For most of history, humans expressed ethical ideas through stories, and of all these the story of Adam and Eve has been perhaps the most powerful and enduring. For three millennia, in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds, people reasoned ethically through the seedpod of this—even to early audiences—unreasonable tale: the first man and woman, formed by God at the apex of the world’s creation, disobey their creator by eating a forbidden fruit, are punished by sickness, hardship, and death, and pass their curse to the future human species.
From the early Christian period onward, in countless thought-provoking forms, visual artists endeavored to picture this story. In doing so, they had to make certain practical decisions, each requiring reasoning about the unreasonable: for example, which moment in the story to show as the decisive one, and how to display innocent, paradisiacal nudity to a fallen audience stained by shame and lust. Designed for a course in “Ethical Reasoning” offered by Harvard College’s Program in General Education, this installation features works from the Harvard Art Museums and Houghton Library. It explores how artists from the Renaissance to the modern era met the challenges of a foundational story.