Still seeing through a glass darkly

by
29 March 2019

Alison Milbank continues our exploration of the art of the Fall with The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man

PvE/Alamy

Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens: The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, co-painting, c.1615

Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens: The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, co-painting, c.1615

TODAY, we are in the same peaceable garden as in Cranach’s portrayal of the Fall in the first article of this series (Faith, 8 March). Eve holds up the same inviting arm towards the tree, although here she does not bend it. Her arm reaches up thoughtlessly, relying on the snake’s dropping a severed branch — and its fruit — into her hand. An unbroken arc unites serpent, branch, woman, and lolling, passive Adam as natural hierarchy is reversed.

Seeking to become like gods, the humans instead become subject to a creature; for it is the snake who directs the action. Paradoxically, at the point in which humankind believes itself most free — eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — it is bound: it is now controlled by material desires, like the monkey parodying the action to the left of Adam’s foot.

 

THIS is the work of two painters. Jan Brueghel the Elder portrays an encyclopaedic array of animals, while Peter Paul Rubens lights up Eve’s lovely, innocent flesh. The radiant flesh is not the guilty party here: it is the will that falls and bends the poor body to its evil purposes.

Rubens painted the larger creatures close to Adam and Eve, so that there is a sympathy and continuity between their dynamic, fleshly treatment; and the eyes of deer and horse look with interest on the offer of the apple, quizzically, but wholly without desire. They are truly disinterested spectators, while the rest of the peaceable kingdom of creatures goes about its business. A tortoise nibbles beneath an anemone; dogs bark at waterfowl; a bull nuzzles a leopard; owls perch quietly in the branches of what must be the Tree of Life (appropriately, since, in some bestiaries, owls in the shade were images of Christ). Its fruits resemble pears — which were, in the Renaissance, an image of the Virgin Mary as she who gives birth to the Saviour.

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This creaturely existence fills most of the painting, as the humans, to one side, have begun to remove themselves from the divine order. Just as they lose the freedom of their will, so they have also lost the uprightness and direction of their reason, and become eccentric. What we call free will is, in Latin, liberum arbitrium, meaning “freedom of judgement”: it is a kind of steadiness, by which our will and understanding are oriented towards the good. Adam’s seated position is ominous here, as is the offside positioning of the two human figures.

As I have already mentioned, Eve’s upright stance of independence is illusory. It is the creatures here who have the true freedom, which is expressed through their wise behaviour, following their nature and enjoying themselves. We associate the 17th century — during which this painting was made — with the Descartes reduction of animals to the status of machines, but there were dissident voices, especially among Christian philosophers such as Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, and scientists such as John Ray, who wrote that insects (who seemed, then, to have no practical ecological function) were made purely for their own enjoyment. In support, they cited Psalm 104.24: “O Lord, how manifold are thy works: in wisdom hast thou made them all.”

The multitude of species was the result of God’s goodness and wisdom: a splendid array, all the greater for its infinite variety and multiplicity of connections. This kind of natural philosophy is evident in Brueghel, whose Rome sojourn had also led him to embrace the colour theology of Cardinal Federico Borromeo, which casts God as a supreme painter in nature.

It is also important to note that these animals communicate. The waterfowl are talking back to the dogs, and the deer between the humans has his mouth open to speak. The whole natural world is there, like a book of Nature, for Adam and Eve’s instruction, from which to learn wisdom.

Proverbs urges us to study the ants, and Jeremiah 8.7 opines, “Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgement of the Lord.”

All this creaturely wisdom is laid out in its splendour in this painting. Yet Adam and Eve are depicted as having eyes only for each other and ignoring their Edenic companions — even though the animals in the painting offer analogies (and coded warnings) of human virtues and vices. The cat behind Eve’s foot reveals her cunning; and the ostrich whose long neck reaches up on the right side of the painting is also a direct challenge to Eve’s behaviour, since it was said to raise its neck toward the stars as we should direct ourselves to God.

 

SO, BOTH emblematically and visually, this painting teaches us true wisdom from the book of nature; and yet — despite its beauty and clarity — we viewers cannot actually see it. Like the readers of Milton’s Paradise Lost, we scan all this Edenic beauty and innocence through the eyes of Satan. We are fallen, and, for us, Eve’s beauty is tainted by concupiscence.

And we cannot make sense of the natural scene before us at all. In our world, bulls, tigers, and leopards are foes, not friends. Dogs worry wildfowl, and deer usually flee from us. This scene — which mixes up creatures from the New World with those from the Old: turkey with elephant; camel with guinea-pig; lion with sheep — is geographically impossible. We cannot conceive of it, as if we were inhabitants of two dimensions incapable of imagining a third. The Fall is a failure in our vision, and our imaginative capacity.

The medieval visionary writer Julian of Norwich compares this Fall to humankind being like a messenger who has fallen into a pit, and is both unable to see out or to believe that the King who sent him still cares, and is acting to rescue him. His world is fully bounded, and he cannot imagine what lies beyond the pit walls.

And yet we know that the peaceable Kingdom is an eschatological reality, promised to us as a time when God will be all in all, and there will be a restoration of the whole cosmos. That Kingdom, however, already exists in the mind of God, and — to some extent — in the perception of animals.

In an article on Romans 8.19-22, the theologian David Bentley Hart describes how animals see God “precisely by seeing God’s act of seeing all things, and so by participation in God’s knowledge of himself in his Logos. . . and this must entail, for embodied finite creatures, seeing everything that lives and dwells and is held together in the Logos in its final glory, the whole fabric of creation transfigured and finally made complete”. The young deer that interposes a direct attention between the human pair has that divine gaze, of seeing through God’s eyes the creatures he has made.

 

THE way back, therefore, lies through the creatures — those innocent plants and animals whom we implicated in our sin. Yet in the eyes of the gazing heron in the stream, Eve is still innocent. One day, we also shall see God as the creatures do, but the way for us is by Christ’s life and death.

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This painting is literal for the creatures but allegorical for us humans, who see through a glass darkly, and need symbols. According to the bestiary books, the stag represents Christ: just as he is restored and sheds his horns after drinking from the spring, so those who drink from the spring of the Spirit are renewed and shed their sins.

This young deer, with his newly growing antlers, invites us to repentance and new life in a refreshment of our vision in which the peaceable Kingdom is the true reality, and we can imagine the impossible.

 

Dr Alison Milbank is Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham, and Canon Theologian of Southwell Minster.

Our Lent series is based on a series of talks being given at St John the Baptist, Catford.

www.stjohnscatford.co.uk

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