Sin: The National Gallery, London, October 3, 2020-January 3, 2021
By Sara Schumacher
To stage an exhibition on the subject of Sin is a brave thing to do. The first of its kind for the National Gallery in London and shown in the middle of a pandemic sandwiched between and within national lockdowns, this exhibition did what I think art has the capacity to do best: to tell a story but in a way that extends beyond it, thus acting as a powerful text of theology.
Walking around the exhibition, one of the first works you encounter is Jan Brueghel the Elder’s The Garden of Eden . Set in the beginning of Genesis, the painting tells a story of harmony, paradise before Sin entered the world. Most of the painting is composed of paired animals living in peace alongside each other. There’s a loveliness and delight about the work that is not sentimental; instead, it’s a glimpse of a deep longing, made more acute by the chaos that swirls and rages outside the gallery walls.
But the work doesn’t allow the viewer to remain passive. After one’s eyes adjust to the detail, the composition draws the viewer up the stream in the foreground, through the white highlights of the horse, and settles the viewer’s attention on activity happening in the background.
Two tiny figures, presumably Adam and Eve, are framed by the animals and bathed in a pool of light. The serpent is coming out of the tree and almost seems to be pushing the fruit toward the figures. Eve, with her face turned toward Adam, lifts her hand up to the tree but has yet to pluck the fruit. Genesis 3 is in motion but compared to Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve, also in the exhibition, Brueghel has captured the moment right before Sin entered the world, thus imbuing the painting with tension.
Those of us who have read ahead know the fruit will be picked and consumed, initiating the Fall and the loss of what we see in the foreground. For that, repentance is the appropriate response. But the painting gives us the opportunity to imagine an alternative: what if Paradise had not been lost? And while this question can only be a thought exercise, as it sparks our imagination, it ignites our desire for the renewal of heaven and earth that Christ’s redemption makes possible and to which the animals in the foreground also foreshadow (see Isaiah 11).
Finally, for those who linger with the work, this redemption is already present in the painting, alluded to in a subtle and deeply theological way. To see this, the viewer must return to the clearing where the act of Sin is about to happen. About this moment, the curator comments in the catalogue: “Of all the creatures, only the sheep looking up seems to notice what is going on.” And while the curator leaves the commentary there, surely there’s more to be seen. Might we cry out with John the Baptist: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)?
At the genesis of Sin’s entry into the world, we find in Brueghel’s work the promise of humanity’s redemption. We find the Gospel, which remains with us now as we long, more than ever, for the restoration of all things.
Dr. Sara Schumacher is director of education and tutor and lecturer in theology and the arts at St Mellitus College, London