Day 98 – Out of Eden

Giovanni di Paolo, The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, 1445, Metropolitain Museum of Art, New York.

I alluded yesterday (Picture Of The Day 97) to the medieval conception of the Universe, in relation to the tapestries across the top of the walls in the tower of The Lady of Shalott – so what better than to clarify that idea. And the best way to do that would seem to be by considering the way we have been thrown out of our usually comfortable worlds, and are now looking forward to an expected return, and the chance, finally, to meet and greet old friends. However, as I don’t know what lifestyle all of you used to live, I’m just going to assume that, compared to the worse aspects of lockdown, it was paradise. And that is where I shall assume we will return – although that return will come tomorrow.

Over two days I will look at two small paintings which were part of a larger whole. Today, we have a panel which shows The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise. On the left we have the entire cosmos, constructed like a multi-coloured onion in concentric layers, with God on the outside. His hand is pointing into the sky. It’s not uncommon to see this from our point of view, with the ‘Hand of God’ poking out of the blue – a good example would be Giotto’s Sacrifice of Joachim (POTD 66). In this case he is presumably creating something or other – possibly the plants, as I can definitely see some trees, but no birds or animals, which would make this Day 3 of creation. On the right of the painting we cut to ‘some time later’ – Adam and Eve have been created and tempted and are now being expelled from the Garden of Eden, pushed out by an angel past a row of trees bearing golden apples. Beneath them are four dark streaks – the four rivers of Eden, as mentioned in Genesis 2:10-14, where they are named as Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel and Euphrates. Although the third of these is usually interpreted as the Tigris, neither of the first two has been identified, although Gihon is recognised by some as the Abay River, or Blue Nile.

This is the detail which most fascinates me – the structure of the universe. I am comparing it with a diagram from Andrew Borde’s The First Book of the Introduction of Knowledge, published in 1542, as it is relatively clear. It expounds medieval cosmology, but it is based on the Ptolomaic world view, dating to c. 150 CE, which in itself goes back to Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Giovanni di Paolo had definitely seen a very similar diagram! At the centre we have the Earth, which contains two of the ‘four elements’, earth and water. The Earth is surrounded by the two remaining elements, ‘aer’ and ‘fyre’, as Borde spells them, equivalent to the pale blue and bright vermillion rings in Giovanni’s painting. Next comes ‘the Mone’ – or Moon – the planets Mercury and Venus, and the Sun. Giovanni paints their spheres pale blue, darker blue, a blue half way between the two, and a very pale yellow, with a rather worn representation of the Sun at the top of the relevant circle. The grey ring in the painting is occupied by Mars, followed by Jupiter and Saturn with two more blue circles. Outside these, occupying a far thicker and darker band, we see the signs of the zodiac – this is the sphere of the fixed stars, which I mentioned yesterday.  Finally there is a thin, dark blue ring. This is the ninth sphere, named by Borde as ‘the Crystalline Heaven’. He then adds two more which are not in the painting – ‘the First Moveable’ and ‘The Empyreal, Heaven, The Abitation of the Blessed’. There was some debate about the outer limits of the known cosmos (as there is today), and not everyone split the ‘ninth’ sphere into three as Borde does, referring to the single ninth sphere as the Primum Mobile or Prime Mover – or, as Borde has it, ‘the First Moveable’. Aristotle said that it was this which gave the movement to the inner spheres (he had as many as 55), which resonate in harmony – the Music of the Spheres. It wasn’t hard for Christian theologians to make the leap and suggest that Aristotle’s Prime Mover was in fact God, the source of all life, and to point out that we don’t hear the Music of the Spheres because the sin which Adam and Eve introduced into the world has created discord, and put everything off kilter. 

So, the Earth is made up of the four elements, and outside these were the seven ‘wanderers’ (‘planet’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘wanderer’, and would have included the five ‘planets’ known to the ancients together with the Sun and the Moon). These seven were set into the first seven crystalline spheres, and the fixed stars (including the signs of the zodiac) were in the eighth. I suspect that originally the painting would have had an image of each of the planets on the appropriate sphere, but that the gold leaf has worn off – only the Sun and zodiac have lasted, presumably because they were bigger. The ninth sphere – the Prime Mover – effectively marks the edge of the cosmos, with Heaven on the outside, and that is where God can be found in this painting. Given that there were nine spheres, and, it was believed, nine choirs of angels, it made sense that each sphere would be moved by a different choir of angels – which is why, in the tapestry at the top of the wall in The Lady of Shalott yesterday, each planet is held by a figure with a halo. 

God himself is everything we would expect him to be – long grey hair, long grey beard, flying effortlessly through the sky. He wears a blue robe – which makes more sense than ever up above the sky. He also has a pale cloak, with touches of pink and blue – I suspect it used to be a purplish colour, but has faded. He is surrounded by blue heads with long blue wings, streamlined away from the direction of travel – these are the highest choir of angles, the Seraphim. We have met them before, I know, but I can’t for the life of me remember when! The ‘Empyrium’ which God inhabits is painted a glowing yellow, enhanced by the gold leaf of the halo, and by the golden beams of light radiating in all directions – he is like another Sun, being the source of all energy. The apples and leaves of the trees in Paradise are similarly gilded. 

The yellow is focussed around God’s head, and gradually fades into blue, becoming the blue of the sky on the other side of the painting. Thus, although God is shown in the act of creation, outside the cosmos, he is also looking across the sky to the sinful Adam and Eve, pointing to the world and telling them where to go – out of Eden. This explains his slightly grumpy look, I think, which is not consistent with his general demeanour during creation, when he regularly saw ‘that it was good’.

The angel also has gilded wings and a halo – which would not, in itself, be surprising, were it not for that fact that that is all he has. It could be the only naked angel I know – before Michelangelo’s far more manly ignudi, at least. The standard interpretation is that he is showing his compassion for Adam and Eve, but I don’t really buy that. I think this shows that he was in a state of grace, so had no shame, so wouldn’t have worried about clothes anyway. But then Adam and Eve don’t seem that bothered either, if we’re honest. They are looking back the way they’ve come, but without a huge amount of longing or regret. If anything, they seem a bit clueless, a bit like those people who you meet on your daily walk (I’m assuming you’ve been going on daily walks) who are apparently completely unaware that there’s a pandemic going on, strolling along without a care in the world, happily chatting away to each other, getting in your way, and failing on every level to comprehend the need for social distancing. They have been thrown out of Eden without their fig-leaf clothes (Adam and Eve, that is, not the people on your walk) although fortuitous leaves protect their very modest modesty. The same is true for the angel, who is blessed with a strawberry flower. This truly is Paradise – a word derived from Old Iranian, meaning ‘garden’ – and all of the flowers could be seen as symbolic in different ways. The strawberry, for example, doesn’t have a hard stone or thorns – and as such it is seen as a pre-lapsarian fruit, i.e. dating from before the fall. It was only at this point, according to the Bible, that thorns developed, to get in our way and make life tougher. Consequently the strawberry is, in itself, a symbol of Paradise. The lily to the right of the angel represents Mary’s virtue, and the rose (between Adam and Eve) represents her love. Mary herself was referred to as ‘a rose without thorns’ as she was free from Original Sin.  The carnations left and right are also symbols of love, but also give a nod to the idea of incarnation – which, with Mary, and thanks to Adam and Eve, will now be needed. The rabbits continue to nibble at the grass, unconcerned with all that is going on around them, and they will stay there, in Paradise, until we return… which, unless something drastic happens, will be tomorrow.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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