Homo.. Humus: The creation of Adam
The moment of Adam’s creation is rarely pictured in Latin art before the eleventh century, and still more rarely shown independent of Eve’s creation. Our first two illustrations are among the few exceptions.
The first conforms to the general rule of Latin and Byzantine art, in showing creation as an act of Word.
In the second, the creator is seen not as the omnipotent Father in the Byzantine and orthodox Latin way, but as a form of Christ physician-artificer. The presence of this idea is usually taken as evidence of influence from eastern Christian traditions, and emphasis on physic as particularly characteristic of the Persian (‘Nestorian’) church.
There is also the intriguing possibility, here, that the figure – like that shown in a later work (below) – may derive from one meant for Seth, made as Adam’s replacement and ‘new foundation’ after Cain and Abel. He was a prominent figure in eastern traditions though scarcely noticed by western Christianity.
- Albertus Frederik Johannes Klijn, Seth: In Jewish, Christian and Gnostic Literature (1977)
Seth, Lilith and conjoined twins: legends and medieval surgery
A fourteenth-century picture-bible shows that even as the creator – as physician-artificer – sets about removing from Adam’s side that rib which will become Eve, Adam’s body already bears the marks of earlier surgery on its chest. This detail again implies knowledge of those eastern Christian traditions in which all the early progenitors – Adam. Seth, Cain and Abel – are said to have been born or created as conjoined male-female twins, each male then having his female half as wife. Lilith was Adam’s conjoined twin, whose separation from Adam, in every sense, occurs before the rib is taken which will become Eve.
Klijn, Seth… quotes the primary sources for these legends.
Surgical means for separating conjoined twins were available in England not later than the twelfth century, it would seem. I summarise Kobylarz’ account of one case:
“…. in the year 1100 … in Biddenden, Kent, two girls — Elizabeth and Mary Chulkhurst, were born united laterally… They lived for 34 years; when one of them became ill and died, the other did not give consent for surgery, saying: ‘If we came to this world together — we will leave it together’. She died six hours later.”
- from Krzysztof Kobylarz, ‘History of treatment of conjoined twins’, Anaesthesiol Intensive Ther Vol. 46, (2014) no 2, pp. 116–123
The idea of Christ as principally a healer-artificer and ‘magician’ reached England during the seventh century when an eastern bishop then in Rome was appointed archbishop of Canterbury with authority over the whole Anglo-Saxon church. His name was Theodore and his impact and lasting influence were substantial. It is possible that some texts or lingering tradition from that era, gained later perhaps through the Carolingian court or the Norman network, informs that image from the Holken Picture Bible.
Lilith’s name means ‘Night’ and the implication that Adam should be associated with the day and with the Sun is also found in some western Christian imagery. I’ll give just two examples here.
The mosaics of Mon Reale (c.1180) show Adam’s creation as by Word alone but delivered by the deity seated upon the sphere of the sun. By contrast, the female appears to be conjured forth out of Adam, and the deity sits upon the sphere of the moon.
Association of woman with the moon, its supposed inconstancy and changeable ‘tides’ was part of popular law, practical physic as well as of Christian doctrine in medieval Europe. As the perfect woman, Christ’s mother is often shown later suppressing both the serpent and the crescent moon beneath her feet.
However, in connection with Adam and his twin or wife, we find this ‘sun-and-moon’ theme as late as the fifteenth century, when the following image was included in another heavily illustrated printed text known as the ‘Speculum humane salvationis‘ of which we say more below.
Associating any sacred male-female pair with sun and moon is a practice common enough and is found in religious traditions of the ancient and medieval world, around the globe, but it is less common to find that pair identified with human-headed serpents, a practice which in the Mediterranean is chiefly associated with cults of Greco-Roman Egypt.
There, the pair may be named variously as e.g. Isis and Osiris, or Isis and Serapis or the Agathos- and Agatha Daimon etc., the last-named also found on certain Hellenistic coins from Asia minor and echoed even in certain Latin images in manuscripts of the Ottonian period. The older view had seen a serpent as the embodiment of wisdom and know-how; Christian thought saw it rather as the lowest creature of creation, a thing ‘of the dust’ and inherently evil. The human-headed serpent appears in medieval Europe first as a male satan, and then as Lilith, and finally, occasionally, even as Eve.
Lilith and Eve as human-headed serpent.
In Latin pictorial narratives of Eden, Human headed serpents (as ‘creatures of the dust’ appear only after the eleventh century, with the example in Notre Dame an important testimony to its widespread acceptance, in Paris at least, by the early thirteenth century.
Depiction of Lilith in this way becomes more common quite suddenly from the end of the first decade of the fourteenth century, but the image carved into the west portal of Notre Dame dates to almost a hundred years earlier, and thus prevents our presuming it an idea derived solely from knowledge of Jewish Haggadah. Had the type not been known fairly widely to the Christian population of Paris, inclusion of this figure as the tempter in Eden would have seemed bizarre – even heretical.
However, the chief agencies of the idea’s later dissemination through wider Europe appears to depend upon preachings of the Dominican order, and the distribution in print of a work by an anonymous author, composed in 1309, only a couple years after the Great Exile of the French Jews. The Dominican preaching order also had the role of Inquisitors at that time, so that we may posit the rapid and widespread increase in representations of Lilith as being due to increased familiarity with Jewish thought and works, gained by Latins as a result of the expulsion.
LILITH becomes EVE
The following image comes from a Dominican breviary dated to 1323-1326.
The Speculum… salvationis, like the Holken picture Bible (Brit.Lib. MS Additional 47682) was designed for the less educated population and the Speculum.. salvationist proved enormously popular. Through its various copies and editions, we can trace a remarkable evolution of the idea of that ‘temptress in Eden’ and by the early fifteenth century we see that from being a demon Lilith, the temptress-serpent becomes first a projection of Eve’s imagination of what she will become when ‘like the gods’ to imagery which says plainly that Eve and Lilith are one and the same. The following illustrations from copies of the Speculum… salvationis made (i) in Prague c.1420 and (ii) in Augburg, 1489.
Isidore himself might not have known Lilith’s name or story – or he may have preferred not to mention them – but he says a little more about Eve in Book VII:
Image in the Composite – Jacopo della Quercia, Creation of Adam from the Fonte Gaia, 1414–19, Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.
bands (i) edited from replica of a twelfth-century English terracotta tile; (ii) detail of mosaic ‘Creation of Adam’ in Mon Reale Cathedral, Sicily (c.1180 AD).