previous section
Chapter One Introduction
next chapter


Chapter One

Modern visitors who enter San Marco discover walls and domes covered with mosaics. They are visually exhilarating to experience, particularly because of their brilliant colors and pervasive gold; in terms of their meaning, however, they usually remain less satisfying. Whether because of the difficulty of viewing scenes located high in the vaults or our ignorance of medieval saints' lives, often our only way of answering the question, "What do these mosaics mean?" is to read a guidebook.

However, those of us who stand in the more intimately scaled narthex or atrium, the entryway of the church, and study the mosaic scenes in the southernmost dome (Plate 1) will be rewarded for our efforts. Male and female nudes, prominent trees, a serpent, and cosmic bodies—these are clearly players and props from the well-known story of Creation found in Genesis (see Excerpts). We modern viewers, like our thirteenth-century counterparts who first scrutinized these mosaics, recall the essential story line: God's creation of a blissful golden age, lost to future humans as pun-


ishment for the first couple's disobedience. Even though we all know the plot, we are drawn to "read" it one more time, revalidating our recollection of the story. Yet as we scrutinize these mosaics, episode by episode, questions arise. Why does God stand stiffly at the left in so many of the scenes and gesture with his hand? Why are some of the trees blue? These questions reveal one of the reasons for the longevity of this seemingly timeless myth. While on the one hand the numerous retellings retain universal elements, consistent over almost three millennia, on the other hand each retelling is a unique revision. The story's agelessness, then, is due partly to the comforting repetition of traditional elements and partly to its seemingly infinite flexibility as it is adapted to changing religious and social demands of different epochs. Whether Milton or Michelangelo, Augustine or Blake, each re-creator of the myth revises and customizes the narrative to meet the needs of his or her historical situation. Thus the mosaics at San Marco, even though they repeat an old tale, also reflect the specific historical, political, and religious community of thirteenth-century Venice. That this particular retelling was deemed urgent to that community is indicated by the prominence and visibility of these mosaics in the entryway of the city's most important public building. Poor and rich, women and men, laity and clergy alike were to read this new account of the Genesis story because it was relevant to their late medieval lives.

My own fascination with these mosaics grew out of what seemed to me a startling revision in the scene of the labors of Adam and Eve (Plate 2). In that scene, Eve is a paradoxical figure, for she appears glorified at the very moment of her banishment and shame. Unlike similar images of Eve at her labors, where she traditionally sits nursing, this Eve is well-dressed, enthroned, and located more centrally than her bent-over, hard-laboring mate. Childless and idle, she sits with distaff and spindle in her right hand, but these resemble regal attributes more than implements of work: indeed, she is the only figure besides the Creator to appear enthroned in the entire cupola. It is improbable that this image anticipates modern feminist reinterpretations of the Genesis text, where Eve represents the crowning achievement of God's Creation, the heroine who willingly assumes risks in order to obtain divine knowledge.[1] Rather, this radically reimagined scene must be viewed in light of the well-known strains of misogyny and dualism of thirteenth-century Christian thought, according to which Eve typically functions as a negative counterpoint to Adam and as an antitype for Mary, used for contrast rather than similarity.


The novelty of this image is no small matter, since no narrative, textual or visual, would have been better known in thirteenth-century Venice than that of Adam and Eve. Not only does its text form the opening chapters of Genesis and the Old Testament, where it was the subject of both Jewish and Christian exegetes from Philo and Origen to Maimonides and Aquinas, but it was also rewritten and expanded in apocryphal texts. Such elaborations of the story include both Greek and Latin versions of the life of Adam and Eve, further copied and reworked throughout the Middle Ages.[2] The Genesis text figured prominently in the preparations for Lent, the season of penance, and also provided the subject of one of the earliest vernacular mystery plays, the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Mystère d'Adam . World chronicles began with the Creation story, treatises on the Virtues and Vices explained why our first parents failed, and churches were lined with frescoes and mosaics relating the tale.

It is easy to understand why this popular story was told and retold throughout the Middle Ages and re-presented one more time here in Venice. Like most creation myths, its function is etiological, for the narrative offers explanations for why men are the heads of families, why snakes crawl on their bellies, and why we all must work and finally die. It also establishes a template for the first alliance between man and woman, thus coming to serve as a paradigm for male-female relationships in Western culture. Adam and Eve are Everyman and Everywoman; their motivations, actions, and penalties are ours. While their history is a cautionary tale of sin and betrayal, it also offers a model for male and female behavior, marriage, and the household. And just as today the debate concerning human nature—including distinctions between males and females, framed in twentieth-century terms of genetics and neurophysiology—has real social, religious, political, and economic consequences, so in late medieval Venice these analyses of Creation and the first man and woman genuinely affected people's daily lives.

