The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio

Masaccio

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

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‘The Woman Wailed’

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

The old English poem ‘Genesis A’ describes Eve’s departure from Eden thus:

The woman wailed, lamenting her loss,
Reproaching herself, repenting her choice.
(lines 853–4, Williamson 2017: 59)

The Genesis account is sparse and factual but the Florentine painter Masaccio, like the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, imagines the human emotion of the moment of exile. His rendering of the pair’s postures has been compared with ancient sculptures of the curly-haired satyr, Marsyas, and the contraposto stance of the Venus Pudica (modest Venus). However, the beauty of ancient forms is here transfigured by the intensity of human suffering, expressed in the covering and exposing of face and body. At this stage in the story the couple were already clothed (Genesis 3:21) (and for a while in the fresco’s history they were also modestly covered by the addition of vine leaves), but their visible nakedness here adds to their exposure and vulnerability. There is degradation and despair in Eve’s expression, her open mouth emitting a silent wail.

Masaccio’s Adam and Eve are united in exile but separated by it. They walk in step and their bodies overlap, but their physical gestures are in direct contrast to one another, particularly in the positioning of head and hands. Time has discoloured the blue background, bringing into view a subtle line between the two figures. This is an unforeseen result of the fresco technique, their having been painted on separate days (giornate) on to the wet plaster. Nevertheless, this long-term effect now highlights the separation between the figures. (It is a separation that will be echoed and expanded centuries later by Damien Hirst in his placing of Adam and Eve in separate Perspex boxes; see An Autopsy of the Fall, also in this exhibition).

Exile in this interpretation is separation. It is a distance between the pair that for existentialist theologians would come to express the human sense of alienation from ourselves (Kierkegaard 1980). In this image we see the paradox of loneliness as a shared experience.

 

References

Kierkegaard, Soren. 1980. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, trans. by Albert B. Anderson and Reidar Thomte (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Williamson, Craig (trans.). 2017. The Complete Old English Poems, The Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)


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