Ancient Mediterranean

Temptation of Adam and Eve, ca. 6th century
North Africa
Molded earthenware
9 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches
Harlan E. Moore Charitable Trust 1986-38-1

Terracotta plaques such as this one were a common element of early Christian church decoration in North Africa. Major find sites include Tunisia and Algeria, but examples have also been unearthed in southern Spain, France, and the Balkans. While production of the tiles seems to have peaked in the sixth and seventh centuries, they were produced in smaller quantities at earlier dates as well. Made from molds, they were relatively easy and inexpensive to manufacture, which may account, in part, for their popularity and the abundance of examples recovered. Despite their proliferation, they have yet to be thoroughly studied. The images depicted on the plaques most often reflect Greco-Roman mythological and allegorical themes, Christian subjects—whether popular early Christian stories or the figures of Jesus, his mother Mary, and saints—and decorative vegetal or animal motifs. Such tiles would have decorated the walls or ceiling of a church, complementing mosaic, marble, and painted decoration.

This plaque shows an abstracted representation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a common subject in early Christian art. The figures stand on either side of a tree with a serpent wrapped around the trunk. Two columns frame the composition and decorative zigzags of red ochre pigment appear throughout the panel. Literally, the image represents the biblical Old Testament account of mankind's expulsion from Paradise and, as such, would have conveyed a moral message to the early Christian viewer. Symbolically, the image signifies the concept of mankind's salvation through the martyrdom of Christ. Embedded in this salvation imagery is the notion that the Old Testament was superseded by the New, embodied for the community of believers in the belief that access to Paradise, lost by Adam and Eve, was regained through Christ's crucifixion.

Text by Christine Zitrides, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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