These artworks explore a foundational biblical motif: humans created in the ‘image … [and] likeness’ of God (Genesis 1:26). This enables their own imitation of primal divine creativity.
In response to God’s instructions, certain activities exemplify this: procreation and dominion. But—integrated as it is within what one modern commentator called a ‘majestic festive overture’ (Westermann 1984: 93)—the narrative of the sixth day of creation could not fail to inspire sublime artistic creativity as well. From a wealth of responses over many centuries, the three artworks chosen here invite an intriguing trans-European conversation about artists’ responses to the biblical text (De Capoa 2004: 11–25).
They have an important aspect in common. Day 6 (Genesis 1:24–31) describes creation’s completion in ways that look back to previous days while developing new details. Just as Day 4 corresponds to 1, and Day 5 to 2, so Day 6 corresponds to 3: what lives on the earth. Other literary developments—notably the expression ‘very good’ (tov meod) about ‘all things’ (v.31; cf. vv.4,10, etc.)—also encourage reflection about God as the supreme creator, and creation as a profusion of life and delight. It is no surprise, then, that this synoptic view of God’s works became a stimulus in all three artworks to capture not just one day, but the cumulative effect of the creation narratives.
They all portray the divine. Given biblical injunctions (idol prohibition) and doctrinal analysis (God’s ineffability), this was rare in early Christianity, as in Judaism. Though initially minimal, like the motif of ‘The Hand of God’ (for example, at San Vitale, Ravenna), fuller depictions emerged despite iconoclastic controversies. That New Testament texts designate Jesus Christ—the supreme ‘image … [and] likeness’—as the incarnate icon (eikōn) of God, had already provided new perspectives in an originally Jewish setting averse to depicting the divine at all. It is the fruit of such theological and artistic developments that we see in this exhibition. We ought not to assume that their artists were deliberately transgressive in this regard: their purpose was to enrich faith via illustrative, symbolic realism.
Their settings, whether in a Papal palace or on a Protestant page, mark them out as Christian. They do not interpret Genesis with reference to the book’s origins, as in modern Biblical Criticism. Rather, biblical verses are given frames of reference that are distinctively Christian. Just as God’s use of the first-person-plural form ‘let us … our’ (Genesis 1:26) was perceived by early Christian exegetes as a revelation of ‘the Trinity of the Unity, and the Unity of the Trinity’ (Augustine, Confessions 8.22), so the imago dei—that which distinguishes humankind from other earth-bound creatures (1:24–31; cf. 2:7)—was deployed as a key idea to explain salvation in Christ. The Adam–Christ typology, for example, signalled spiritual renewal (Romans 5:12–21; 12:2; 1 Corinthians 15:45–49). In these artworks such ideas are visually explored.
These artworks may also be brought into more direct historical conversation. There is a reference in the travel log for February 1538 of a visit to Girona by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–58 CE): he wanted to see the tapestry’s portrayal of the Emperor Constantine. This is the same Charles who, when king of Germany, had declared Martin Luther an outlaw at the Diet of Worms (1521). But another ruler of the Germanic territories—Prince Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony—secured safe passage for Luther, and it is he to whom the Luther-Bibel is dedicated. The woodcut and the fresco were made within twenty-five years of each other, and in a period of growing Protestant influence that might just be discernible even in Michelangelo’s work (Hall 2004).
Tapestry and fresco required privileged ‘pilgrims’ to come to them. By contrast, the more portable book form—reproducible via the printing press—made printed artworks significantly more accessible to a wider range of people. Though restricted to a page in a Bible, with the inevitable lack of a public liturgical church setting for its elucidation, this medium presented an opportunity for the diffusion of sacred teaching in visual form in juxtaposition with the written word of God. The powerful reach of the internet is a contemporary parallel to that early modern technological development.
It is often supposed that pre-moderns were ‘flat-earthers’; it might be presumed that these artworks confirm that outlook. This is incorrect: many ancient and medieval thinkers thought the world was spherical. Moreover, these artworks show not only visual counterpoints to this late modern myth, but they also convey sophisticated notions of God’s relationship with creation in space and time. Attempts to capture this remarkable scene—creation completed—have always required adventurous and insightful imagination. After all, the biblical authors, and subsequent commentators, understood this to be an outstanding and unique episode of inestimable significance.
De Capoa, Charles. 2004. Old Testament Figures in Art (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum), pp. 12–29
Hall, Marcia. B. (ed.). 2004. Michelangelo's ‘Last Judgment’ (Cambridge: CUP)
Westermann, Claus. 1984, 1986 [1974–82]. Genesis 1–11, vols 1–2, trans. by J. J. Scullion (London: SPCK)
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.