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A painting worth pondering in Lent

A detail from Masaccio's 'The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden'

In 1424, the 23-year-old Florentine artist Masaccio was commissioned to paint frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. As one enters this chapel, the first panel on the upper left is his work The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The scene has an austerity that might induce a perfunctory glance, but the sculpture-like realism of the nude bodies conveys an intimacy that invites our gaze to linger. The bodies are beautifully rendered by employing the chiaroscuro method of light and shadow. Adam and Eve stand in our realm; they appear of this earth and not merely as artistic representations. Their sensual bodies and their emotions disclose their humanity.

We are drawn in and transfixed by Eve’s expression of grief. We see her head tipped back, her face wrought with anguish, her mouth open in lamentation.

Eve’s grief is both mental and physical. Her face expresses that pain, as does the manner in which she carries herself. Art historians compare her posture to a contrapposto stance in sculpture, such as the modest Venus, except Eve is covering her body in shame. Also, she tightly crushes her breasts with her forearm and hand, like a new mother pressing her full and weeping breasts.

Adam’s grief and agony are internalised. He covers his face to hide his shame and guilt, but he is not ashamed of his body. His sculptural body is often compared to Christ’s body on the Santa Croce Crucifix by Donatello, a contemporary of Masaccio. Donatello’s Christ is not idealised; he is fully human, an earthly man who bleeds and suffers. He is one of us, so real that we enter into his Passion with horror and sorrow. Masaccio likely intended that Adam’s body would refer to Donatello’s crucified Christ.

The background intrigues me, especially when I ponder the scene with Lent in mind. Adam and Eve exit Eden through a gate or a door, leaving all the comforts of home behind, locked out until Christ reopens the gates. The landscape is usually described as simple or austere, the intent to accentuate the human forms. Instead, I see a barren landscape that alludes to Christ’s desert. Adam and Eve enter a wasteland, their feet firmly planted on sand and rock.

I find it notable that the angel is clothed in red. Red symbolises blood and fire – the Passion and the Holy Spirit. Priests wear red vestments on Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Pentecost. I believe that this angel not only guards Eden’s closed gate but also foretells that the gate will open again after the Passion of God the Son and the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

During Lent, we unite ourselves with Christ, but we become Adam and Eve. We sacrifice, fast and pray. The door has closed on comforts. We await the end of suffering when Christ will suffer for us. Until then, these words from the Eucharistic Prayer can strengthen us: “Order our days in your peace, command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock you have chosen.”

And for just a brief time, say farewell to your Eden.

Michele Bregande is an artist and former arts and museum educator