Women in Late-Medieval Art: The Image of Eve

Well, knowledge is a fine thing, and mother Eve thought so; but she smarted so severely for hers, that most of her daughters have been afraid of it since.

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818)

Perceptions of women from their representation in late-medieval art (1300 – 1500) suggest one-dimensional identities, carefully crafted and delivered by those governing society. The church and patriarchy held dominion, meaning that a woman’s place was inherently subordinate and defined by the characteristics of her sexuality. These suppositions were imposed by those whose views were authoritative – by word of God, or, as was the case in many instances, by word of Man. A woman’s position in art can therefore be read as a reflection in ink on paper or from chisel to stone – a reflection of her status as it was seen through existing models of female behaviour, such as those ascertained from the Bible, and how these were interoperated. Consequently, it became a world of Marys and Marthas with women in art occupying spaces of moral education: to uphold virtue or warn against vice.

Belial shows Solomon Adam and Eve standing by the Tree of Life. 1473 c.e.

Clerical doctrine and monastic attitudes reigned in the Christian Middle Ages to perceive the image of woman, created by man, as that of Eve; whose appearance in art made manifest the Early Church Father’s conviction of her status as an “unruly, wily temptress!” (you can practically hear the bellowed sermon!) Such doctrinal opposition ties Eve to the lot of the common woman, her descendent. The thought cycle? Eve was the source of original sin in Eden. By taking the forbidden fruit she committed herself to exile – and, she had the nerve to drag Adam (our theoretical he-man) along with her!

St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

It wasn’t a great time to be a woman. We’ve got St. Bernard of Clairvaux in one corner, wildly gesticulating no doubt, delivering some truly delightful sermons:

(Eve) WAS THE ORIGINAL CAUSE OF ALL EVIL, WHOSE DISGRACE HAS COME DOWN TO ALL WOMEN.

– and the Church rallying in the other. It’s through this channel that patriarchal culture fixated on Eve’s acts of deceit and sin, garnering a general distrust towards women folk. The conclusion was that, morally speaking, women were of a weaker and lower character to men. It was essentially divine finger pointing.

The Fall, Adam and Eve Tempted by the Snake by Hugo Van der Goes, c. 1470., Gemaeledegalerie, Kuunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The churches promotion of such a view placed emphasis on the twin association of Eve and the Devil, which could only add hellfire to the antagonism. This is where the not-so-charming imagery creeps in, evidenced with images of Eve cropping up all over the show as a woman, lured by the serpent, who shares a matching face. Stay with me. The Fall, Adam and Eve Tempted by the Snake by Hugo Van der Goes, c. 1470, Temptation of Adam and Eve by Masolino, c. 1425, and detail from Temptation, Fall, and Expulsion by the Limburg Brothers, 1411 – 16 CE, all put this trope to work: Eve stands naked (typical Eve) by the tree of good and evil. Her presentation is lascivious, you need only think of how bare breasts (on anyone other than the breast feeding Virgin Mary) were considered to be the mark of a prostitute; throw in the shameful biblical associations of nudity and it’s a party-come-witch-hunt! Insult to injury came from The Vulgate (a bit of light Medieval reading) where a sassy St. Jerome uttered the word ‘seducta’  – calling out Eve for her sexuality and, how she used it to ruin Adam.

Temptation of Adam and Eve by Masolino, c. 1425., Branacci Chapel, S. Maria del Carmine, Florence.

Coming back to the paintings, the serpent comes off as rather anthropomorphic (cartoonish, but, far from being a cartoon in the light hearted sense!) – being both sexualised and feminised. No, the snake hasn’t been made sexy. The serpent just casually takes on a woman’s head, the mirror-image to Eve, just made a bit beastly by the scaley body. This image of the woman-headed serpent is explicit and occurs frequently in manuscripts executed in northern France in the late-thirteenth century – a motif borrowed from Christian pictorial sources. Here, the serpent becomes an early incarnation of the femme-fatale, a metaphor, if you will, for women’s sexuality: a sexuality which endangered men as it was believed that ‘the Devil might often assume a woman’s guise’ (which Kraus asserts from the monk’s catalogue of transformations). Tricksy!

detail from Temptation, Fall, and Expulsion taken from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry by the Limburg Brothers, 1411 – 16 CE.

To summarise, perceptions of women in relation to Eve and her appearance in late-medieval art assigned a misogynistic view towards their natural condition which stemmed from original sin, and, that’s a hard stain to get out. As the Bible, male authority and the patriarchy would have it, you could paint a woman according to superstition, and a general mistrust of female sexuality along with it.

Read about the comb as a love token in Medieval and Renaissance Europe here
Read about Benvenuto Cellini’s famed Salt Cellar here
For a change of scenery, learn about Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles here, or tea and temperance in Victorian England here

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!


Sources used: 

St. Bernard, Textes choisis et présentés par Étienne Gilson (Paris, 1949).

A. Bovey, ‘Women in medieval society’, British Library: The Middle Ages [n.d], http://www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/women-in-medieval-society [accessed 20 April 2015].

K. Clark, The Nude (Penguin Books, 1993).

R. Crooks and Karla Baur, Our Sexuality (Cengage Learning, 2013).

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3 thoughts on “Women in Late-Medieval Art: The Image of Eve

  1. I saw the picture on your Instagram, so I came over here to check out the post. I have long been interested in depictions of the snake, particularly whether it has feet or not. In the bible, God takes the feet away as a punishment for offering the fruit to Eve, so in most depictions it should still have the feet, but it rarely does. I have never seen the kind of woman-snake as in the Hugo Van Der Goes picture before – it has feet like a platypus!

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    1. It’s such an intriguing image, isn’t it? When you look for them, you can find quite a few humanoid snakes. More like sea serpents I find! Also reminds me a lot of what you would come across in a bestiary. You’re right, the feet are those of a platypus! The more you look at it, the more strange it becomes. That’s why Medieval art is so wonderful. Thank you for getting in touch, Elin!

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