First Couple: Adam and Eve

Lucas Cranach, Adam and Eve, 1526

All cultures have their myths of origin, and we are no exception. Adam and Eve must be among the best known figures in Christian societies, but it is interesting to wonder why their images were particularly popular in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and Europe.

Great artists painted them and, more significantly in our opinion, so did countless anonymous artisans and needlewomen who decorated ceramic and brass dishes and pieces of linen or silk with Adam, Eve, the Tree of Knowledge, the apple and, of course, the snake.

The Genesis story was about the birth of humanity — which might give us a clue about Adam and Eve’s popularity in late-medieval/early modern Europe. For this was the period that saw the birth of modernity. Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden into a new, uncertain world is a pretty good metaphor for civilization being kicked out from the medieval world into the modern one.

The modern world, of course, was the product of the Renaissance and its greatest creation – the rational individual in charge of his or her own destiny. In the medieval world (like the Garden of Eden) everything was preordained by God: in the modern world, mankind had to take responsibility for themselves. A new, scary place with many temptations to make the wrong decision.

Adam and Eve with King Charles I and Queen Henrietta. The needlework promotes the Royalist argument in the Civil War that Charles’ royal authority rested on a chain of descent stretching back to the origin of humankind. The union of Adam and Eve formed the basis of the divine right of kings: Therefore the Parliamentarians, under Cromwell, had no right to challenge it.

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