Man and Woman, naked in the Garden of Eden, is an image that has spawned many artistic and sexual interpretations. Associate Professor of History Dallas Denery's exhibit "Genesis and its Interpreters," up this month in the Becker Gallery on the first floor of the Walker Art Museum, allows viewers to observe the ubiquity and persistence of these interpretations as well as their contemporary relevance.
The Becker Gallery provides a space for professors to co-curate an exhibit in conjunction with one of their classes. "Genesis and its Interpreters" was created in conjunction with Professor Denery's European history seminar "Creating the World," which examines the history of interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis. Professor Denery worked closely with Curatorial Intern Diana Tweet, and selected the works of art from both Bowdoin's own collection as well as private collections in order to explore and present his proposed idea.
The pieces in the exhibit are interpretations of Genesis stories produced from the 16th century to the present. The art focuses on the story of Adam and Eve, but the stories of Noah's Ark and Sodom and Gomorrah are also represented. Most of the art is religious and was created for religious audiences, according to Denery.
"It is mostly Christian art because these early stories in Genesis are pervasive throughout the New Testament," Denery said. "Jesus' mission is understood in terms of Adam and Eve."
The art in the exhibit represents a historically significant moment in Christian thought, according to Denery.
"The story of Adam and Eve marked the creation of everything bad: sin, death, labor pains. People couldn't go to heaven until they were cured of these. It's why Jesus had to come, it's why we are all thought of as sinners today," he said.
"These scriptures are holy and thus each word is a word of God and must be important," Denery said about the potency of Genesis as a historical text.
Even beyond Christian thought, the stories in the early chapters of Genesis are provocative because of their scale.
"God creates the world in all its goodness, Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, cursed, and forced to toil for their livelihoods. Many centuries later, of all the inhabitants of the Earth, only Noah, members of his family, and a collection of animals will survive a global flood. This is history on a grand and cosmic scale," Denery said.
Pondering these biblical stories pushes viewers to explore fundamental questions: Where did we come from? Why did this happen to us? Why is there evil?
It is the stark, basic storytelling of Genesis that allows a wealth of interpretations.
"The creation narrative in Genesis is open to a nearly limitless variety of interpretations," Denery said. "Its half-voiced hints and ambiguities, its contradictions and assertions, entice the reader to develop multiple readings, to uncover hidden secrets among its pages."
Although the grand scale of these tales seems somewhat daunting, Denery believes that Genesis is surprisingly accessible.
"The thing about Genesis is that these are huge epic stories about huge epic events that you think you couldn't wrap your head around," Denery said. "But in fact, at their core, they are about specific people. And this is a great source for art."
Partially, it is this specificity that allows biblical stories to lend themselves to artistic interpretation. Many of the pieces in th exhibit illustrate the views of several biblical interpreters such as John Milton, John Calvin, Saint Augustine, and contemporary R.A. Boulay, who asserts his belief that Adam and Eve were in fact homo-saurs, half ape-man, half-intelligent aliens. Other pieces proliferate their own artistic interpretations.
Although many of these interpretations hail from centuries ago, Denery explains that the exhibit is extremely pertinent to society today.
"Fundamentally, evolution and science are the biggest challenges to Genesis," he said. "Because who were Adam and Eve if evolution happened? The relation between science and religion, as well as the role of religion in society, are our biggest cultural controversies today. Each side is polarized and doesn't care about the other."
"Genesis and Its Interpreters" examines these issues as part of a larger colloquium hosted by Bowdoin entitled "Faith, Reason and Evolution." This colloquium features three public talks by scholars who explore a variety of topics including evolution and creationism, science and religion, reason and faith.
"Everybody has reason," Denery said. "The colloquium aspires to create a place where people can have discussion about their ideological differences. People will always disagree at some point, but they should have all the facts."
Art plays a particularly important role in bringing these facts to cultural and social attention.
"Art gives people a better sense of the cultural and moral questions at stake. It embodies what would otherwise be abstract stories and questions," Denery said.
"As people, we are always attracted to what is visual. It gives us a way of remembering," Denery said while looking at a Flemish print by Maarten de Vos that depicts Adam and Eve and a provocative woman-headed snake. "If you can remember this picture you can remember everything about the fall," Denery said.
"Genesis and Its Interpreters" will be on exhibit in the Becker Gallery until November 16.