Eve’s story has frequently been seen as a tale of temptation and transgression in which she, the Bible’s first woman, takes the lead role. When we picture Eve, it is hard to avoid an image of naked female flesh, serpentine sinews, and the allure of an apple—a composite composition of hundreds of famous drawings, paintings, and sculptures made in response to Genesis 2–4.
But, this popular image of Eden and its inhabitants does a disservice to the complexities of the Garden story, which is rife with ambiguities and tensions.
After all, as much as the story is about death and disobedience, it is also about life. While humanity is ultimately cut off from the Tree of Life at the conclusion of Genesis 3, it will live on and populate the earth. The life Eve and Adam are left with after eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Bad might be one of hardship and struggle, but death is avoided. For now.
Genesis 2–4 is a story concerned with explaining the bittersweet character of the human condition and humanity’s complex relationship with God and with nature. This is powerfully represented in the strands of the text that represent Eve’s motherhood. Eve embodies the status of all subsequent humans—she is lower than God, yet above the beasts of the field—caught somewhere between divinity and animality.
In certain respects Eve comes remarkably close to God. Her exceptional role as ‘mother of all living’ (Genesis 3:20) and her boastful claim to have ‘created a man with the Lord’ (Genesis 4:1 own translation) combine to create a sense of monumental maternity, echoes of which are detected in Louise Bourgeois’s Fragile Goddess. Eve, in some senses, forms part of a mythic memory in which women across cultures and time have been idolized for their maternal energy.
Yet, in the very same text of Genesis Eve’s fertile body is also marked as a site of struggle and suffering. Humanity should not, Genesis tells us, become too much like God (Genesis 3:22), and so Eve’s potential for power must have limitations. In this she is closer to her animal companions in the garden, the very animals used by Damien Hirst to create his Mother and Child (Divided). She, like them, might be able to produce life, but she too is unable to control death.
Hirst’s choice of cow and calf to represent his mother and child heightens this sense of maternal liminality: while for the viewer the cow is synonymous with life-giving milk, in order to sustain the production of cows’ milk for human consumption, the dairy industry slaughters countless calves daily. The immediate sense of powerlessness represented in Hirst’s bisected mother and calf strongly echoes the powerlessness Eve has over her own mortal body and those of her children. She may be the first mother of all humanity, but this does not allow her to escape the tragedies of parenthood.
As her sons fall victim to violence in Genesis 4, and the tension between humanity and God deepens, Eve continues to play a key role in the unfolding drama of human nature. For some later interpreters of the text, such as the artists of the Ashburnham Pentateuch, Eve’s character, both positive and negative, comes to be imprinted upon her sons and helps to explain their different natures. The prideful potential of the first woman, perhaps revealed when she celebrates Cain’s birth in Genesis 4:1, might be taken as a sign of her responsibility for the sinful side of Cain. Yet, the Ashburnham Pentateuch also reminds us that Eve gave birth to the innocent Abel.
Eve is neither the embodiment of womanly failure, nor the paradigm of female perfection in Genesis 2–4. She is a human figure who grows, learns, suffers, and survives, all the while negotiating with God.
By viewing the Bible’s first woman through this more complex lens of maternal imagery, it is possible to re-evaluate millennia of damaging traditions. In particular, by taking a closer look at the story of Eve, we are encouraged to challenge the popular Christian tradition of Eve as sexualized sinner and Mary as pure, sorrowful mother. Works of art like the ones in this exhibition open up a space of encounter between these two women, as powerful creators and as mourning mothers of innocent sons. They allow us to read the text of Genesis 2, 3, and 4 in a fresh light. They allow us to see Eve anew.
16To the woman he said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.