Van Mander describes Jan Gossaert (c.1478-1532, sometimes called Mabuse because of his origins in Maubeuge in Hainault) as a man who ‘led a most disorderly and irregular life’, though adding that ‘what is surprising is that at the same time he was just as measured, pure, neat and patient in his artistic constructions or works as ever an artist could be.’ Gossaert became a Master of the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp in 1503 and established his workshop there. He travelled to Rome in 1508‒9 in the service of Philip of Burgundy. The influence of the classical sculpture that he studied there is evident in his depictions of the human body, and he is one of only a few Netherlandish painters known certainly to have studied antiquities in this way.
Gossaert created numerous versions of Adam and Eve, of which the present work is the largest, with the figures almost life-size. In 1668 John Evelyn, in his English translation of Fréart’s An Idea of the Perfection of Painting, criticised Gossaert’s lack of fidelity to the Bible, particularly in his inclusion of an ‘Artificial stone fountain carved with imagerys’, and ‘Navels’ on the ‘bellys’ of ‘our first Parents’. Adam and Eve are shown at the moment after they have eaten the forbidden fruit (the apple in Eve’s left hand has a bite-mark). The motif of their arms entwined around each other is repeated in the serpent wrapped around the branch above them. This, coupled with the inclusion of a carved fountain behind and the curling of Adam’s hair, has led to speculation that the poet John Milton saw the painting, before it was sold, when he worked for Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary of State, and that it inspired Paradise Lost, where he describes Adam’s hair ‘clustring but not beneath his shoulders broad’, and Eve’s ‘unadorned golden tresses’, which she wears ‘as a vail down to the slender waist’, and sets them ‘whispering soft by a fresh fountain side’ and ‘Imparadis’t in one anothers arms’.
Gossaert’s figures fill the panel, seemingly having grown too large for the space that they inhabit. Their feet are grounded and the contortions of their bodies are imbued with tension. This is not the refined telling of the story that we find in Dürer’s seminal engraving of 1504. While the German artist presents an emblematic, static interpretation of the scene, Gossaert’s couple appear overwhelmingly aware of their nakedness and shame. Adam gestures to his mouth to indicate what he has just done, and Eve’s eyes register her calm acceptance of their fate. The Trees of Life and of Knowledge of Good and Evil frame the figures, and they cling to each other as though they might literally ‘fall’. Gossaert declined the opportunity to describe lavish imagined details of paradise; there are no exotic animals or an abundance of flowers. Instead, two simple plants are depicted in the foreground ‒ sea holly to symbolise lust and columbine the fear of God.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein, London 2011
Presented to Charles I by the Dutch States-General in March 1636