To picture the world, or to tell a story about it, is already to imagine yourself apart from it. That might partly explain why the biblical subjects of the creation of the world and the expulsion from paradise can feel so primal. It’s almost as if the two things — representing the world and being expelled from it — go hand in hand.
Still, it’s rare for them to be depicted together, as they are in this remarkable picture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by the 15th-century Sienese painter Giovanni di Paolo (c. 1403-1482). Painted in 1445 in egg tempera and gold, this wooden panel was once part of an altarpiece — known as the Guelfi altarpiece — the main part of which is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. (Another panel, “Paradise,” is also at the Met.)
Supported by a flight of blue seraphim, God presides over an image of the entire world, which the artist has abstracted into concentric circles. These surround a rendering of the earth as a mountainous, brown and green landscape crisscrossed by rivers.
Giovanni di Paolo’s striking, concentric vision of the world was likely inspired by Dante Alighieri. Just a few years earlier, the artist had made 61 images to illuminate a copy of the “Paradiso,” the third book in the great poet’s “Divine Comedy.” So he was familiar with Dante’s complex metaphysical schema.
But Dante wasn’t the first to imagine the world as concentric rings. The vision has Greek prototypes, which were later merged with the Bible. Here, the inner rings represent the other three elements (air, water and fire). Then come the orbiting planets. And finally, a band sprinkled with constellations of stars represents the zodiac.
Scholars have argued over whether God’s extended hand is setting the world in motion — thereby firing up the whole narrative engine leading from Adam and Eve’s expulsion to Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice — or if it is pointing at the hostile-looking Earth to which Adam and Eve are being exiled.
Each interpretation is wrapped in theological speculations that get increasingly complex. But perhaps they needn’t detain us. We might simply marvel, instead, at the astonishing vision on the right, where lush green trees bearing oranges are set against a dazzlingly blue sky and where, beneath the trees’ twisting trunks, the willowy figures of Adam and Eve are forcefully ushered from a garden rich in flowering plants.
The usher is the Archangel Michael, who is winged but naked like them (perhaps to convey sympathy with their human plight, or to foreshadow Christ’s incarnation). Eve looks sorrowful. Adam’s expression, as his head turns back toward all he is losing, is focused, dismayed, unable to comprehend. His wavy blond hair is blown back as if by the wind of rejection.
If humans had not been rejected from Paradise, would there be any need for art? Other animals seem to get by without it. Where they exist in the world in a state of immanence — in the same way that water exists within water — humans seem always to be lifting themselves out of life’s flux, abstracting and objectifying reality, the better to command it. For what deeper reason, I wonder? Is it our thirst for transcendence? Our fear of death? Or is art just a sad, exquisite symptom of our monstrously overdeveloped brains?