From the Garden of Eden to 'Killing Eve': deconstructing the first woman in art
If you've seen Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Killing Eve, you may have noticed the symbolic inclusions of Adam and Eve or maybe even the protagonist's preferred snack of choice – a juicy apple. So why did the scriptwriters of a show about an erotic obsession between a flawlessly dressed, psychopathic assassin (Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer) and an MI5 agent called Eve (played by Sandra Oh) make reference to the Bible's oldest story?
According to the creation story in the Book of Genesis, the first woman – Eve – was responsible for the 'fall of man' and killing our mortal souls when she ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Because of her bad (and rather fruity) behaviour, Eve is one of the most painted women in western art history. She is a complicated archetype who represents desire, shame and original sin. Her story is deeply rooted in the psyche of western civilisation and art history.
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In an age that celebrates relatable female characters who make mistakes (like Sandra Oh's Eve Polastri), or obversely 'nasty woman' and villainous antagonists who undermine traditional notions of femininity (like Jody Comer's Villanelle), let's reassess the complex figure of Eve – the original bad girl.
Firstly, let's take a look at whether the symbolic figure of Eve originated in the biblical creation story.
You may be intrigued to learn that the allegory existed before the time the Hebrew Bible was written down. Evidence suggests that the Adam and Eve story derived from ancient Babylon and Mesopotamian mythology. In ancient Mesopotamia, the goddess Ninti, whose name means 'lady of the rib', was created by the mother goddess Ninhursag to heal Enki's sick rib (the god of Water). When Enki ate the forbidden flowers, he was cursed by Ninhursag for his disobedience.
This ancient legend clearly influenced the creation story in Genesis, in which God creates Eve from Adam's rib. However, the gender roles are – perhaps surprisingly for us – reversed in pre-biblical versions of the allegory.
The figure of Eve has also been likened to dozens of other prehistoric and pagan goddesses dating back to the Bronze Age, including the Hurrian goddess Khepat, the Semitic mother-goddess Asherah, and even the ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite.
Like Eve, Aphrodite has often been depicted with an apple in her hand. In Greek myth, the story of the Judgement of Paris sees the Trojan prince Paris gift Aphrodite the golden apple.
He thus wins Helen of Sparta (who becomes Helen of Troy), but he doesn't comprehend his fatal mistake. The seductive beauty and persuasion of women in this myth sparks the Trojan War and consequently hundreds of thousands of deaths.
It is important to note that the""se archaic legends reflected the patriarchal times in which they were created.
By today's standards, such stories are tainted with misogyny. The common thread among these narratives is that the source of blame tends to lead back to the female. Typically, this kind of fictional woman is so dangerously seductive that she persuades men to make terrible and irreversible decisions. Would Paris have started the Trojan War if he hadn't been led astray by female beauty? Would Adam have bitten the apple if he hadn't accepted it from Eve?
For centuries, artists have offered their own interpretations of the story. But according to Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, it was only during the Renaissance era when new modes of representation and technology succeeded in propagating the creation myth, bringing the story to life.
One of the most famous portrayals of Adam and Eve is by the Renaissance German printmaker Albrecht Dürer, whose engraving was created in 1504. Dürer's depiction quickly circulated around Europe thanks to the new medium of printing – the copperplate engraving he used could be reproduced many times over. Thousands of people in sixteenth-century Europe would have seen Dürer's powerful image and believed they were witnessing the true likenesses of the first man and woman.
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In Dürer's depiction, the pair flank the Tree of Knowledge as the serpent curls itself around a branch. The snake passes the fruit to Eve as Adam watches passively. Eve's gesture is delicate and ambiguous – is she being fed the forbidden fruit? Or is she feeding Adam? Dürer was fascinated with this subject and created many versions, including this large-scale painting (which is a copy after Dürer's original).
In 1592, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem created a very similar depiction of Adam and Eve in The Fall of Man, which can be found in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (this painting also features in episode two of Killing Eve). Scholars have noted that in this depiction, a serpent-woman appears in the tree and offers the fruit to Eve.
Another celebrated Northern Renaissance painter who was fixated with the popular subject of Adam and Eve was Lucas Cranach the elder (1472–1552), whose famous depiction shows a befuddled-looking Adam scratching his head with confusion as Eve passes him the fruit.
In other sixteenth-century depictions, like this one below by an unknown artist of the Flemish School, the snake cannot be visibly detected, meaning by implication that the culpability lies directly with Eve.
In this early seventeenth-century version named The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Joachim Anthonisz. Wtewael (1566–1638), Eve appears to directly and forcefully place the apple into the hand of Adam.
Artist Johann König's version also depicts Eve pressing the fruit into Adam's hand. Standing above Adam, she appears as a powerful seductress.
Beyond the Biblical creation story, how has the archetype of Eve come to represent womanhood?
The figure of Eve in the popular imagination is a coalescence of many female protagonists, both historical and fictional – from Jezebel and Medea to Pandora, Delilah and Salome. All of these well-known, 'badly behaved' women have consistently reappeared in western art history and literature. Such negative stereotypes surrounding images of womanhood arguably contributed to the persecution of 'witches', particularly in medieval and Renaissance Europe.
In the Hebrew Bible, Jezebel is the wife of Ahab, King of Israel, who kills the prophets of Yahweh (God). She came to be associated with the idea of 'false prophets' and evolved into the modern term 'Jezebel', an insult designated to a 'fallen woman', who was usually believed to be promiscuous or a prostitute. Like Eve, who was interpreted as a seductress who harnassed her sexuality to gain power over Adam, other negative female stereotypes often conflate sin with sexuality. By the 1880s, the literary device and symbol of the 'femme fatale' was commonly used to denote a sex-crazed, seductive yet dangerous woman.
Aware of such historical associations, Killing Eve revels in showing a female character who has psychopathic tendencies, yet who is unashamed of her sexual appetite. Subverting the traditional heterosexual narrative even more, Villanelle and Eve are attracted to one another rather than the male characters.
Why do the creation myth and the figure of Eve continue to fascinate us?
Eve's story has had a more profoundly negative impact on women than any other mythological or Biblical story. For centuries, the creation story was used by the Church, and Christian society as a whole, to justify patriarchal attitudes and the subjugation of women.
Yet, the irony is that Eve is a contradiction. How can she be intentionally wicked, but also gullible, dim-witted and weak-willed all at the same time? Nevertheless, the everlasting, symbolic power of Eve continues to saturate contemporary popular culture. If you are watching Good Omens,based on the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel, you will notice that Adam and Eve are portrayed as black characters. This perhaps relates to the theory of the 'Mitochondrial Eve' – the first woman who could be a common ancestor to everyone would have been from Africa, and therefore black, rather than white, as she has been depicted throughout western art history.
To finish this short art history on Eve, let's return to Killing Eve, a show presenting two refreshingly different female characters. In their own ways, each woman refers back to the Biblical figure of Eve. If we read Killing Eve as a form of satire, Villanelle embodies the historical stereotype of the psychopathic, sex-crazed, self-interested and wicked woman (who seduces men with her innocent appearance), while Eve Polastri is the disobedient and conflicted woman, tempted by what she is not allowed to desire. Most importantly, the show represents shameless and unapologetic female characters laughing in the face of centuries of negative myths about women.
As regards the future of Eve in art, the ball is firmly in the artists' court...
This article by Lydia Figes, a Content Creator at Art UK, was first published 3 July 2019.