Victor or villain?
The Bible’s first woman, Eve, tells God that she ate the forbidden fruit only because she was tricked by the serpent in the garden of Eden (Gen 3:13). However, the early Christian commentator Tertullian denounced Eve as “the devil’s gateway” and accused her not just of defying God’s order but of persuading her mate to disobey as well.
For the most part, art sides with Tertullian.
For example, in Hendrick Goltzius’s The Fall of Man (1616), Eve actively seduces Adam into defying God. Lying next to him and leaning against his chest, she gazes longingly into Adam’s eyes, holding up the forbidden fruit for his consideration and softly stroking his bare skin with her fingers. No such seduction is mentioned in the biblical text, but it is frequently portrayed in art.
Likewise, in Hans Baldung Grien’s 16th-century painting Eve, the Serpent, and Death, Eve appears positively cheerful as she watches the serpent attack Adam. The reptile has ensnared the man in its coils, and its fangs sink into his wrist. The result is that Adam has been transformed into a decaying corpse. In contrast, Eve is not held by the serpent at all. Rather, she mischievously grabs hold of its tail, and she seems amused at Adam’s putrefaction.
Much art contrasts the Eve of Genesis with the “New Eve,” that is, the Virgin Mary. For example, in Paolo di Giovanni Fei’s Madonna and Child Enthroned, Mary cradles Jesus on her lap as angels and saints surround her in adoration. Meanwhile, Eve lies underneath Mary’s feet, next to a tree and a serpent. The message: the first woman brought death and sin into the world, but her counterpart, Mary, brings life and salvation for all.
The contrast is even clearer in The Tree of Death and Life, an illustration from a 15th-century prayer book. In this painting, Mary and Eve stand on either side of a tree. Mary wears blue robes and has a shining halo, and she plucks a Communion wafer from the tree and places it on the tongue of a kneeling worshipper. Eve, in contrast, is naked. She takes fruit from the mouth of a serpent and hands it to a devotee as Death looks on.
Some contemporary art celebrates Eve, as in Robert Lentz’s icon Eve, The Mother of All, Sandra M. Stanton’s painting Eve, Mother of All Living, and Rita Denenberg’s quiltwork We Are All Connected to One Rib. Lentz sees his work as an acknowledgement of “our debt to [Eve] and all our fore-mothers.” Stanton depicts Eve as emerging from an egg, in exuberant homage to life. And Denenberg describes her work as “a tribute to women” and surrounds Eve with other heroic women, including Mother Teresa, Pocahontas, and astronaut Sally Ride.
For the most part, though, in art, Eve appears more often as villain than victim, reflecting negative historical attitudes toward women and sexuality.