Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out

Intimations of Immortality

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Henry Maguire

Augustine, in his commentary on Genesis, distinguished between three different approaches to the biblical account of Paradise: corporeal, spiritual, and the two in combination (Migne 1844–80: vol. 34, col. 371). The depictions of Adam naming the animals in the three works of art presented here correspond to Augustine’s categories (Maguire 1987).

The thirteenth-century mosaic in San Marco is primarily a ‘corporeal’ account of the story that does not invite the viewer to go beyond the literal sense of the narrative. Except for Adam’s upright pose, which may signify his command over the beasts, there is little in the image to encourage us to allegorize the story.

On the other hand, the mosaic in Copenhagen forces the viewer to comprehend the ‘spiritual’ meaning of the episode by presenting Adam fully clothed, contrary to the biblical text. In this case it is clear that the artist intended to convey some level of meaning beyond simple narrative.

One possibility is that this fifth-century mosaic presents Adam in the guise of Christ, the New Adam. An objection to this interpretation, however, is that it would require the image of Christ to be placed upon the floor, where it could be trampled. Rather than portraying Christ, it is more likely that the clothing of Adam evoked the salvation of Christians. The fourth-century Syrian writer Ephrem, for example, said that the white robes of those baptized in the Church represented the spiritual robes of glory lost by Adam and Eve when they were expelled from Paradise. Speaking of the assembly of saints, he declared that:

There is not one naked person among them; glory clothes them again. None here is only covered by leaves, or standing in an attitude of shame. Our Lord himself has caused them to find the tunic of Adam again. ... Behold, those who had lost their own vestments are [clothed] anew in white. (Lavenant 1968: 84–5)

Thus we may interpret the image of Adam in the mosaics as an allegory of those who have recovered through Christ the paradisiacal state in which wild beasts and serpents cannot hurt them.

The Carrand Diptych, with its striking juxtaposition of Adam in Paradise and Paul in Malta, embodies the third of Augustine’s categories of meaning, namely the combination of the corporeal and the spiritual. The two wings can be read in a literal sense, but viewed together they suggest an allegory of Adam’s dominion over the animals as a type of the just man who has ascended from his corporeal nature to a spiritual paradise. Taking his cue from St Paul’s vision of the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2–4), Ambrose of Milan wrote in the fourth century that a just man, such as Paul, can ascend to the third heaven and thus be brought into a spiritual paradise where he may judge all things (Schenkl 1897: 265, 308–10).

Ideas of this kind underline the juxtaposition between the seated figures of Adam and Paul at the top of the ivory diptych, with their respective gestures of speech; Adam discriminates between the creatures, while Paul exercises his judgement in the spiritual realm. The pairing of the serpents on each side of the diptych can be explained in the words of the fifth-century theologian Theodoret of Cyrus, who wrote that:

Those who are educated in virtue do not fear the attacks of wild beasts, inasmuch as the beasts stood beside Adam before he sinned and offered their submission… In like manner the viper, which fastened its teeth on the hand of the apostle, when it found no weakness or softness of sin in him, immediately leaped off and threw itself down into the fire. (Migne 1857–66: vol. 80, col. 97)

The works of art presented here correspond to the three types of meaning listed by St Augustine. The mosaic in San Marco presents a single uncombined image with few pointers to an allegorical reading. The Carrand Diptych invites a double interpretation, for in its case each of the two juxtaposed images allows literal readings, but they also suggest allegorical content when they are combined. Finally, the Syrian mosaic does not allow a literal interpretation at all, since it contradicts the biblical text. Here, as the image is contemplated, the viewer is forced to rise from the literal interpretation and to be mindful of allegory.

Like Ephrem’s description of our human journey back to glory, this pathway is nothing less than a spiritual ascent.



Canivet, Maria-Teresa, and Pierre Canivet. 1975. ‘La Mosaïque d’Adam Dans l’église Syrienne de Hūarte’, Cahiers Archéologiques, 24: 49–70

Demus, Otto. 1984. The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice, 2 vols (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Kessler, Herbert L. 2014. ‘Thirteenth-Century Venetian Revisions of the Cotton Genesis Cycle’, in The Atrium of San Marco in Venice: The Genesis and Medieval Reality of the Genesis Mosaics, ed. by Martin Büchsel, Herbert L. Kessler, and Rebecca Müller (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag), pp. 75–94

Konowitz, Ellen. 1984. ‘The Program of the Carrand Diptych’, The Art Bulletin, 66.3: 484–88

Lavenant, René (trans.). 1968. Ephrem de Nisibe. Hymnes sur le Paradis, Sources chrétiennes, 137 (Paris)

Maguire, Henry. 1987. ‘Adam and the Animals: Allegory and the Literal Sense in Early Christina Art’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 41: 363–73

Migne, Jacques-Paul. 1844. Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina, 221 vols (Paris)

———. 1857. Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, 161 vols (Paris)

Schenkl, Carolus (ed.). 1897. Sancti Ambrosii Opera, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, 32 (Vienna)

Shelton, Kathleen J. Verfasser. 1982. ‘The Diptych of the Young Office Holder’, Jahrbuch Für Antike Und Christentum: 32

Trolle, S. 1971. ‘Hellig Adam i Paradis’, Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark: 105–12