Creation and Expulsion of Adam & Eve in the Stained Glass of Chartres Cathedral
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
To tell the story of Mary through a medieval church's lens, one must have at least one space to tell the story of Eve. At Chartres Cathedral, Eve's story is represented exuberantly in one stained glass window. Actually, Adam is the main character here, just as Jesus is the main character in the church, but both women are the means by which men, and all humanity, are defined as either doomed or redeemed.
The Creation Story in Context
The window spreads the well-known story from Genesis across several related pieces, Below the Creation story the tale of the Good Samaritan is told, with its culminating panel forming the base of the quatrefoil selection which begins the story. The order of the elements of the narrative are organized in a quasi-linear way. If the quatrefoil panel were the face of a clock, one would find the creation of Adam at 9 o'clock, his lonely existence in the Garden at the center where we'd find the hands, the creation of Eve at 3 o'clock, and God's forbidding them the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil at noon. Directly above there is a line of a right-half of the quatrefoil, a rondel, and then a left-half, presenting the couple enjoying the garden, Eve tempting Adam with the fruit, and God discovering the couple covering their newfound shame. The next quatrefoil up has at its base the image of the Expulsion from Paradise.
The Quatrefoil Form with Creation of Adam & Eve
I'll address pieces of the quatrefoil below, but I want to take a moment here to note the sameness of the faces of Adam and God to the Jew and Samaritan in the bottom panel. I don't have a profound insight into this obviously intentional linking, except to speculate that a parallel of caretaking and mercy is being drawn. The only key difference stylistically between the Samaritan and God in this arrangement is the cruciform halo God sports.
Creation of Adam
What I love about this section of the window is the way the artist depicted God's breath bringing Adam to life. He holds Adam's face so tenderly, and they have a direct gaze (not one of Lord and servant, but one more like Father and child). Compare this to Michelangelo's creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which also seems to render the two figures near-equal in size, and gaze.
Creation of Eve
The creation of Eve here looks like a painful C-section, with Adam given some very good drugs. The gaze between Eve and God is also at a direct/straight-line level, but God here has her by the forehead and wrist, and gives her a concerned gaze.
Forbidding the Fruit
What's curious about this scene is how Adam and Eve still seem conjoined. Eve hides behind Adam as they are admonished. The serpent is not present, but the red vine encircle the tree in a snaky way, and points accusingly (temptingly?) toward the couple. It's a shame that the upper bodies of the pair are somewhat damaged, because I'd like to read the figures more clearly. Eve's hand seems to poke out from behind Adam in a contradictory or questioning gesture.
Adam's face seems off here, leaving me to wonder whether there was a repair or some mishap in the past. He looks much older than Eve, and slouches a bit. They both seem to be holding a red stalk of some plant. I really am not sure what Eve (or Adam, for that matter) is sitting on. The sun appears to be setting (or rising) behind the tree. A red and white flourish at the top suggests that God is not watching them from the heavens at this moment. So, mischief can occur. The rendering of nudity here goes beyond the merely chaste to out-and-out bad. The artisan who painted Eve's breasts onto the glass clearly was not working from first-hand familiarity with women. I'm not condemning this for failing to live up the the Ancient Greek or Renaissance standard (because it couldn't possibly do so), but even for medieval nudes this is perfunctory, at best.
There is so much to love about this piece! Foremost: that the whole landscape appears to be burning in hellfire at the moment that Eve tempts Adam. The serpent in the Tree of Knowledge is more a phoenix than a dragon, with a marvelous golden body and slightly darker wings. Too bad its face is a bit obscured. I'm surprised the face of the dragon/serpent isn't human, as it is in a lot of medieval manuscript and stained glass art. The placement of Eve and Adam on opposite sides of the tree, with the serpent facing Eve, underscores their differences in culpability--Eve sins twice: once in taking the fruit herself, and then in seducing Adam toward his fall. Adam is shown here in doubt, recoiling slightly from her proposition, raising one hand in rejection and using the other to stroke his chin in doubt. The green ground below them remains unblemished by their sin--paradise is constant, but they are no longer fit to dwell there.
Hiding Their Shame
The composition here is subtle, but wonderfully underscores the guiltiness and shame of the couple. God happens upon Adam and Eve from behind (still in his demarcated sphere--see the river-like aqua line between him and the tree-top). They look up and over their shoulders to Him, as though caught in the act of committing a crime. God is a little late for that, but the sentiment is here. They now seem much more alike than they did in early scenes. Their postures and gestures echo each other--they are united in sin. With their right hands they motion defensively; with their left hands they clutch the fig leaves to their genitals. Eve's face is more square and resembles Adam's more closely. She seems haggard with the burden of her sin. The drawing of her breasts here gives them a closer resemblance to those of farm animals than a human's.
Lastly we arrive at the end of this part of the story. As with the bottom of the quatrefoil we started with, this piece links up into the next narrative in the glass, functioning to interlock stories vertically across the field of blue tile-like squares. (I apologize this is cut off--I hope to go back some day and shoot this piece again.). This should be the archangel Raphael, with his flaming sword, escorting Adam and Eve off the premises. He has no wings, though, and is dressed identically to God in other panels. The cruciform halo of God isn't shown here, though. What to me is just sublime is the way that Adam and Eve are posed as they exit paradise. The gate out of Eden is a thick, red monolith of glass, almost bisecting the frame (the angel is more central), The long, sinuous right legs of the couple still have a last step inside Eden. They seem almost like dancers. Her skin is of a lighter tone than Adams, and that makes the two of them together in the door-frame stand out more. Notice that their feet echo Raphael's right foot's position. There's a suggestion that some small part of them is still tied to God.
I will compare this series of images from the story of Creation to windows at Troyes and other churches in future posts.