From the planetary, we turn back again to the particular. In Pontormo’s canvas, the first man and woman are in the midst of carrying out their respective labors as punishment for their disobedience. Upon creating Man, God put him to the Garden of Eden so that he could care for it, “to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Now banished from Paradise, Adam is made again to till the earth. Holding what is most plausibly a hoe or spade, despite the absence of a blade edge, Adam prepares to work the soil for his daily bread, as he is destined to do until his death. (The cloaked figure of Death sometimes joined the original couple in medieval imagery, signifying that they were no longer immortal.) Enduring painful childbirth, Eve has borne Cain and Abel. Seated above them protectively on a large rock, she twists to peer out in the direction of the spectator while she spins thread on her distaff. Wispy traces of a leafy canopy and the faint outline of a tree trunk are visible just behind and to the left of Eve. The first parents having now been expelled from the Garden of Eden, this tree cannot be the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet it may be suggestive of them.
In the spirit of his one-time teacher Piero di Cosimo, celebrated for his mythological narratives respun and thus indelibly transformed, Pontormo interprets rather than translates his own textual sources. First, hardly does Pontormo’s magnificent Eve – clearly based on a male model, like the late-quattrocento precedent of Antonio del Pollaiuolo (fig. 18) – show herself to be ruled by Adam, as the Bible describes. To be sure, it is difficult to find another fallen Eve, in any contemporary visual example, as imposing as this one. Nor does the toiling figure of Adam appear as abject as his banishment would imply. Seduced and fallen, they are unbroken. In contrast to Cristofano Robetta’s weary Adam, neither of Pontormo’s progenitors appears shamed or humbled by the labor to which they have been condemned so as to ensure humankind’s survival on earth (fig. 19). It is as if God’s fear that if Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge they would become as gods was not misplaced – and has come to pass. Though cursed, they appear as athletes, striking in their stature, assertive movements, and tensile muscularity. Their noble, classicizing forms course with youthful vigor and strength. If the distaff and hoe were substituted with a pair of musical instruments, a viewer would be forgiven for thinking the figures to be the sibling deities Pallas Athena and Apollo, whom we know Pontormo to have once painted “with great grace and beauty” on a wooden arch for Pope Leo X’s triumphant entry into Florence in 1514.
The first children, meanwhile, make for more of an emotional contrast than their parents, that between restlessness and calm repose (fig. 20). Appearing to examine something in his lap, the gentle child at left – no doubt we are to take him to be Abel? – appears self-possessed beyond his years, while his brother’s seemingly playful gesture of hiding his face behind his arm may also foretell of violence to come.
While the subject of Pontormo’s scene appears clear, a number of mysteries remain. Questions persist as to the painting’s original patron, location, and function. The earliest provenance appears to reach back to the seventeenth century and the Machiavelli Collection in Florence. In many ways, the next question is more challenging still: What kind of object is Adam and Eve? What original purpose did the canvas serve and how was it intended to be received? Its delicacy of execution and nuanced surface effects invite close, sustained looking. In addressing the original conditions of display, meanwhile, the work’s intimate scale seems most appropriate for a domestic setting, where it may have been mounted onto a wall around shoulder height. If so, the image may well have been conceived as part of a larger narrative scheme. There is some comparative iconographic evidence to recommend this possibility. Datable stylistically to ca. 1519, Pontormo’s red chalk drawing of the Creation of Eve suggests a late stage of design in its high finish and resolution of poses (fig. 21). Measuring almost the same small dimensions as the Creation is an intriguing panel, also in the Uffizi, depicting the Expulsion of Adam and Eve (fig. 22). Their nude bodies of almost hypertrophic musculature (including that of the dramatically foreshortened avenging angel), this first couple seems almost Blakean in mood and palette. Though almost certainly a Pontormo invention, the panel is more convincingly a work of a close follower or student in execution, more likely dating to the mid-1530s, if not later. This makes a direct comparison with the slightly-larger Adam and Eve canvas as a physical object all the more complicated, as does its wood support and deployment of color, albeit almost monochromatic in the dominant earth tones. There are, it should be said, compositional echoes between all three examples in the way that the figures, situated in a shallow foreground space, project toward the picture plane and are situated in rocky, tree-filled terrain, beyond which there is only darkness. The stark differences in the scale and handling of the figures, however, does not recommend a more concrete connection. If there were companion canvases, they remain unknown or have not survived. The Adam and Eve still seems an object apart.
