Nude Adam and Eve in Medieval Art

by John Wijngaards


Phase 2. Christians considered women dangerous creatures, liable to seduce men by their beauty.

The theologians of the Middle Ages firmly put the blame for original sin on Eve. Eve had been beautiful but stupid. She allowed herself to be seduced by the presumed ‘beauty’ of the seductive serpent and the ‘beauty’ of the apple. She then seduced her husband Adam. This process continues, they thought, in every woman.

“Ambrosius says: ‘Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God. They must do this as a sign of their subjection to authority and because sin came into the world through them . . . Because of original sin they must show themselves submissive.”
Decretum Gratiani [= Church Law; 1140 AD]
Causa 33, qu. 5, ch. 19.

Illustration in a 15th century manuscript

During the Middle Ages Adam’s and Eve’s nudity is clearly portrayed. However, there is a change.

Eve is beautiful. Her feminity is dangerous and seductive. This is most powerfully expressed in portraying the serpent itself also as a a seductively beautiful woman.

Here the serpent still has legs and arms. According to the Genesis story it lost these later on in punishment for seducing the couple. “You shall crawl on your belly and eat dust!” (Genesis 3,14).

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, ca. 1240

In this delicate sculpture, most of the the bodies of Adam and Eve is carefully hidden from view. The sexual parts are covered by fig leaves even though the Genesis story places that ‘cover up’ well after the seduction is over.

Notice the process of seduction. The serpent, disguised as a beautiful woman, looks at Eve as she makes her eat the forbidden fruit. Even, meanwhile, seductively looks at Adam as she hands him the apple . . .

This is what happens in life, the sculptor says.

Masolino da Panicale 1383-1447

The Temptation

Painting by Masolino Panicale, 1383 – ca 1440.

Here again, the artist portrays the serpent as a seductive woman hanging from the tree of death or life.
Though Eve has turned her back, she is listening to what the snake whispers in her ear. Preachers of the day would say: Look at Eve. She is beautiful, but stupid.
Adam looks sincere. Eve’s beauty is a danger to him. She is as much a seducer as the devil was.

“What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours.”
“It should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives”.
Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, The Hammer of Witches, Cologne 1486, p. 43.

Scenes from paradise
Painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the Netherlands, 1450 – 1516

The seduction scene here follows the normal pattern.

The serpent has the head of a woman. Adam looks at Eve, not realising that he really looks at the seducer in her.


Original Sin

Painting by Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482), the Netherlands

The artist presents Eve as a strikingly beautiful woman. The problem is that the serpent stands behind her, unseen by Adam.
In her face, in her body, in her act of seduction, Eve becomes the devil for her husband. The message is clear: Don’t trust beauty!
Medieval balads often sang about the danger of a “femme fatale”. She seduces a man with her beauty, with her accomplishments, with her avowal of love, and with sensuality. She is deliberately destructive. The man ususally ignores warning signs: her wild wild eyes, her giving him wild honey, her avowing her love in language strange. The man continues to desire her, despite the web he finds himself caught in and despite the warnings of his better self.



From a manuscript in Florence

Another example of the same theme: the snake with a woman’s head, the covering of the private parts.
As in other medieval representations, the tree of ‘Good and Evil’ has two branches. Adam stands on the good side, Eve on the evil side: the devil leaning over to ensnare her.
“Women are unfit to receive ordination … for a woman was the effective cause of damnation since she was the origin of transgression and Adam was deceived by means of her. Therefore a woman cannot be the effective cause of salvation, because holy orders causes grace in others and so salvation.”
Guido de Baysio (1296 AD), Rosarium C. 27, qu. 1, ch. 23