There is much to delight the eye in the newly re-opened Courtauld Art Gallery in London. Although the paintings remain the same within their newly-pristine environment, one sees them more clearly thanks to lighting which is superb, unobtrusively shadowless and encourages close inspection.
Don’t ask why one work of art stands out from amongst others. Just delight in Mariotto Albertinelli’s The Creation and Fall of Man, painted just over 500 years ago yet dazzling, suspended as it is on the thinnest of wires at a perfect viewing height. It is oil on a wooden panel that measures some 165 by 56 centimetres; this is not a large painting.
The minimal but clear text explains that this was one of three scenes commissioned by the Italian banker, Giovanmaria Benintendi, designed as a spalliera to be set into the decorative panelling of a room in the family’s palace in Florence. We are not told whether this reminder of the Christian creation story salved the banker’s conscience, if it were needed; on that, we can only wonder. Five hundred years after Albertinelli’s paint dried, we can plant our feet in the same space relative to this work as his own were when he executed the brushstrokes, and savour this jewel of the Italian High Renaissance.
The landscape of Eden is apparently an idealized representation of the Arno valley, standing in for the dry ground of Genesis’s verse 10, but now populated with the vegetation and seed-bearing fruit and trees that verse 11 describes. There are none of the dramatic crags and peaks that decorate other Biblical scenes of this period. Gently-rolling hills rise from the river’s mirror-flat surface. An azure sky is seemingly captured with the morning sun above the horizon but concealed behind a blue-robed God in the very centre of the scene. Trees that could be oaks and acacias frame the frozen action. The barefoot characters tread grassland populated with white-petalled wildflowers. Angels hold themselves aloft in a windless sky.
What happens in the painting’s middle distance and foreground needs to be read, left to right, a narrative direction familiar to literate Europeans of the time. In the left-most quarter of the canvas, the land produces living creatures, livestock and wild animals. Then closest to the viewer, God in red and pale blue robes pulls Adam up off the ground. To their right, God — exactly central within the tableau — conjures Eve from Adam’s side. Finally, Eve, clutching a branch of the forbidden tree offers Adam the fruit as the serpent whispers in her ear.
Everything is familiar to those of us who have been brought up in a Judeo-Christian culture and yet, to my eye, the most interesting elements in the painting are not God and his helper angels. The first of these, on the left in the middle distance is the creation of the animal kingdom. Below a rock on which stands God flanked by two angels, a roiling mass of animals of all kinds is gathered. (Squint at the back of the mass and you are looking at Tolkien’s orc army viewed through Peter Jackson’s film camera.) Reddish-brown to a beast, except for a white horse, ram, ewe, swan and duck, they are crammed together, flanks pressing. A startled lion, a cowering bear, a boar, a donkey and a cow, all are in the hubbub, recognizable. To their right, further back, an elephant, a giraffe and a camel occupy a clearing (not properly visible in my poor photograph). Birds of all description hover, glide, flap and perch around the wild menagerie. There is even a mouse, a frog, a lizard and a hedgehog. This is not an idyllic scene, but it is not the carnivorous nightmare that would enfold if such a mass of wildlife were held elsewhere. It is an illustration of the fecundity of nature, depicted in a space around three-quarters of a foot square, in which individual species can be recognized, some with their behaviour captured in poses faithful to the species. It is masterly.
Not to be missed, clearly singled out for special attention near the bottom-left corner, is a goldfinch, unflinchingly attentive not to the boiling mass of the animal kingdom to which it belongs, but to the mystery unfolding between its creator and Adam and Eve. This is surely an oblique reference to the Christian resurrection yet to come, one more example of this particular bird being used symbolically in Renaissance painting. Raphael had the infant John the Baptist, steadied by the Madonna, hold out a goldfinch for the infant Christ to caress. The bird is there in works by Bosch, Crivelli, Fabritius, Leonardo and countless others. The thistle-loving bird evokes the crown of thorns, the red cheek patches, Christ’s passion. In Albertinelli’s painting, the bird is a creation of God yet to be given this other purpose in full. Its presence is distinct and deliberate, but for the moment it is on the fringe, incidental, a bystander, not yet called upon for its role centre-stage. In the New Testament world of 16th century Florence, the bird here occupies an Old Testament painting. Nonetheless, this tiny goldfinch has been singled out.
Turning from the creation to the temptation, at the end of Albertinelli’s narrative, on the right of the painting, we see Adam receiving a fruit held out to him in her right hand by Eve, as her left hand anchors her to the tree of knowledge. Albertinelli has the serpent here a creature of scales and feathers, clawed feet clamped round the trunk of the tree, spined and armoured. Its head, in female human form, adorned with feathers, is extended towards Eve, the whisper of temptation almost audibly susurrating between them.
In this version of the temptation, the tree of knowledge is unmistakably a fig, the tree from which the couple made their own fig leaf clothing. The fig Eve holds out to Adam is ripe and opening, also unmistakably a symbol of female sexuality.
Compare this with the temptation depicted in Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder (a large version of which is also on display at the Courtauld), painted some eleven years later. Cranach’s tree of knowledge is an apple, the forbidden fruit, an orange-red apple. The bark is notably more cherry than apple, incorrect horizontal rings instead of vertical cracks, and the animals are more Disney to our 21st century eyes. Cranach’s Adam and Eve could be any one of us, instead of being rendered, in Albertinelli’s hand, as biblical characters.
Albertinelli’s fig so much more successfully conveys carnality than Cranach’s apple, although Cranach’s larger painting has more fine-detailed brushwork than Albertinelli’s smaller painting could possibly have. Both are exquisite paintings. Even so, Albertinelli’s readable left-to-right painting remains a startling work whose narrative structure — and so much more — amply deserves close contemplation.