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Bill Thayer

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Paradise Lost

9The Lord God made trees spring from the ground, all trees pleasant to look at and good for food; and in the middle of the garden he set the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. . . . 15The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and care for it. 16He told the man, "You may eat from every tree in the garden, 17but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. . . . "

Genesis, ch. 2 (New English Bible)

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The Orvietan sculptor has shown us the last moments of our innocence. Eve has not yet eaten of the fruit, and Adam has not quite yet taken it from her. Adam is still the Perfect Man: not by accident does the Type of Christ point his index heavenward, and bless the fruit with his right hand. Yet both gestures are ambiguous: he may be pointing to the other delicious fruits in the tree, and he will accept that fruit from Eve. Where there is redemption in this scene, it is purely human. The serpent may be gleefully detached, but man and woman are forming a solemn pact. Behind them, flowing away from the tree, the four rivers (Gen. 2:10) lead to the world beyond the Garden, where they will soon be exiled.

The fruit will surprise some: not an apple, but — as the leaves of the tree plainly show — a fig. It is the same tree that Jesus will curse for not bearing fruit, and, indeed, nowhere in the Temptation account does the Bible mention an apple. In his chapter of Pseudodoxia Epidemica on the subject, both witty and profound, as well as very commonsensical, Sir Thomas Browne points out that the Serpent is still very much with us, every time it suggests to us that, when we don't know something, we can manufacture truth merely by wishing it.

Now in carving this scene, there is no way to avoid showing us some kind of fruit, and thus making a choice; but our sculptor has very deftly sidestepped another bit of theological controversy. Does Adam have a navel or not? The viewer, not the artist, will be making the decision. Once again, Dr. Browne explains the theology and provides more common sense and quiet humor, with this time a medical twist as well, in the same work on Error.

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Page updated: 17 Jun 08