The serpent is the central character of Genesis 3:14–15, and is the common denominator of the three very different works of art that are examined here: a wooden sculpture from early-Renaissance Siena; a controversial painting by Caravaggio; and a French seventeenth-century print.
This passage in the Old Testament was interpreted by Christians in very different ways due to a single letter: an ‘a’ against an ‘e’. In fact, throughout the centuries it was read either as ‘she will crush your head’ (ipsa conteret capum tuum)—and therefore as referring to the Virgin—or as ‘he will crush your head’ (ipse conteret capum tuum)—and so as referring to Jesus Christ. Especially in the sixteenth century, this different way of reading it became one of the main subjects of discussion between Roman Catholics (who supported the version they considered to refer to the Virgin) and Lutherans (who maintained that the biblical passage intended Christ).
In both interpretations, the passage represents an action that symbolizes the redemption of mankind from Original Sin.
Vecchietta’s Pietà clearly shows that this redemption—and therefore the crushing of the serpent, who played a crucial role in causing Adam and Eve to fall—was possible thanks to the sacrifice of Christ which ‘takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). Caravaggio’s altarpiece combines the two interpretations of the passage, clearly finding a compromise by emphasizing the roles of both the Virgin and Christ in the work of redemption. This is partly a consequence of the conciliatory precepts of Pope Pius V’s bull on the institution of the Rosary (1571): ‘The Virgin crushed the head of the Serpent with the help of the Son’.
Sébastien Bourdon brings the Son to the centre of the action, attributing primarily to him the merits that achieve redemption. This is a typically Protestant approach to the passage, while in the Catholic world from the seventeenth century onwards the Virgin was increasingly the main focus of the image, to the extent that the Virgin crushing the snake became the official iconography of the Catholic Church's doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (see, for instance, Peter Paul Rubens’s and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Immaculate Conceptions today in the Museo del Prado, Madrid).
Despite their differences, all three works refer to the sacrifice of Christ. While in the Pietà this is made clear by the subject—the Virgin mourning the dead body of her son—there are more subtle references in the other two works. In Caravaggio’s painting, the position of the right hand of the Virgin means that her index and middle fingers describe the site of the future wound in Christ’s side. As often happens with representations of the childhood of Christ, we are offered a prefiguration of the Passion. In Bourdon’s print, the Virgin stretches out the arms of Christ, apparently to keep him balanced while crushing the snake. This too, however, can be seen as a subtle reference to the Crucifixion.
Reading the Old Testament text in a christological way, all three works of art thus bear the message that the redemption of mankind from Original Sin has occurred through the Incarnation and the sacrifice of Christ.
14The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all cattle,
and above all wild animals;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”