Artefact of the Month

Embroidery Depicting Adam and Eve

December, 2015.


The Old Testament story of the first man and woman has been an important theme for the pictorial arts since early Christian times. During the Middle Ages, theologians - citing Saint Paul's assertion that "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" - connected the Old and New Testament stories, interpreting Jesus' death on the cross as an act that liberated humanity from the fatal sin of Adam and Eve, and his resurrection as bringing the promise of eternal life. In elite art, this relationship was communicated through a series of symbols taken from apocryphal writings, the Garden of Eden's "tree of knowledge of good and evil" or untouchable "tree of life" becoming the "tree" upon which Christ was crucified. It was by this process that ecclesiastical art came to incorporate certain now-familiar motifs, including the skulls that feature at the base of the cross in ecclesiastical paintings, and the scenes and symbols - the temptation of Adam and Eve, the annunciation, the crucifixion, the banner-bearing Agnus Dei, birds of paradise, and the tree of life - used to adorn textiles such as the Upper Hungarian altar frontal. Displays of the redemption story on textiles helped illiterate members of the congregation to better understand the Biblical message and keep it fresh in the minds of the faithful. In European folk art, such complex depictions were rare, and renderings were usually limited to the Fall as the part of the story bearing the greatest meaning. That compositions similar to this one - a snake coiled about the forbidden tree with Adam and Eve standing to either side - are found throughout Europe suggests the existence of common antetypes.

n Hungary, the folk ornamentation of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries favoured plant and flower motifs, while depictions of humans were relatively rare, with only a very few images of the first couple having survived into modernity. Here, the story of the Fall was most frequently depicted by guild craftsmen who worked in the public arena (such as gingerbread bakers or the painted furniture makers who decorated the ceilings of wooden churches). The theme is also seen on the "genteel" embroidery produced by - or under the direction of - brides, with particular reference to items offered to churches as decorative pieces.

The textile featured as December's artefact-of-the-month, which came to the museum sans identifying information, offers a good representation of the manner in which the Adam and Eve motif appears in Hungarian peasant craftsmanship. An eerily similar pattern adorns a decorative sheet discovered in the Csallóköz village of Csicsó by ethnographer Edit Fél. According to Fél's research, this latter piece was produced during the second half of the 18th century by Julianna Fél, a lame spinster and self-proclaimed orphan who earned her living as a seamstress and had learned a number of unusual patterns at the nearby Zichy estate from a similarly lame, unmarried countess. The end-piece shown here was almost certainly produced by the same woman. Because the theme of the Fall involves such a complex array of meanings, it turns up in the widest variety of peasant art forms, including both physical and intellectual genres. In one unusual example from the museum's inventory, a scene depicting the Biblical story adorns the brass knob of a magistrate's stick as a symbol of God's first judgement. As Adam and Eve also stood for the concepts of love and family, their figures were frequently applied to the gingerbread biscuits produced as gifts of courtship. A popular turn of phrase recited by groomsmen at weddings also made reference to the first couple. Though the book of Genesis does not actually describe the Forbidden Tree, it was originally thought to be a fig - or, later, an apple. As both ancient mythology, and the Song of Songs held the latter as a symbol of love and fertility, it was frequently seen on gifts of courtship, mementoes of engagement, and objects associated with the wedding feast.

Because the symbol for the Fall featured elements of both life, and death, its use on a sheet in a bride's trousseau rendered the piece suitable for wedding, childbed, and funeral, alike. Prints and glass paintings of the Fall were hung in lieu of icons in the homes of Hungarian Reformed (Calvinist) families to remind the inhabitants of original sin and encourage virtue.

December 24, Christmas Eve, is the feast day of Adam and Eve, its position immediately preceding the day that celebrates the birth of the Saviour manifestly connecting the Fall to the Redemption. It is for this reason that in Hungary, preparations for the holiday season have traditionally featured apples, gold-painted walnuts, gingerbread, candles heralding the coming of the light, and - before the advent of Christmas trees - green branches decorated with ribbons coiled like snakes. In Kaposkeresztúr, the holidays came with loaves of egg bread baked to resemble the figures of Adam and Eve. In some places, the feast day of Adam and Eve was celebrated with a "paradise play" that recalled the mystery plays of medieval times. On occasion, the pair were even immortalised in traditional Christmas recitations:

Let us give thanks to our Lord and Father that we have lived to see this glorious, holy day, the day of Adam and Eve. May the Lord God our Father grant that we continue to meet this day in good strength and health, with God's blessing, and in peace.


Edit Katona

Counted-thread and cross-stitch embroidered sheet edging
Komárom County

late 18th century
Inv. no.: 51.14.635

Gingerbread biscuit stamp
Szeged, Csongrád County
Inv. no.: 71498





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