The Beginning of Death

It’s that time again! Time for pumpkins, corn mazes, tons of candy, spooky costumes, and yes! Time to think for another macabre religious art series!

Now, there are a lot of people who dabble in the occult and demonic around Halloween to give themselves a cheap thrill.

These people are idiots.

First of all, you shouldn’t play around with the occult or demonic. Ever. (What can I say? It’s just a really bad idea.) But second of all… if you want to give yourself a macabre thrill, you don’t actually need to dabble in those sorts of stuff. We have plenty in our Christian culture to make those silly zombies and vampires look like child’s play.

Trust me on this.

And so! I thought I would kick off this year’s macabre religious art series featuring the original horror story: The Fall.

Falling Toward Death

Now, you probably know the story of the Fall. Adam and Eve are living in Paradise with God and everything is fine. Then the evil serpent, aka the Devil, comes to tempt Adam and Eve by saying that they should deliberately go against God’s command and eat the fruit of the tree which God has specifically told them not to eat from.

And… they do.

And thus, death comes into the world.

If you want, you can read the scripture here:

NABRE

Genesis 3

1Now the snake was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?” 2The woman answered the snake: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’” 4But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! 5God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” 6The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.8When they heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

Now, normally artworks of the Fall are mainly focused on Adam and Eve and the fruit that they will soon eat. So, the highlight of the artwork is that moment just before the fruit is eaten. Mind you, sometimes you’ll also see the serpent (or dragon, depending on the artist). But the main focus is on Adam and Eve’s choice.

But this artwork, the focus is a little… different.

Take a look!

Adam and Eve, by Hans Thoma
Adam and Eve, by Hans Thoma, c. 1897. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

…did you notice the skeleton?

You might have! I know I missed it the first time I glanced at the artwork… though, when I eventually saw it, I admit that I definitely jumped. Take a closer look!

Do you see it now?

And so, this is a bit of a different artwork of the Fall than we are generally used to seeing. Yes, Adam and Eve are there, naked. Yes, Eve’s hand is outstretched, ready to pick the forbidden fruit. The serpent even makes an appearance, curled around the tree with its head and eyes bulging in a manner that makes him seem quite poisonous indeed.

But it is the skeleton that arrests attention. He holds a burial cloth outstretched, as if he is ready to wrap up the two people, and his skeleton head almost seems to be smiling in grim anticipation, his gaping eye sockets almost seem slanted in what might be an amused expression.

Death has come into the world, and he is ready to snatch away his first victims.

Snatched Away by Death

Hans Thoma painted the previous artwork in 1897, which is a bit modern for religious art, all things considered. So I wondered: did any other earlier artist make this sort of connection in which death, personified by a skeleton, would snatch away Adam and Eve and represent it in a visual way?

The answer is: yes.

Check out this painting by Peter Paul Rubens:

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, by Peter Paul Rubens
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1620. National Gallery in Prague, Prague, Czech Republic.

This depicts, not the Fall, but what happens after the Fall. Namely, God curses them for eating the forbidden fruit and throws them out of the Garden of Eden. Then, God commands an angel with a flaming sword to guard the Garden, lest they try to sneak back in.

The bible describes this scene as such:

NABRE

Genesis 3

21The LORD God made for the man and his wife garments of skin, with which he clothed them. 22Then the LORD God said: See! The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil! Now, what if he also reaches out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life, and eats of it and lives forever? 23The LORD God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken. 24He expelled the man, stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life.

And so, you’ll see the angel with the flaming sword escorting them out.

But more interestingly, look who is welcoming them!

Death.

A skeleton that personifies Death comes and grabs them forcibly, dragging them out. For Eve, he drags her by her hair. For Adam, he grabs his arm, knocking him off-balanced. In fact, the entire picture seems to be a little off-balanced, as if we are watching from below and seeing them about to fall from a steep precipice in some sort of dizzying and nightmarish scene.

Made for Eternity

Death is a strange thing. Everybody dies. It should be the most normal thing in the world for us. And yet there is a horror whenever someone dies. It almost feels as if they were ripped away from us forcibly.

It’s as if we were made for eternity.

And so, when we view these images of Death, as depicted as a skeleton, we shudder internally. Because this is what we fear: to be snatched away and forcibly ripped away from our life and from everybody we love.

It is a terrifying thought!

And yet… we know that Jesus Christ has come and destroyed death.

Let me repeat: Jesus Christ has come and destroyed death.

And we know that if we believe in Him, love Him, and follow His commands that He will surround us in His love and let us share in the eternal life with God. This is what Jesus told us when He trod the earth. This is what the martyrs professed with their blood. And it is still true now.

May we learn to rely on Jesus Christ always as the true and ultimate source of life!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

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