We'd had the wainscot chair for a long time, and in many ways I was sad to see it go, even to a very appreciative home. The carving of Adam and Eve on the back panel was luscious: the carving was what I would miss. As I packed the chair for shipping, the old rhyme ran through my head,
When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
The legend of the Garden of Eden was particularly popular in England and Protestant Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I have to wonder if people felt they wanted a new origin, outside of the Church of Rome. It's certainly the case thatÂ Protestant countries preferred the Old Testament as the source of their images, while Catholic countries preferred the New.
In England, it may have something to do with Henry VIII, who kicked out Rome, dissolved the monasteries and, most importantly in my mind, secularized the arts. He thus sowed the seeds of the English Renaissance, which was a thoroughly humanist affair. So Old Testament stories, such as Adam and Eve or David and Goliath, were treated more as folk legends than as stories from the Bible. This is not to diminish them: in an age when few could read, images told stories, and stories taught morals -- advice for living.
Now, the advice of David and Goliath is clear -- just because a guy's big doesn't stop you from slinging a rock at him -- but the moral of Adam and Eve has always worried me. In my first career as a university professor, I was constantly urging my students to grab as many fruits from the tree of knowledge as they possibly could. Does that make me the serpent? But at least I never targeted female students only.
So it's not surprising that I'm drawn to the idea of the Garden of Eden as a place where Adam delved and Eve span, a place of equality where digging and spinning, i.e., providing food and shelter, was the basis of all human labor. The rhyme originated in Watt Tyler's Peasant's Revolt in 1381, and it's significant that the serpent plays no part in it. I like that version.
Nuremberg alms dish courtesy Heller Washam Antiques
Delft charger courtesy Mark and Marjorie Allen Antiques
Delft tile courtesy Paul Madden Antiques
Detail from a 16th century mortar (Fiske & Freeman)
BTW, in the carved panel it appears that Adam already has the apple -- what do we make of that?
BTW again, the date on the panel, 1634, is also the date of the founding of Ipswich, Mass, where we live. But nobody in town wanted to buy the chair!