Lilith Pictures: with Adam and Eve

From Adam and Eve Pictures

Note in each of the following pictures, that the serpent tempting Eve has a woman's head at least, often a female torso as well. I suspect that this is connected to the Lilith myth, but in some different (Christian?) flavor. If this is the case, I am not sure what is the relationship between the Christian and Jewish Liliths, since the Christian depictions do not seem to represent the known Jewish folktale. This motif is extremely widespread late Medieval and Renaissance art. This is just a smattering of those images.

Michelangelo was simply drawing on iconographic tradition which was well established by his time, but prior to the late medieval period all representations of the serpent are simply snakes. The development of the feminine form is odd to say the least. Keep in mind that this is Christian iconography and long before the late middle ages it was firmly established in Christian tradition that the serpent was the Devil -- unambiguously male.

But it is also true that there is an underlying current of misogyny, or at least gynophobia in medieval Christianity. Women were identified with temptation and hence with sin. It is not hard to imagine a shift in symbolism in which the cause for the fall of the first couple becomes doubly female, but this explanation for the artistic tradition would be much more plausible if it had a mythical underpinning. Lilith would, of course, fit in nicely here. Unfortunately, however, although Lilith is enjoying a renaissance in kabalistic Judaism during this period, it is very unclear to what extent this could have trickled into popular Christianity. In any case, there are no texts that I know of that support the proposition that late medieval and renaissance Christians had stories about Lilith.

By 'very unclear' above, though, I mean just that. Popular culture doesn't always come to us in texts, and it may well be that there were Christian versions of a Lilith myth which survive only in iconography. I think, from the iconography itself, that it is safe to say that this myth was not the Alphabet of ben Sira version, but it could be argued to resemble the serpent-Lilith of Kabbalah. The one place of potential contact here is in alchemical speculation, where we do see some cross fertilization of ideas coming into Christian thought from Jewish mysticism.

Iconographically, there are a few medieval pictures I know of that portray faeries with a woman's torso and a snake's body, but they are not connected with the Adam and Eve material at all.

Limbourg: Temptation Note that the serpent has a woman's head and torso. Detail from Temptation, Fall, and Expulsion from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1411-1416. Brothers Limbourg, Franco-Flemish.

MiniatureThis time she just has a female head. Detail from a Miniature, Florence.

Illumination More like a smallish dinosaur, but clearly part of the same theme park. This detail comes from a 15th century Manuscript Illumination.

van der Goes: Original Sin Still in dinosaur land, but the feminine characteristics are down-played in this version. Detail from Original Sin (1467/8). Hugo van der Goes (c. 1440-1482). 35.5x23.2 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Titian: Fall Note the serpent's resemblance to the cute 'cherubim', characteristic of this period of art. Detail from The Fall of Man (c. 1570). Titian (c. 1480-1576) Canvas, 240x186 cm. Prado Museum, Madrid.

Notre Dame Detail from a temptation scene from the Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.

Michelangelo: Temptation By far the most famous of the Lilith-Serpent paintings. Detail from Michelangelo's Temptation and Fall from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

Bosch: Paradise Detail from Bosch's Paradise. c. 1510.
Prado, Madrid

Lutwin: Temptation Detail from Lutwin's Temptation (15th. c.). Note the serpent's face. The gender of the snake is not clear here, although the crown (and the plot of the story - the Vitae of Adam & Eve) indicates that this is to be understood as Satan. So, one would be fairly hard-pressed to argue that this is a Lilith image.

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