The story of Adam and Eve is one most of us are familiar with (Even those without religious upbringings can hardly avoid the constant pop culture references!). God creates Adam and Eve in the beautiful and paradisiacal Eden, free from sin. Yet, due to the tempting lies of the serpent the two eat from the tree of knowledge and are eternally banned from the garden. Now with the awareness and shame of their own nudity they are cast away from paradise, having brought sin into the world. Because Eve disobeyed God first she is cursed with the pain of childbirth and tasked with subservience to her husband while Adam is told that mankind will have to work the Earth and suffer mortality.
Think of the biblical serpent from the fall of mankind. Visualize what you imagine it would look like.
Have an image in your head? Good. Now were you picturing anything like this?
Renaissance artists lived in a patriarchal culture very concerned with the relationship between man and God, fixating upon the idea of women’s sin, guilt and redemption. This patriarchal bent becomes very obvious within artwork created during the period in which both Eve and the serpent are sexualized and feminized. The question becomes, why? Biblical texts refer to the serpent using generic male pronouns, and in most cases in which gender is not specified in the bible, the figures are interpreted as male. So in this specific instance, why does the church do the opposite? The idea of the tree of knowledge introducing general sin into the world doesn’t fully answer this question. However, if the knowledge gained were sexual in nature, specifically the sexual awareness of a woman, the choice to depict a female serpent begins to make much more sense.
The female serpent is a metaphor for women’s sexuality. The serpent tempts Eve into gaining sexual knowledge, and Eve, in turn, acts as temptress to Adam. An ideal example of both a feminized serpent and a sexualized Eve is found in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of The Fall.
Keep reading to learn more about the sexualization of Eve and see some pretty ridiculous lady serpents!
This fresco depicts the serpent as a hybrid of woman and beast. Her long, serpentine tail curls around the tree, eventually developing into the nude torso of a woman. We can be assured of her femininity by the prominently silhouetted breast (which is impossibly visible here, the angle of the torso should prevent us from seeing her chest). Breasts are a necessary feature for Michelangelo’s painted women, as their figures are otherwise highly masculine, and thus indiscernible from the men. When he included breasts in his work it was to loudly proclaim the figure to be a woman.
In addition to the feminized serpent we see a sexualized Eve. She is provocatively posed in front of Adam (note that the second she turns her head it’s not just the apple that will be in her mouth), whom is angrily gesturing towards the serpent as an indication of his unwilling participation in these events. Additionally, the middle finger of Eve’s right hand (a Renaissance symbol for a phallus) points towards her genitals. This gesture parallels her left hand’s hold upon the apple and implies that both the apple and Eve’s body act as temptations.
Here are a couple other Renaissance images of feminized serpents:
Renaissance artists, by depicting the serpent as a woman, were both revealing their opinions of female sexuality and decisively blaming womankind for the fall. Women were perceived by Renaissance audiences to be weak, gullible, and inherently flawed; an ideal scapegoat. The only issue with casting Eve as a temptress is that she was originally tempted by the serpent. If Adam—a man—was tempted by Eve—a woman—who herself was tempted by the serpent—a man—then the blame ultimately falls upon the male sex. However, if the serpent becomes a woman, then woman is ultimately to blame.
An interesting thing to note is that in many of the paintings in which the serpent is not a woman Eve becomes highly provocative. With the snake’s gender undefined Eve is transformed into a sexual, aggressive being using her body to coerce Adam into sin. For example, Lucas Cranach the Elder often allowed the serpent to remain free from feminization while Eve posed provocatively. As seen in one of his paintings, Adam and Eve, the serpent curls itself onto a branch over the original couple’s heads as Eve lasciviously leans back onto the tree of knowledge, one leg bent and an arm extended upward, clinging to a branch and conveniently making her body more receptive to Adam. She aggressively thrusts the apple towards Adam’s face, indicating that her sexual aggression is what corrupted Adam.
In later works the serpent is downplayed by being partially concealed within shadow or simply overwhelmed by the figures of Eve and Adam. These later paintings portray Eve much more sensually. An ideal example is Adam and Eve by Tintoretto, in which the artist emphasizes the soft curves of Eve’s body and depicts her meaningfully gazing into Adam’s face. Tintoretto’s painting further emphasizes Eve’s role in this event by having strong, white light fall directly upon her figure and by elevating Eve to a position in which she is above Adam, leaning inward and pushing the fruit towards him. These effects are used to emphasize the danger of Eve’s sexual power.
Similar tools are used in Rubens’ and Brueghel the Eder’s piece, Adam and Eve in Worthy Paradise, including a minimized serpent, strong lighting, an elevated position, and a direct gaze. Compared with earlier work that more frequently used a feminine serpent, Eve’s role is much more strongly emphasized.
In fact, there are very few works in which Adam alone holds the forbidden fruit. The apple signifying original sin is either held by the serpent, Eve alone, or by both Eve and Adam. Although Adam was a participant in these events his role has been downgraded—or upgraded depending on your perspective—to a passive bystander. He becomes a man who was tempted by woman into sin.
So what do you think? Were Renaissance artists really demonizing women’s burgeoning sexuality? Or was there another reason for the feminized serpent? How has our depiction of Eve and Adam (art, pop culture, whatever!) changed today?
This post was crafted from a paper I wrote on depictions of Eve in Renaissance artwork, so be sure to check back later for an additional post on the Madonna/Whore dichotomy constructed between the Virgin Mary and Eve.