Snakes and Apples, Friends and Lovers: Three Gossaerts

detail, Adam and Eve in Paradise (1525)
Certainly one of the most electrifying intersections between art and food occurs with the story of Adam and Eve. Below are three 16th century paintings of the biblical couple by the Flemish painter Jan Gossaert

The first painting (in this line up, but one of the later ones chronologically) is titled Adam and Eve in Paradise. The fact that the couple is still, as of the depicted instant, living in paradise would seem to indicate that they have yet to commit the crime that will lead to their exile. Clearly, Eve is on the verge of taking a bite from the forbidden fruit, but according to the title, and to Adam's warning gesture ("Remember what the guy upstairs told us?"), the momentous nibble has yet to come. And yet the apple in Eve's hand (which I swear inches infinitesimally closer and closer to her mouth every time I look at this image), appears to have a bite  already taken out of it.Why? Did somebody get to it before A and E? If so, who, and why, and to what end? Or maybe that rough depression isn't a bite mark at all, but only a deformity. (Sadly, I find it impossible to really see what's up with that fruit on a computer screen, although I suspect—and hope—that this detail is just as ambiguous in "real life"). In other words, maybe the apple just happens to be bumpy in the way that apples—true apples, not supermarket clone apples—often are. If so, Gossaert would seem to be telling us that the fruit of knowledge—that what we know—is imperfect. Glaringly so. In any case, whatever the precise symbolic meanings Gosseart intended might, one thing seems pretty clear: the bumpy, possibly ABC (already-been-chewed) apple suggests that the "before" and the "after" of its consumption isn't quite as clear-cut as we are usually given to understand.

Jan (Mabuse) Gossaert, Adam and Eve in Paradise (1525)
Below is another Gossaert depiction of Adam and Eve in which the apple plays a more subtle role. Eve hides it behind her back while Adam complains of a toothache.
Jan (Mabuse) Gossaert, Adam and Eve (1520)
Just joking. But what is he doing? Pantomiming a desire to eat? Reminding Eve about what the big guy told them? Or maybe he's warning her about one of the more complicated prices of the "knowledge" they are about to imbibe: the separation from nature, a painful and permanent differentiation between humans and all other beasts (because, pre-apple, the couple is able to speak effortlessly with other animals, while post-apple, they can only speak and understand each other). And yet, what is a gesture like Adam's if not human language—a kind of sign language or physical metaphor? In having Adam "speak" in a human voice before actually eating the apple, Gossaert may once again be blurring the line separating the "before" from the "after" of the couple's downfall.

 To my untrained eye, the third Gossaert painting, below, doesn't look much like the other two. The figures are less harmoniously proportioned, more crudely rendered; they're paler, bumpier, and stronger. But at the same time their faces register a more subtly complex mix of emotions than the faces of the two couples above.

Jan (Mabuse) Gossaert, Adam and Eve (1525)

Maybe Gossaert was feeling a little looser the day he painted this, a little lazier, a little happier, or a little more melancholy—but for some reason,  he was clearly painting in a very different mode. And yet many details link this image to the others: that nasty-looking snake, for instance, still looms in the tree branches, and the couple's toes are still remarkably meaty, and Adam still sports that funky white afro. Also, the fruit in Eve's hand, as in the first painting, is somewhat deformed looking. But the strongest thread running through all three paintings (and all of Gossaert's many depictions of Adam and Eve) is the incredible sense of intimacy between the couple. You find this quality in the way Eve gazes at Adam's mouth, not his eyes, and in the way he curls his hand protectively around her shoulder while appearing to be pay very close attention to whatever she is telling him. This quality is also evident in Eve's expression, which implies that she is not (as Eve so often is) trying to trick or bully her partner into taking a bite of the apple, but is, instead, earnestly seeking his opinion on the matter.

The painting is also unusual on account of—hello!—Adam's full frontal nudity. No cleverly positioned twigs or leaves here; instead, Gossaert challenges his viewers to look without embarrassment at the innocence of this couple. They don't know shame yet, and so why should he, Gossaert, impose that painful emotion on them just for his veiwers' sake?

But in the end, it's the quality of intimacy, I think, that accounts for this painting's stilling potency. These two are not the clueless platonic playmates or straightforward mythical archetypes that we find so often in depictions of Adam and Eve. They are, instead, friends—lovers before they quite know what that means. And with the intensity of this deep connection, so vividly rendered through the couples' gestures and facial expressions, Gossaert suggests the almost sacriligiously romantic possibility that, despite the impending disaster, the love these two share is so private and deep that it is unlikely to change even after the fateful bite.

1 comment:

  1. HI Adria, Perhaps you're interested in the way this blog is made. It's in Dutch (google helps!) but every time a food art picture is accurately used in the context.It will give much input!


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