The Temptation and Expulsion — Andrew Graham-Dixon

October 8, 2012

The last scene in the central triad of images on the ceiling is The Temptation and Expulsion. Here Michelangelo tells the story of the Fall of Man, giving his own narrative interpretation to the events recounted in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3.

First, Adam and Eve fall into temptation in the Garden of Eden, and are punished for their sin:

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
(Genesis 3: 1-6)

Then, God discovers Adam’s transgression and condemns him and Eve to suffer the pains, labor and discord of mortal life. To ensure that Adam does not take fruit also from the tree of life, and become immortal, God exiles him forever from Eden:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
(Genesis 3: 23-4)

Generations of artists before Michelangelo had depicted these two scenes separately. Going against convention, he joined them in a single image, framed with such fearful symmetry that it links the crime with its punishment in a pattern of stark inevitability. The two halves of the painting mirror one another to the extent that, seen through half-closed eyes, they resemble shapes made by folding a piece of inked blotting paper in half.

This is apt, because the picture itself is a kind of hinge — a hinge on which the whole grand narrative of the ceiling turns. It is here that man sins, here that his fate is sealed. Adam and Eve break with God’s commands and are separated from God for ever. Unity gives way to alienation, harmony gives way to discord, oneness becomes fragmentation.

The three scenes that follow this one — all tracing the subsequent life of man on earth, through the story of Noah — are characterized by a busy brokenness, a mood of nightmare, a deliberate compositional disharmony, entirely at odds with the breadth and the sweeping simplicity that characterize the earlier scenes depicting the Creation. In this way, the very rhythms and formal structure of the paintings of the Sistine ceiling conspire to define mortal life — the life that follows the Fall — as disharmony, disconnection, alienation.

On the left, Adam and Eve are depicted as youthful, energetic figures. The semi-reclining Eve is flushed with excitement, anticipation sparkling in her eyes, as she reaches round to take the fruit offered by the serpent — a creature depicted by Michelangelo as half-woman, half-snake, the long coils of its serpentine tail twined round the trunk of the tree. The face of the creature resembles those of the maenads and furies in ancient art. There is a resemblance, too, to the face of Adam. The two figures have the same flowing yellow hair. Their gestures even seem to flow towards one another in a convergence of erotic energy.

The Fall of Man had often been interpreted as a surrender to impure desire, and its sexual aspect is strongly emphasized by Michelangelo. The tree of knowledge bears not apples but figs, which have a traditional sexual significance. Eve kneels, not to pray, but to seduce. Her left hand is suggestively entwined in that of the serpent, from whose fist several fruit protrude.

Adam reaches greedily, with a claw-like hand, towards a bunch of figs in the shadowy leaves next to the mouth of the snake-woman, while his own genitals hang like fruit beside the mouth of Eve. The middle finger of Eve’s right hand is emphatically extended in a crude gesture and points down towards her own sex. Adam has turned into shadow, his face half-hidden in profile, to indicate that he has chosen the way of darkness.

Eve’s outstretched arm is rhymed by the shape of the dead tree stump against which she reclines, to show that in reaching towards temptation she has embraced the world of mortality and forsaken eternal life. Both are depicted against an outcrop of barren rock, another stark symbol of death.

In making Adam such an active figure, one who does not blindly follow Eve but vigorously reaches into the tree to pick the fruit himself, Michelangelo emphasizes that the couple are implicated in a partnership of sin. The artist also stresses, by this means, that Adam has acted out of his own free will. Adam’s energies are Promethean in their unruly vigor. He does not only reach into the tree but also pulls its main branch down towards him.

The gesture that he makes with the arm closest to the serpent, both stretching out and groping for the figs with the index finger of his right hand, is a graceless parody of the gesture with which God brought him into being in The Creation of Adam.This is the moment in the narrative of the ceiling when man seeks to take control of his own destiny, when he sets out to become, as the guileful serpent suggests, a god himself. The result is disaster. God’s pointing finger conjures life from nothing. But Adam, in reaching for divinity, conjures only the specters of death and hardship, and condemns Man to a world of pain.

In suggesting the complexity of Adam and Eve’s motives in this moment of Original Sin, Michelangelo indicates the multitude of evils encompassed within it — greed, treachery, God-defying insolence, a whole Pandora’s box of ill intentions. John Milton, who retold the story of the Fall of Man a century later in his epic poem Paradise Lost, never saw The Temptation and Expulsion. But Milton’s puritanically severe reflections on the nature of Original Sin, in a prose work entitled De Doctrina Christiana, set forth a view of the subject very close to that expressed in Michelangelo’s painting:

If the circumstances of this crime are duly considered, it will be acknowledged to have been a most heinous offence, and a transgression of the whole law. For what sin can be named, that was not included in this one act? It comprehended at once distrust in the divine veracity, and a proportionate credulity in the assurances of Satan; unbelief, ingratitude; disobedience; gluttony; in the man excessive uxoriousness, in the woman a want of proper regard for her husband, in both an insensibility for the welfare of their offspring, and that offspring  the whole human race; parricide, theft, invasion of the rights of others, sacrilege, deceit, presumption in aspiring to divine attributes, fraud in the means employed to attain the object, pride, and arrogance …

The other side of the painting, the bleak mirror image of Adam and Eve choosing sin, represents the moment of their punishment and belated remorse. An angel reaches out with a sword — a punitive gesture that rhymes cruelly with the enticing gesture of the serpent offering fruit — to expel the couple from the Garden of Eden.

Adam’s face is twisted into a rictus of anguish, and he looks instantly older and more wizened, as though mortality has already begun to work its effects on his flesh. Eve has metamorphosed into a hideous caricature of her former seductive self, a lumpen, lumbering being — a member of the same crude tribe of antediluvian giants that will soon be encountered, stumbling to their destruction, in Michelangelo’s depiction of The Deluge.

As she takes her first steps into the world, the mother of mankind scowls and covers her breasts in shame, looking around over her shoulder, one last time, at paradise lost. She might be looking back at her own image beneath the tree, seeing the memory of the happy self she once was, but can never be again.

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