A final consideration in our attempts to discern the canvas’ intended function brings us into the public realm. As is well known, monochrome on canvas was often employed as an ephemeral technique – and so it stands to reason that Adam and Eve may have served as part of public decoration, be it for festival, spectacle or another kind of street procession – installed upon a carro (festive cart), or part of an elaborate apparato (ephemeral decoration for the celebration of requiem mass for a head of state or high-ranking ecclesiastic figure). The work’s linen support provides additional clues. Flax cloth was a less frequently found support for Florentine painting in this period – and less frequent, in turn, than rougher canvas of coarser weave – and is thus suggestive of a possible portable function, given its very light weight (matched only by its resilient strength). Yet Pontormo’s Adam and Eve appears more refined in finish than might be expected of ephemeral decoration-in-motion, the latter intended to make more of a fleeting sensory impression. Again, a domestic location remains the most plausible.
While the Labors of Adam and Eve was a fairly common subject in transalpine art, particularly in manuscript illumination (figs. 26-27) and early prints, Florentine precedents for the subject were conspicuously few. The first local example of note by Paolo Uccello must have held a particular appeal to the young Pontormo and speaks to the pronounced retrospective dimension of his early production, as also reflected in his enduring fascination with Ghiberti and Donatello in sculpture. Uccello’s monochrome fresco lunette, representing the double-narrative of the Expulsion and the Labors of Adam and Eve (1445–47) in the Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella (fig. 28), must have been eminently familiar to Pontormo, who worked within the same Dominican convent’s walls, producing his own fresco lunette of Saint Veronica in the Cappella dei Papi, dating to 1515 and thus very close to Adam and Eve (fig. 29). Both masters shared a deep commitment to the plasticity of the nude form, using the Old Testament subject as a pretext to showcase the body in a variety of complex poses. Already anticipated (in a more public setting) by his monumental equestrian fresco of Sir John Hawkwood in the Duomo (1436), Uccello’s statuesque figures of the original family, rendered in greenish grisaille and suspended in dramatic movement, no doubt struck an especially strong chord with the young Florentine.
Qualifying as a monochrome in effect rather than in intention, Fra Bartolomeo’s first family is set in a verdant landscape (complete with a sizeable multi-roofed dwelling) but was left unfinished by 1512, while the seated Adam remains as pure underdrawing. The work nonetheless may have provided Pontormo with another potentially instructive precedent, if seen – although the similarities are admittedly superficial at best, the likely domestic setting of the frate’s small panel notwithstanding (fig. 30). Dating only a few years later (1516–18), Il Bacchiacca’s (Francesco d’Ubertino) similarly small-scale iteration of the same subject, also in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is by contrast of an almost lapidary finish. Showing the family at rest, Bacchiacca creates a clever pastiche: transforming his former teacher Pietro Perugino’s Apollo and Daphnis (or Marsyas?) of ca. 1495 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) into Adam and Eve, while borrowing Cain and Abel from Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of God Appearing to Noah. The wooded background, meanwhile, is sourced from Dürer’s profoundly sculptural Adam and Eve engraving of 1504.
What deeper message might the redemptive figures of Adam and Eve have held for their original audience? How might it have informed the meaning and conduct of earthly life, in its original context? True to iconographic conventions in this period, Pontormo’s Adam and Eve joined by their infant sons may be most readily likened to an Old Testament variant of the Holy Family with the young Saint John the Baptist. While most devotional artistic commissions of the period drew on the lives of Christ, Mary and the saints, the dramatic narratives and ardent language of the Old Testament held special appeal to patrons and painters who sought to trace the origins of the Christian faith and all of human history to God as divine mover. The idea of origins also extended to the ancestral forerunners of the Son of God: the roots of the genealogical tree springing from the first chapters of Genesis. According to religious typology, Adam prefigured Christ, beginning with the latter’s virginal birth (foretold by Eve’s coming from Adam’s rib). Jesus is described in Corinthians I, 15:45 as a “last Adam,” or Adam perfected, while Eve foreshadows Mary and alternatively the Church. Particularly striking in this context are the clear formal parallels between Pontormo’s Eve and the seated, outward gazing Virgin of the San Michele Visdomini altarpiece. Together, described as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), Adam and Eve form an allegory of the unity of Christ, Word, and Body. The Temptation in turn came to be interpreted as a precursor – or first cause – to the Annunciation, in which the Virgin, as the “new Eve,” was redeemed of original sin. Abel’s subsequent sacrifice of a lamb, sealing his terrible fate, was believed to foretell the Crucifixion, as Christ was similarly sacrificed on the Cross as “the Lamb of God.” As for Noah, his trial in the ark was likened to the baptism of Christ in the waters of the river Jordan.