find are likely to be nude sculptures of the first parents in their prelapsarian state – attractive young adults, as in
from Notre-Dame de Paris
THE CREATION OF ADAM AND EVE
In the first account of creation God makes "man" in his image and likeness, "male and female" (1:26-31). In the second Adam is created from mud and Eve from Adam's rib (2:7, 21-22).
The creation of Adam is seen in some Genesis sequences, for example the reliefs on the façade of Orvieto Cathedral and the mosaic sequence at the cathedral in Monreale, Sicily. We see the creation of Eve as early as a 4th-century Roman sarcophagus, where she is created by one of the earliest images of the Trinity. In the sarcophagus relief Eve is already standing by the side of the sleeping Adam, but later works such as the 12th-century mosaics at Monreale Cathedral and Palermo's Palatine Chapel and the reliefs on the 14th-century façade of Orvieto Cathedral all show her emerging from Adam's ribcage or torso.
Eve's creation seems to be a more popular subject than Adam's. In a 13th-century Swiss manuscript page with a medallion for each day of creation, the sixth day has God creating a human who is almost certainly Eve.
In modern illustrations the Creator will often be an old man with a beard (example), but in almost all medieval images he is visualized as the Son, not the Father. The Son, who was to become incarnate as the man Jesus, is the "Word" of John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God and the Word was God.… And the Word was made flesh." At least as early as the 2nd century Christian writers extended this to imply that it was the Son who interacted with Adam and Eve in the garden, and the artists followed this cue.1
THE FALL: PALEO-CHRISTIAN IMAGES
In Genesis 3 the serpent persuades Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree God had forbidden, so they are expelled from Paradise. This event is often referenced in paleo-Christian art. In some examples, the image presents only Adam and Eve flanking the tree (example). In others the serpent is added, coiled around the tree as in this relief on a 4th-century sarcophagus: The relief also exemplifies the tradition in paleo-Christian iconography of using a lamb and a sheaf of wheat to represent the consequences of God's decree, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (3:19). Surprisingly, the wheat and lamb represent not the sweaty toil but its fruits. The wheat grows from Adam's labor in the fields and becomes bread. The lamb provides the wool for Eve's defining task, the spinning of thread. The symbols are sometimes inserted into the traditional image of the first parents at the tree, as above, and sometimes in a separate picture where God hands them the sheaf and the lamb (example).
The symbols also anticipate Adam and Eve's redemption by Christ, who is the "lamb of God," and "the living bread which came down from heaven" (John 1:29, 6:51).
THE FALL: MEDIEVAL IMAGES
In later periods this way of presenting the couple's labors is seen occasionally in works such as this image of domestic tranquility and in the medieval commentators' assertions that their labor would bring them merit.2 But as an element in the images of Adam and Eve with the tree, the sheaf and lamb are mostly forgotten. It becomes more typical to picture a bent-over Adam toiling painfully with his hoe. An early example of this is in a marble fragment included in the so-called Sarcophagus of Stilicho. In another, from the 12th century, Eve sits disconsolately with her distaff while Adam grimaces over his hoe.
Otherwise, the medieval tradition follows the pattern pictured above. The couple stand on either side of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, with Adam usually on the left. The serpent coils around the trunk of the tree, which carries fruit. Eve will be variously reaching for the fruit, taking it, and/or passing some to Adam. The couple is sometimes shown completely naked when they take the fruit (example), as stated in Genesis 2:24. But most artists either pose them so as to preserve modesty (example) or simply neglect to include the genitalia (example).
Before the Gothic era the serpent was just a generic snake, but in the mid-12th century Peter Comestor wrote that there is a certain species of serpent that has the face of a young girl, and that Satan had chosen to use that kind of serpent to beguile Eve because "like heeds like."3 This claim was repeated by subsequent commentators, the putative species acquired a name ("Draconcopedes"), and by the early 13th century female faces started to appear on the serpent.4 The earliest may be this relief at Amiens. By the 14th and 15th centuries they become quite common (example). The most illustrious example is Michelangelo's panel on the Temptation in the Sistine Chapel.
After they eat the fruit Adam and Eve realize they are naked and make themselves garments of fig leaves. These are almost always represented as single leaves covering the genitals, as in the first picture at right, where we see God confront the couple. The confrontation is less common in the art than the actual expulsion from Eden, in which God "cast out Adam; and placed before the paradise of pleasure Cherubims and a flaming sword turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life" (Genesis 3:24). The images usually have an angel do the casting out, as in the second picture at right, which also portrays the "garments of skins" (3:21) that God made for the couple.
ADAM PICTURED AT THE CRUCIFIXION
Medieval and earlier images of the Crucifixion sometimes include Adam in a coffin below the base of the cross (example). This is to remind the viewer that "as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive" (I Corinthians 15:22), a point especially stressed in this manuscript illumination, where Adam holds a chalice to collect the blood falling from Jesus' body on the cross.
THE ANASTASIS OR HARROWING OF HELL
In "Anastasis" or "Harrowing of Hell" images the risen Christ rescues the souls of those who were faithful in the years before the Redemption. Adam and Eve are always the first of these. In western images they may be naked (example); in eastern ones they will be clothed (example).
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-09-16, 2017-04-13, 2020-07-23.