The Fall from Grace – Amuse Bouche #23 (Dennis Aubrey)


Nowhere is the purpose of the historiated capital clearer than at Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand. The collection of sculptures there is extraordinarily rich and full of detailed recounting of scripture and stories from the Bible. The use of foliage to support the imagery alone deserves an extended study of its own. Today’s post is just an introduction, using two faces of a capital depicting the Garden of Eden.

The first image shows Eve tempting Adam with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, presented to her by the serpent twining on the branch to the left. The fruit is a pineapple of some sort, not the apple often shown. The nakedness of Adam and Eve is “naturally” covered with large leaves covering their genitalia. Notice Eve’s braided hair.

Capital - the Temptation, Église Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – the Temptation, Église Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second face of the capital shows the punishment of the transgressors, with the Angel seizing Adam by his beard while his other hand holds the tree. Eve has collapsed at the foot of Adam, representing the second of two punishments for her role in the Fall.

“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Genesis 3:16 (King James Version).

Eve is not only subordinated to Adam in this sculpture, but she has undone her hair in anguish and despair.

Capital - the Punishment of Adam and Eve, Église Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – the Punishment of Adam and Eve, Église Notre Dame du Port, Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And finally, both Adam and Eve are consciously using the leaves of the tree to cover their nakedness, the awareness of which was means by which God recognized their transgression.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

8 responses to “The Fall from Grace – Amuse Bouche #23 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Very interesting depiction of the Fall from paradise. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall is the best interpretation of the Genesis text I’ve seen. The “temptation” is that by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge OF GOOD AND EVIL they will become like God. It’s a hoax. The result is that their oneness with Nature is fundamentally disturbed. Dominance (man over nature, male over female, female under male) and the search to escape death and Nature itself are the results of falling for the division of reality into good and evil. As you say, “the awareness of [their nakedness] was [the] means by which God recognized their transgression. It is the refusal to be naked, i.e. part of Nature itself, that lay at the root of the transgression and is also the consequence of that refusal. Think father of the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer: “I have become death!”

    Nevertheless, while Adam’s foot is on Eve, the angel has a firm grip of Adam’s beard, the sign of his adulthood virility.

    Is it possible that the sculptor was female? Were all the artisans male or were they male and female?

    • Great commentary, Gordon, love to hear from you about these things. As far as your question about the sex of the sculptor, it is possible that the sculptor was female, but to be honest, I have never seen a reference to this. But then, there is so little information on any of the sculptors. The half-dozen or so we know by name (Robertus, Giselbertus, Gofridus, etc.) are all identified by male names, but that is just a tiny sampling among thousands. I’m going to ask a friend who is a well-known art historian about that.

      • Gordon, I heard back from Janet Marquardt about your question. Here is her response: “As for women who sculpted in the Middle Ages, I’ve never heard of such. Manuscript illuminators, yes. I highly doubt it would have been acceptable. Perhaps behind workshop doors, wives/daughters helping husbands, but even that I kinda doubt. Scenes for Christine de Pisan’s City of Ladies with women building a stone wall are just symbolic. I may be wrong though!”

      • Dennis, thanks for the update on the sculptor question, and for getting the response of your friend to the question whether there were female sculptors working on these capitals.

  2. The angel is actually making physical contact, pulling at Adam’s beard. Unheard of!

    And where’s that flaming sword?

    • Carol, the commentary on the beard pulling is quite interesting, a chastisement. The flaming sword is for when they are banished from the Garden – this is prior to that act. Another face of the capital has the angel with the flaming sword.

    • Kalli, these are amazing capitals in Notre Dame du Port. Never appreciated them fully until I started studying them last month. The use of foliage to tell the story in the entirety of the iconographical program is unique, as far as I can tell. Hope to do a post on that when I get more time and am more sufficiently in command of the subject matter.

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