Adam in Paradise by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Adam in Paradise, 5th century, Mosaic, Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Niels Poulsen mus / Alamy Stock Photo

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Once and Future Glory

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Henry Maguire

The National Museum in Copenhagen preserves part of a fifth-century floor mosaic that was lifted from a church in Syria (Trolle 1971). In the surviving fragment Adam, identified by the letters above him, sits on a backless throne with a footstool, raising his right hand in a gesture of speech as he names the animals. He is flanked on either side by two cypress trees and on the right by a peacock, of which only the blue neck and crested head are preserved.

The original appearance of the entire mosaic can be ascertained with reference to a pavement of the same subject that was excavated in the nave of another fifth-century Syrian church, at Huarte (Canivet 1975). Here, at the eastern end of the nave, Adam was portrayed in the same way as in the fragment in Copenhagen, on a backless throne, between two cypress trees, and making the gesture of speech. In the Huarte mosaic Adam was surrounded by a wide variety of animals, including two snakes wreathed around the cypress trees, a lion, a lioness or a leopard, a jackal, a bear, and a mongoose. Among the winged creatures were a griffin, an eagle, a falcon, and a phoenix with rays around its head. While several of these animals had a reputation for ferocity, in the mosaic at Huarte they approached Adam peaceably. Even the mongoose was not portrayed attacking its traditional enemy, the serpent.

Since the animals at Huarte were shown at peace, both with Adam and with each other, there is little doubt that the mosaics at Huarte and Copenhagen were intended to portray the Earthly Paradise, before the original sin. But the mosaics incorporate one striking anachronism, for in both pavements Adam was portrayed fully clothed in a white tunic and mantle. He is not naked, as the biblical text requires (Genesis 2:25). Might this first Adam already prefigure a second?

 

References

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

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