Art Historian Analyzes the “Moment of the Fall”

By Abby Wargo
Student Life Editor

On April 17 in Decker Theatre, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture and Senior Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University Joseph Koerner visited Washington College to discuss the “Moment of the Fall: the Ethical Challenge of Adam and Eve in Renaissance Art.”
The talk was a part of the Janson-La Palme Distinguished Lecture in European Art History, an annual series that brings a renowned art historian to campus each year. The lecture was available both to students and the public.
Koerner, who specializes in Northern Renaissance and 19th century art, discussed the ethical challenges faced by Renaissance-era artists in portraying the story of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman on earth, according to the Bible.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed a sinless life until confronted by Satan, who offered them fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. They ate from the tree and entered a world of sin, described in the lecture as the “fall” from God’s grace. They are banished from the garden, and as a result of their actions, every human sins.

The Garden of Earthly Delights
Northern Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch’s famous 1515 triptych, “the Garden of Earthly Delights,” portrays the causes and effects of human sin.

“Pure innocence is elusive, and genetically, the propensity for [human] evil is inescapable,” Koerner said.
He discussed the philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s feelings about the story of Adam and Eve.
“[Kant felt that] from the point of view of reason, each evil action has to occur as if the human being had fallen into it directly from the state of innocence.”
The story suggests that human sin is an “inborn defect” and that no one is ever truly innocent. All actions and reasoning are corrupted de facto of the original sin.
His intention was to discuss how images take this well-known story and translate it into a work of art, and whether or not these images properly represent the actions that occurred.
“Artists are literalists, and they have to make practical decisions of design and reason about the unreasonable,” he said.
These difficult ethical decisions are manifested in the lack of art that shows the moment of the fall itself.
One such piece, “the Hildesheim Door” in Germany circa 1015, juxtaposes the Old and the New Testaments, drawing parallels between the fall of man and original sin and Jesus’ crucifixion, which absolved humanity of their sins.
Another challenge for artists included the portrayal of Adam and Eve nude. The fall destroyed the innocence of nakedness, and likened nudity with shame.

Joseph Koerner’s April 17 lecture explored the ethical decisions faced by artists in portraying the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from God’s grace.

“The general tendency of art is to let the fig leaves cover Adam and Eve’s groins…as if by some felicitous coincidence…anytime anyone would make an Adam and Eve, they would have to face the fact that they cannot show nudity to a fallen public.”
Koerner’s lecture discussed works spanning many centuries and cultures, but paid special attention to how the works of Renaissance artists Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymus Bosch brought the story to life through different mediums.
Dürer’s piece, a 1504 engraving entitled “Adam and Eve,” displays both a biblical and artistic paradise that shows Adam and Eve teetering on the edge of the fall.
Similarly, Bosch’s timeless 1515 triptych “Garden of Earthly Delights” shows Adam pre-fall in the Garden looking ahead to earthly frivolity and then to the chaos of hell as a result.
The lecture sought to explore the artistic possibilities that come with creating an image portraying an ethical challenge.
“These things require and provoke reasoning…[and in this case,] the artist can and must reason unreasonably. Bosch reveals our enemy to be ourselves… and of all solutions to the moment of the fall, this is the most provocatively unreasonable.”

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