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Masaccio

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, c.1425, Fresco, The Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Richard of Haldingham and Lafford [Richard de Bello]

Hereford Mappa Mundi, c.1300, Vellum, 158 x 133 cm, Hereford Cathedral, UK, Hereford Cathedral, Herefordshire, UK / Bridgeman Images

Damien Hirst

Adam and Eve (Banished from the Garden), 1999, Glass, painted steel, silicone rubber, autopsy tables, drainage buckets, mannequins, chicken skins, autopsy equipment, cotton sheets, surgical instruments, needle and thread, latex gloves, and sandwich, 221 x 426.7 x 121.9 cm, Location unknown, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved DACS / Artimage, London and ARS, NY 2018. Image courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Parsons

In-A-Gadda-Da Vida

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Artistic interpretations of the expulsion from Eden often evoke an experience of exile. Adam and Eve are depicted chased, chastened, and bowed down. But they are also walking onwards towards a new future. The duality of this experience is expressed at the close of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674):

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

In Christian tradition, human life on earth has often been imagined as a kind of exile between the paradise of Eden and the joys of heaven. Artistic depictions of the story end-and-beginning of Genesis 3:23 present a moment of transition that marks all of human history.

As literary critic Stanley Fish has argued, one result of the Fall is that Adam and Eve’s vision of Eden is thereafter coloured by sin (Fish 1998: 140). The fallen pair are in part exiled from Eden because they can no longer see it—guilt struggles to understand innocence. Similarly, the artworks chosen here reflect a banishment from the garden so total that the memory of what has been lost is forever changed. Eden is viewed always from the perspective of exile, just as we might remember a childhood left behind, a home that has been lost or a happiness we do not expect to return.

Damien Hirst’s installation appeared in the 2004 Tate Britain exhibition ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida: Visions of the Garden of Eden’. The title is that of a 1968 song by the rock band Iron Butterfly. The story goes that in the writing of the song, drunken slurring transformed the phrase ‘in the Garden of Eden’ into a nonsense lyric. It is as though those banished from Eden cannot even speak its name without distortion, and so in Hirst’s artwork the only hint of a life left behind can be seen in the suggestive drainage buckets and, more explicitly, some grisly rags of discarded flesh.

The medieval Mappa Mundi represents Eden as the moment of the Fall frozen in time and space, endlessly re-encountered with each viewing, unforgettable and inescapable. By contrast, Masaccio’s Eden is so inaccessible as to be virtually invisible. The fresco adorns a pillar, and because the painted archway through which the pair have walked marks the outer edge of that pillar, then beyond that archway there is nothing but empty air. The only hints of Eden are the stark lines of radiance emanating through the arch from the invisible ‘other side’. Once silver, they have tarnished and turned black over time, so that today they seem visually to echo the banishing angel with his now equally tarnished sword.

The depth of loss that this text invites us to explore is all the more extraordinary because it is not unredeemable. Though Hirst seems to stop short of suggesting any such redemption, in the other two artworks discussed there is some expression of hope.

The Mappa Mundi is made up of a series of enclosed circles, of realms that touch but will never meet. The outer circle of the earth encloses within its bounds the circle of Eden, but also just adjacent to it the upside-down devil enclosed in his own circle of hell. The two circles—the circle of hell and the inner circle of the earth—just overlap at the point where evil penetrated the world. To a contemporary eye there is a visual echo here of the meeting of ovum and sperm. The imagery of insemination takes us back to Augustine and his ideas about original sin (Ramsey 2008: 179). But the boundary between hell and Eden is preserved by a double line, while the devil remains within his sphere. Perhaps this suggests that while evil may be in the world, it will never be of it.

And while Adam and Eve are walking away from Eden in Masaccio’s fresco, they are also walking in the direction of the chapel’s altar: towards Christ and a history of salvation. Their shadows stretch behind them as—in the dawn of human history—they walk towards the east and the son of righteousness.

Artistic representations of the expulsion from Eden capture a moment of trauma and transition. The angel’s pointing finger, seen in Masaccio’s fresco, is a common trope that often points downwards in condemnation, but can also be seen as a sending forward and a sending out. Exile marks human experience, but in dwelling upon it we are invited also to look forward to a new hope.

 

References

Fish, Stanley Eugene. 1998. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

Milton, John. 2008. Paradise Lost, ed. by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (Oxford: OUP)

Ramsey, Boniface (trans.). 2008. ‘Letter 37, To Simplician’, Book 1, Question 1, 10, in The Works of St Augustine: Responses to Miscellaneous Questions, vol. I/12, ed. by Raymond Canning (New York: New City Press)