- Made in God’s Image? Eve and Adam in the Genesis Mosaics at San Marco, Venice
Penny Howell Jolly provides an innovative, thoroughly convincing interpretation of a central work of medieval art, the atrium cupola at San Marco in Venice decorated with thirteenth-century Genesis mosaics. As if that were not enough for a slim book (the text fills only 88 pages), Jolly also provides a spectacular model of how close visual [End Page 106] attention to a narrative pictorial cycle can produce a rich, complex, and historically contextualized reading. Thus, this book should be read not only by specialists in thirteenth-century Italian art, but also by art historians interested in truly outstanding examples of the power of their discipline. Because Made in God’s Image? is both short and well written (I finished it in one sitting), it is also easily accessible to students.
The Genesis cupola at San Marco had previously attracted art-historical attention either as an exemplar of the combination of Western and Byzantine style in thirteenth- century Venice or because its mosaics are the best witnesses to the iconography of the almost completely destroyed late antique manuscript known as the Cotton Genesis, a manuscript that seems to have been the direct iconographic model for the mosaics. Style, at least as it has typically been understood by art historians, is of little concern to Jolly, and her iconographic interests are not on the mosaics as a guide to some earlier work of art, but rather as a Venetian creation of the 13th century. Jolly argues that the Genesis mosaics at San Marco provide a particular interpretation of the biblical story, one that consistently emphasizes the differences between man and woman, Adam and Eve, with the misogynistic goal of showing Eve’s physical, intellectual, and moral inferiority to Adam. These are not unusual medieval ideas, but Jolly convincingly argues that they are particularly strongly and consistently expressed at San Marco; the substance of that argument and the way in which it is made are the central contributions of Made in God’s Image?.
Contrary to most studies of the meaning of medieval art which, following Panofsky’s iconographic model, turn to texts as the primary source of evidence, Jolly works almost exclusively from the images themselves. Because the San Marco cupola devotes about thirty scenes to the events of the first three chapters of Genesis, Jolly has a dense pictorial narrative with which to work. She uses the density to great advantage, convincingly reconstructing the pictorial syntax used by the mosaicists to express subtle gradations of meaning. These mosaicists, like most medieval artists, favored the left side of the picture over the right; as Jolly explains, this stemmed both from the European tendency to read from left to right and because the left edge of the picture for the viewer is the right (non-sinister) side for the actors in the image. Other significant opposed pairs discovered by Jolly at San Marco and used by her to read the program include a preference for full-face over profile, straight figures over bent ones, and figures conforming to the left-to-right narrative sequence as opposed to those depicted retrograde. Jolly establishes these rules in the course of her analysis; taken together, they lead to a whole series of brilliant insights into the significance of the pictorial syntax at San Marco. These are far too numerous to list here; suffice to say that on virtually every page of chapters 2 through 5, which make up the bulk of the book, Jolly is able to draw meaning from the images and show how they serve to link Adam with God and to separate Eve from Adam. To cite one telling example: in the final scene of the Adam and Eve cycle, showing the first parents after their expulsion from Paradise, [End Page 107] Adam toils, working the earth with a mattock, while Eve sits enthroned...