Yet while the Genesis narrative answers fundamental questions, any retelling of the tale raises additional ones. If God is the benevolent Creator of all things, where did evil come from? If Adam is made perfect, in the image of the Deity, how could he sin? Is Eve also made in God's image? Why is the Serpent hostile toward Adam and Eve? Each time any of us reads or tells the tale, we rewrite and reinterpret it, answering these or other questions with explanations appropriate to our proper social, religious, and historical context. Even Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation from


the original Hebrew subtly and not so subtly altered the text in ways consistent with his personal history and situation; for example, some scholars have uncovered misogynist tendencies in his choice of words.[3] Medieval writers and preachers who were unable to change the main elements of the drama—after all, everyone knew them—consciously and unconsciously analyzed the characters of the actors, attributed motivations to them, and filled in story lines where none existed in the original Genesis text. From some we learn that the Serpent is Satan, that Adam sinned because he so loved Eve, and that Eve gave in to the Serpent because they looked alike. The San Marco mosaics, situated in a Venice populated with Crusaders and a wealthy citizenry, warn us about, among other things, the nature of Muslim women's morals and confirm the necessity of sumptuary legislation to regulate the clothing of the Venetian population. And finally, additional questions about the text arose as medieval theologians—and artists—attempted to reconcile the two incompatible versions of human creation synthesized in the opening chapters of Genesis, the first (although written later) found in Genesis 1:1–2:3, and the second (written earlier) beginning with Genesis 2:4. Scholars today recognize that two different authors were at work, the so-called Priestly author (of the P text), working in the sixth century B.C.E. , and the mid-tenth-century B.C.E. Yahwist writer (of the J text). In the medieval period, however, Moses was understood to be the single author, and his text needed to be explained as one seamless creation story, inconsistent though it was. Thus, the Genesis story, from J text to P text and their eventual synthesis, to translations from Hebrew to Latin, to multiple written and visual reworkings, is transformed with each retelling, the San Marco mosaics contributing to this palimpsest of meaning and explanation.

The continual retelling of the Genesis myth suggested to me that one significant way of exploring meaning in the San Marco mosaics, the central concern of this book, is by analyzing them as a revision of an established tale, thus revealing their late medieval content through the establishment of difference. This approach is particularly useful here because art historians have identified a group of closely related images of the Genesis story that includes the San Marco mosaics; to some degree, then, art-historical scholarship has emphasized similarities within the group.[4] My premise, by


contrast, is to discern the thirteenth-century alterations and analyze the intentions behind them. As but one in a long line of revisions of the story of Creation, the narrative presented at San Marco offers a singular understanding and vision of divine purpose and human history. Which questions arose from the narrative to interest the thirteenth-century Venetian creators, and which answers seemed most viable to them, inform our understanding of their society. We recognize, then, that the San Marco Creation mosaics form a unique, primary Gothic "text" that can be read and interpreted by modern viewers just as a thirteenth-century Venetian homily would be. No one doubts that Peter Comestor's popular twelfth-century rewriting of the Genesis myth, the Historia scholastica ,[5] can be analyzed today in terms of how it represents a synthesis of earlier versions of the story, both verbal and visual, nor that it can also be investigated with regard to late-twelfth-century attitudes and mores, different from those of its sources. The same is true, of course, for the mosaics in San Marco. Thus, rather than lamenting the scarcity of texts concerning relations between the sexes and the lack of information on public preaching in thirteenth-century Venice, scholars should recognize that these mosaics can themselves enlighten us with regard to these matters.[6]

