What’s with all these women and snakes? Or more precisely, what’s with all these artists painting pictures of women with snakes?
In Western culture, the woman most often depicted in significant art must be the Virgin Mary. Most of those paintings do not portray any specific act or episode in her life, but are devotional Madonnas — mother and child. There are episodes painted — the nativity, the flight into Egypt or the lamentation at the cross — but mostly they are icons, static and symbolic.
If we were to search for the second most painted woman, it would have to be a tossup between Venus (or Aphrodite) and Eve. I’m not going to examine the goddess here, but I want to consider Adam’s consort.
She is painted over and over, with and without Adam, but almost always with the “apple,” and usually with the serpent, although the serpent takes many forms.
It interested me to watch the change in the iconography over the centuries, and the shift from one compositional pattern to a second.
The source of the imagery in the paintings begins in Genesis, but quickly adds bits from other places, none authorized by the actual words in the Bible. The Bible, for instance, does not say the serpent is Satan; it does not name the fruit as an apple; does not say that Eve “seduced” Adam into tasting the fruit.
The earliest visual representations of the Temptation are Late Roman, or early Romanesque. In these the first design is firmly established: a symmetrical disposition of the man and woman to either side of the central tree, usually with a snake coiled around its trunk.
One of the most interesting early images is from a fresco in the Plaincourault Chapel, a 12th-century chapel of the Knights Hospitaller in Merigny — at nearly the perfect center of France. In it, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is depicted in a very primitive way that could easily be interpreted as a giant mushroom. Indeed, there is a vein of scholarly thought that takes the forbidden fruit to be psychedelic mushrooms. Having eaten of them, Adam and Eve are able to see the deeper reality behind the surface one.
In this fresco, you see the familiar items. Adam, Eve, the tree and the serpent wound around the trunk very like the caduceus carried by the messenger god, Mercury, or the Rod of Asclepius, an insignia of healing. The symmetry of the design serves it well to becoming a kind of icon.
You see the pattern repeated over and over in Medieval prints, carrying over into the early Renaissance.
The design continues in popular arts for centuries. You find it even in plates.
But, at some point an insidious misogyny infects the standard imagery. In some paintings, starting in the Renaissance, the serpent takes on a female’s head, either Eve’s own likeness, as if the serpent were a mirror, or the head of the mythical non-Biblical figure of Lilith, styled to be Adam’s first wife.
The problem of Lilith originally arose because there are actually two stories of the creation of the first woman. In the first (Genesis 1:26 and 27), after having created all the animals, God “created humankind in his own image, in the image of God did he create it, male and female he created them.”
In the second story (Genesis 2:18-25), Jehovah, having already created Adam, creates all the animals to give him company, and when that isn’t sufficient, puts Adam to sleep and takes from his side a woman, making the bad pun in Hebrew, translatable to English as “We will call her ‘woman’ because from ‘man’ is she taken.” (In Hebrew “Ish” and “Isha.”)
Later commentators puzzled by these two different creations of Woman, decided that the first must be different from the second, and came to give the first one the name Lilith. The name may derive from ancient Semitic demons, known as “Lilitu.”
There are several examples of Mediterranean goddesses with special commerce with snakes. There is the Snake Goddess of Minoan culture, the Canaanite Astarte and even the Egyptian Isis. So, there is precedent for commingling the first woman and the serpent.
At any rate, in later Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah texts, this first woman created is identified as Lilith and various stories get told about her, in all of which, she is evil, and a kidnapper and killer of children, and later, as a seducer and destroyer of men.
Obviously, then — at least to the Medieval minds of the interpreters of the sacred texts — this must be the woman God created first. She disappears from Eden through various versions of myth, but returns to cause havoc.
Most notably, as the serpent in the Garden. And so, many of the snakes wrapped around the Tree have a woman’s head or face. Most notable, perhaps, is the Sistine fresco by Michelangelo.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, you can hardly get away from this trope.
But as art history progresses into the Baroque, the static symmetry of the classic tree and couple gives way to moving both Adam and Eve to the same side and putting tree and snake in its own half of the frame.
The old design doesn’t disappear. You can see it in the grand paintings of Rubens, who clearly copied from Titian.
What does happen, however, is that the biblical stories are no longer able to be taken as literal fact. You find the Scripture being used as pretext for allegory or even for an excuse for painting naked women. You see the light of faith dimming and the approach of the Enlightenment.
When Eugène Viollet-le-Duc renovated the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in the mid- to late 19th century, he replaced weathered Medieval sculpture with modern replicas of his own design, imitating the Gothic style. The central trumeau of the central portal of the cathedral sports this wonderful take on the Temptation of Eve. It follows the old formula, and has some vigor, but you know that Viollet-le-Duc could never believe in the Fall of Man in quite the same way as the original builders of the cathedral.
Into the 19th century, the whole issue of the Fall, of the snake — for now the ambiguity of the “serpent” has been changed out for the Freudian certainty of the phallic snake — and the naked Eve have given way increasingly to kitsch.
There are some Modernist attempts at reviving the mythology, but they are few and lack the persuasiveness of the older images, perhaps because the 20th-century artists cannot actually believe in what they are painting. It is not only God that is dead.
This has been a very short overview. There is so much more I would like to share, but there is limited space. They come in all styles and media.
In the next blog entry, we will look at some other permutations of the naked lady and the snake.
Click on any image to enlarge.