Saturday, August 20, 2011

Eve -- a Saturday reprise


A remarkable carving, long a favorite of mine, usually called "The Temptation of Eve" (click to enlarge). It resides in the Musee Rolin near the 12th-century Cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun, France, of which it was once a part. The sculptor did many of the wonderful decorations of the cathedral. On the west tympanum are carved the words Gislebertus hoc fecit, "Gislebertus made this," traditionally assumed to be the sculptor's claim to authorship at a time when religious art was almost universally anonymous.

Whatever the sculptor's name, there is something hauntingly original about his work -- especially Eve. Lithe and sensuous, she seemingly swims through the garden, delectably naked, She is about to pluck the forbidden fruit, and her hand is at her blushing cheek as if she knows she is doing something naughty. She could be any young woman about to embark upon her first misadventure, her very own original sin.

This Eve is a part of nature, her body as sinuous as the twining plants. The stem is about to snap. The luscious fruit will be eaten, and Eve -- lovely Eve -- will bear the burden of innocence lost. And look! Look at her expression. She doesn't know we are watching. But we are watching. And we recognize what's going on. Who has not shared this delicious moment, the first post-adolescent sin?

Science has long since rendered unliteral the story of Genesis. It has given us instead Mitochondrial Eve, the matrilineal most recent common ancestor, who apparently lived in East Africa about 140,000 years ago, and who contributed her mitochondrial DNA to every human now alive. She was not alone with a single partner in whatever passed for her garden. She was part of a population of other human ancestors, one twig of a family tree with a long ancestry of her own. Can we assume she already bore within her evolutionary heritage some mix of the emotions we see in Gislebertus' Eve -- the anxious stirrings of the flesh, the will to be wayward, the headstrong disobedience? And, yes, maybe guilt too.

The new story, like the old one, grounds much of human nature in an ancestral past. The difference is this: In the new story there is no prelapsarian Eden, no world without the pain of childbirth, without thorns and thistles, without the sweat of the brow. We are and always have been like Gislebertus' Eve entwined in a living web. What we are seeing in the Autun sculpture is the dawning of moral consciousness, a moment of singular significance for each of us individually and for our species.

(This post originally appeared in March 2008.)