A related goal of this book is to consider how visual narratives mean. The mosaicists at San Marco transformed manuscript illuminations intended for a private, literate reader/viewer into monumental, public images for a largely verbally illiterate but visually literate audience standing within the entry of the most important civic and religious building in Venice; the new location and enlarged scale reinforce the authority of the myth. The fact that it is a narrative further assures viewers that their study will be rewarded by a story that presents order and purpose, cause and effect. While an examination of the "narrative" of one's daily life may reveal only chaos and apparent randomness, when one reads a mosaic cycle one expects to find meaning and purpose, patterns of behavior and significance. On the one hand, viewers already know the story and re-experience it synchronically; seeing the beginning, they anticipate the end, and a glance at the image of the Fall simultaneously evokes nostalgia for the loss of Paradise and dread of the punishments of the earthly realm. On the other hand, the mosaicists have both symbolically and physically shaped their vision of Creation on the ceiling of the narthex, moving from left to right and top to bottom, carefully creating a higher order of existence for


viewers to re-experience diachronically within the real time of their scrutiny. Thus the well-planned structure of the narrative, varying the number of episodes for different parts of the tale, controls the speed of the viewer's reading, and the mosaicists consciously introduced into the earliest scenes in the cycle explanations for and anticipations of its eventual resolution. What appears a simple relating of a familiar story becomes, in the hands of the thirteenth-century artist-interpreters, a setting for what Mieke Bal refers to as the "retrospective fallacy," where a predetermined conclusion regarding the essential nature of a character colors the entire retelling of the tale.[7] This retrospective fallacy controls the visual language of the mosaics, encouraging the establishment of patterns and the recognition of cause and effect.

I am asking the reader of this book to read these visual scenes as though they are a text; therefore, other considerations for this study are the nature of visual language—as opposed to verbal language—and the kinds of questions and answers it can pose. A careful explanation and analysis of the syntax of the visual language used at San Marco, alongside scrutiny of the textual and visual traditions consulted by the artists, reveal ways in which meaning is created specifically in the visual arts. Some scholars, questioning whether we can actually read images as we read words, have generally depended on verbal texts in their analyses of the visual arts.[8] By contrast, I advance the San Marco Creation cycle as an independent and legible text, a kind of visual gloss to earlier presentations of the Genesis story, and one that is still a good read for the modern viewer. I recognize that some kinds of information may be more accurately and efficiently communicated via the word, and certainly the Christian Middle Ages esteemed the word and imputed great authority to it. Yet the image, too, communicates forcefully, and only partly due to the power of aesthetic response. The visual expression of relationships of "likeness" and "difference," for example, can be immediate; in the Genesis tale, it would be difficult for an artist to avoid the question of exactly who was made in the image of the Deity. Further, that images may be more susceptible to multivalent readings than words need not be seen as a weakness. The very ability of visual forms to recall a rich variety of references is one source of their power. As Michael Camille has explained, a powerful image "need not have one univocal meaning or one single text that explains it. Rather, it is crucial in propaganda that it have enough breadth of reference to be read by diverse groups in society."[9] And the San Marco cupola is dealing in powerful propaganda.


When finished with our reading of the mosaics, we shall see that, going well beyond what the Genesis Vulgate text says about Eve and Adam, the mosaicists use visual conventions to depict Eve that deny her visual affinity with the Creator and Adam; she is not fully in the image of God. While it is not surprising that an essential misogyny underlies the mosaics, the pervasiveness of it in the visual language is startling. The San Marco mosaics, by their overall arrangement in the vault of the atrium, by their compositional schema, by the postures of the protagonists, and by multiple details found in the individual scenes, establish Eve as the culpable character from the very moment of her creation in Paradise and depict her as dangerous and unrepentant at the end. Adam is not exonerated from culpability and in a sense falls farther because of his initial closeness to God, yet visually he remains more redeemable. The prelapsarian Adam and Eve at San Marco, created by a process of separation into unequal parts, exist in opposition to one another, and the entire cycle implies the inevitability of Eve's capitulation to sin.

We do not know who was ultimately responsible for the theological positions taken in the mosaics. As Otto Demus has written about thirteenth-century Venice, there is an "almost complete lack of statements on spiritual or even religious matters, a lack that is characteristic of Venice in almost every age."[10] The Procurator of Venice was in charge of all the decoration of San Marco, including seemingly minor details regarding the mosaics, and certainly he was officially responsible.[11] Yet no one knows which theological advisors worked on the project with him, or who provided the single most important visual model, the Cotton Genesis. I shall refer repeatedly to "the mosaicists," even though these were only craft laborers who would have worked from designs decided by the head of the shop, in consultation with appropriate but as yet unidentified civic and/or religious advisors. But, as we shall see as we examine the narrative sequence scene by scene, whoever the creators of this program were, they knew well the syntax of medieval art and used it effectively to warn the citizens of Venice about the ever-present power of women.


previous section
Chapter One Introduction
next chapter