Since Eve ate apples

“All human history attests
That happiness for man —
The hungry sinner —
Since Eve ate apples,
Much depends on dinner!”

Lord Byron
Don Juan (1823)

The depiction of food in art is telling. In travels to Europe, I’ve been taken by the prevalence of food in great artworks of religious history. Clearly, it’s more than incidental. How food is used says much about Western culture’s historic ambivalence toward eating, as well as food’s close association with the darker sides of human experience.

cranach_adameva_1528This image by the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder — a contemporary of the 16th century reformer Martin Luther — embodies what was then the obsession of theologians with sin and its origin. Pride, gluttony and lust were intertwined. While pride may have been at the heart of the fall in Eden, the temptations of gluttony and lust were understood as the most potent lures.

What’s more, it is Eve who entices the fickle Adam, as much with the fruit of her body as that which hangs from the tree. Note the roundness of the apple matching the contour of her breast. This is the classic image of the womanly temptress holding the fate of ‘mankind’ in her seductive hand.

There is much to critique in such attitudes to the female form and to the apple —much that informs dysfunctional theology to the present day: the church’s preoccupation with sexuality; the casting of women as temptresses who cannot be trusted; a spirituality shaped primarily by denial and renunciation.

The spirituality of religious orders that thrived  in the artist’s time understood bodily hungers as hindrances to devotion. In regard to sex, the devout were called to abstinence. In regard to food, a meagre diet was required, interspersed with periods of fasting. While much has changed in the last 500 years, so much stays the same. When it comes to our spirituality, we still struggle to reconcile images of abundance, feasting and sensuality with life at its most holy. Type ‘sin’ into Google, and the apple still glistens.

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