Fragment of a Floor Mosaic: Adam and Eve, early Byzantium, Northern Syria, Byzantine period, late 5th - early 6th century. Marble and stone tesserae; h:142.90 w:107.30 d:5.72 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund 1969.115
In Gallery 105, the Byzantine gallery, hangs an image that draws me in each time I see it -- a fragment of a floor mosaic from Northern Syria that dates to the late 400s to early 500s AD. It depicts the biblical Father and Mother of all, Adam and Eve, who, having just tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, cover themselves out of shame, having become suddenly aware of their nakedness. They both clutch the apple of their downfall, while Adam seems to point at Eve in a blaming gesture. Both stare at us with wide eyes. A fragment of Greek inscription at the top reinforces what the imagery is telling us- it translates “And they ate, and they were made naked…” (Genesis III, 7:8)
I find this image of the first father quite compelling. I often use it as a touchstone in gallery talks to contrast the naturalistic depictions of the human form so prevalent in the Greek, Roman and Early Christian galleries, to this figure’s dark contours, less comfortable twist of body, and overall somewhat stiff, frontal pose. In the study of Art History, the Byzantine era was often heralded as the beginning of the Medieval style in art. It is debated whether artists had “lost” the knowledge of anatomy that earlier Classical artists reflected, or whether they were truly striving for something new.
The technique of selecting colored stone squares (tesserae) and pressing them into soft mortar to create a floor had been perfected by the Romans centuries before this- by this moment in time, the colorific effects and shading were somewhat less detailed, and artists used larger tesserae in their compositions, probably to save time.
I think this depiction of Adam and Eve illustrates the artist’s conscious choice to do something new. The use of wide-staring eyes was becoming prevalent in other religious imagery of the eastern empire – images that we have come to know as icons. In general, I think a movement was afoot to try to focus more on the inner life of the figure, rather than accurately capture its outward appearance. Adam appears pre-parenthood – he’s youthful, handsome, and clearly shocked at what has happened. In this composition a few figures, objects, and gestures say so much.
-- Alicia Hudson Garr