Text by Geoffrey Smith
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This extraordinary panel depicts the two central themes of the book of Genesis – the Creation and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It originally formed part of a predella for an altarpiece which was situated in the church of San Domenico in Siena, as did Giovanni’s representation of Paradise also in the Metropolitan collection.
The left half of the painting shows God creating the universe – a fascinating representation of the medieval view of celestial space. The Earth is shown as a ‘mappomondo’ in the centre of concentric circular bands which represent various layers within the medieval conception of the cosmos. The rocky and barren Earth is surrounded by the blue-green of the oceans, then a ring of fire, a blue stratum of air, a layer representing the movement of the planets around the Earth, including the Sun, and eventually an outer skin containing the stars symbolised by the signs of the Zodiac.
Within the ether, outside this construct, God is piloted through the heavens by a squadron of azure cherubim in close formation. Golden rays emanate from His halo, a visual reference to the power of His will. His gaze is directed towards the events taking place in the other part of the composition as His right hand penetrates the circular cosmos pointing at the arid Earth and indicating that this is the destination of Adam and Eve, after their fall from grace.
To the right of the mesmeric roundel we see the moment of the expulsion as an (unusually naked) angel physically thrusts Adam from the scene. This is taking place against a verdant backdrop of serried trees bearing golden apples and a lush meadow supporting an abundance of flowers and small, unthreatening animals. Beneath this grassy sward the four rivers of Paradise issue forth, ultimately finding their way to the four geographical directions, symbolising according to John Pope-Hennessy, ‘the four virtues by which man will eventually be saved, and, thence the Four Gospels, announcing this salvation to Christendom.’ This message is given further emphasis by the presence of strawberries and lilies, symbolic attributes of the Virgin Mary, seen as the second Eve, heralding salvation through the sacrifice of her son.
This picture was probably completed about 1445 – at a time when artists such as Domenico Veneziano, Andrea del Castagno and Piero della Francesca, working in Florence and Tuscany, had mastered the mysteries of perspective, and the representation of volume and space (and a full 20 years after Masaccio had completed his illusionistic fresco of the Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence). A glimpse at the map will confirm that Florence and Siena are close neighbours, and yet Giovanni seems either to have been oblivious to these developments or to have ignored them, preferring instead to work in the tradition of earlier Sienese masters.
However, influences from outside the city walls of Siena did make themselves felt in the form of a polyptych painted by the great Gentile da Fabriano for the Sienese guild of notaries in 1425. Gentile, a contemporary of Masaccio, was a master of the florid late gothic style which has come to be known as International Gothic and which is characterised by elegant and flowing drapery and the realistic depiction of detail. This style flourished at the same time as Masaccio and others were forging a new art. In this painting we can see that Giovanni has melded this late gothic approach (note the sinuous, slightly elongated bodies and the detailed representation of flowers and animals in the expulsion) with the conservative traditions of Sienese art to produce a work of great power and vitality.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1440–45 Rogier van der Weyden: Triptych of the Seven Sacraments, Antwerp, Kroninklijk Museum
1440–45 Jean Fouquet: The Court Jester Gonella, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
1446 Petrus Christus: Portrait of a Carthusian, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art