Looking at an image of a serpent encircling an apple branch, most of us will think of the snake from the Garden of Eden. In popular lore, Adam and Eve’s consumption of the taboo meal from the illicit Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as it is called in the Bible, resulted in their expulsion from Eden. But actually, in Genesis, the original couple’s departure from Paradise had a lot more to do with God’s anxiety that Adam and Eve would eat from the Tree of Life.
Those who don’t study medieval theology or history or Judeo-Christian mysticism extensively likely haven’t heard nearly as often of the Tree of Life as of the Tree of Knowledge. It comes as no shock, then, that artists have continued to probe the tale of the couple who had it all, lost everything, and had to rebuild and endure despite having never forgotten the taste of the perfect life they’d once enjoyed.
According to Jennifer Scanlan, the story “takes up only a few verses in the Bible, Genesis 2:8-3:24, with just four main characters and a simple narrative that continues to resonate.” Scanlan is guest curator of the Museum of Biblical Art’s exhibit “Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden.” The exhibit traces some of the ways that contemporary artists have addressed Eden in their works, whether intentionally or unintentionally; their treatments often probe the relationship between people and nature. In recent centuries, that power structure has changed, Scanlan notes. Where man was once dwarfed by and subject to threats from nature, the roles have reversed. “Most people only encounter truly dangerous snakes in zoos,” she writes. “Yet these symbols persist as remnants of a time when people had a different relationship with nature.”
Read more of my Jewish Daily Forward article “Getting Back to the Garden (of Eden).”