This morning I woke to the news that the art-hating and misguided barbarians who call themselves Islamic State (I hate calling them ISIS because of the Egyptian goddess) were smashing up 3,000 year old Syrian relics. They claimed that the beautifully carved lions and ancient ruins smacked of idolatry. That’s clearly wrong. The people who originally lived in this ancient city did not worship lions. They were a symbol of human power over the beasts and a clear indication of artistic prowess.
But I don’t really care about this further example of Islamic backwards thinking. I merely point it out as a preface to one of the real reasons for religious iconography.
The majority of people who have attended Christian churches over the millennia have been illiterate (like the supposed writers of the New Testament) but still needed to understand the lessons the Bible taught them. In order to keep the poor hard working populace reminded of God’s wrath, churches were adorned with pictorial representations of Biblical stories. Most of them were threats.
One of my favourites is the story of Adam and Eve. So, without further ado, here is the story of Adam and Eve as told on a Flemish tabernacle from Belgium in about 1552.
Panel one has God (a kindly old man with a beard) telling Adam & Eve not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. I guess he wants complete control, not wanting people who believe in him to discover Evolution, modern medicine and the general rules of nutrition inherent in fruit.
Note Adam’s cocky attitude as he pretends to listen and Eve’s compliance as she listens to the men discuss something she couldn’t possibly understand. God enforces this inequality by directing everything to the meathead wearing a fig leaf and leaning against a stump.
(The inclusion of the fig leaf is interesting. The Bible states that the pair covered themselves with fig leaves and made aprons – I don’t know from what – after they ate the fruit but, I guess, because of the strange sensibilities of the congregation of this particular church, Adam was ashamed before the fact. Isn’t that odd? Apparently the Word of God is wrong.
In fact, it clearly says:
And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. [Genesis 2:25]
And then, they ate the fruit and realised they had no clothes on.)
Panel two takes place a little later while God is off doing whatever it is that God does when everything has been done to his satisfaction. Maybe he went to the pub with a couple of boozy angels. Whatever he’s doing, he’s not being particularly omnipresent because the serpent has arrived to tempt a now erect and defiant Eve. (Though it appears she might need the loo.)
We also see an obviously weary Adam sitting with a stick for support. Perhaps this implies that he’s a bit henpecked. The early designers of church statuary were not known for their feminism or gender equality and it’s obvious this is setting poor old Adam up for a bit of a fall because he gave in to his wife…something God had invented but failed to mention.
I can almost hear the discussion:
Eve: What’s the problem? It’s just a bit of fruit. And this talking snake says we should try it if we really want to know what’s going on.
Adam: But God said no.
Eve: But why? I didn’t hear you asking him why we couldn’t eat any of the fruit.
Adam: He has his reasons.
Eve: Stupid reasons. Why create a tree full of fruit that is quite clearly delicious and tell us not to eat any of it? Is it just designed to rot? And how come this snake reckons it’s okay?
Adam: God moves in mysterious ways, dear.
Eve: SPOILER ALERT! That comes a bit later in, I think, season 4. Stop spoiling the through story, Adam!
Adam: Well, all I know (and I realise that’s not much), is God told us not to eat it, God created everything, God tells me he’s pretty vengeful and, basically, I quite like just lounging around doing nothing with this beautiful garden to look at.
Eve: Seriously? What kind of dull life is that? You sound like you’ve retired from life already. Next thing you’ll be calling for your pipe and slippers.
Adam: What are they?
Eve: Eat some of the fruit and maybe you’ll find out.
And so it goes.
I don’t remember the bit about Adam getting apple poisoning but this is obviously happening in panel three. Here we have Eve trying to tell God that they just did what the snake told them to. God, knowing he hadn’t created anything as weird as a talking snake, dismisses her half-arsed excuses. He’s clearly disappointed with the stupid humans that he created. And the snake has gone off somewhere, probably laughing like Mutley.
God, of course, was mostly upset because now Adam and Eve had the same knowledge as him. In fact, the Bible says they were equal to him. He had to get rid of them…quickly and with as much malice as possible.
In the end, as we know, God wiped his hands of Adam and Eve (sort of like Pontius Pilate a long time later down the track) and sent a bouncer angel (probably one of his drinking buddies) to see them off. God was clearly very upset because he didn’t even bother to turn up for their expulsion.
Of course, in panel four, the naughty pair have suddenly realised they are naked (Adam seems unaware that a fig leaf constitutes some sort of clothing) and are covering themselves as best they can while the bouncer shushes them out of the garden and into the wilderness that God didn’t mention at the beginning of the book…which is very handy. What the Bible does say is that God sent some cheribum to stick a giant flaming sword at the gates of Eden just in case the pair were tempted to return.
Sadly, the flaming sword is absent from panel four.
There is a fifth panel on the tabernacle. It shows the tragic end to the Cain and Abel story which isn’t really relevant except, perhaps, as an object lesson for the illiterate. It might be implying that if you think too much and disagree with God then one of your sons will wind up killing the other…and end up living in the land of Nod. Which, as everyone knows, is not very nice.
So, lecture over.
The panels above are all in the Cast Court at the V&A. There’s also this tabernacle that looks like it was made in the 1920’s.
It was actually made in about 1140 and was in a church in Herefordshire. I think it’s extraordinarily modern while seeming to hark back to pagan times. A bit like all religions…
I do love the V&A. Every Friday lunchtime tells a different story.