Hendrik Goltzius was honored across Europe during his lifetime for his extraordinary abilities as a draftsman and printmaker. It wasn’t until about 1600 that he turned his talents to painting, drawing inspiration from the images of contemporaries such as Peter Paul Rubens.
In 1616, Goltzius painted this magnificent image of Adam and Eve reclining like mythological lovers in the Garden of Eden. Traditionally, images of the Fall emphasized shame, punishment, and the origins of humanity's mortality. Goltzius' emphasis on seduction through believably represented physical beauty was new in northern painting at the time. Eve, with her back to the viewer, has already taken the first bite of the apple and turns, with a knowing gaze, toward Adam. Mesmerized by his companion, Adam looks into her eyes with complete devotion. It is clear that they have encountered their first awakening of desire.
Several animals comment symbolically on the pair's relationship. The serpent's sweet female face is a visual statement on the deceptiveness of appearances. The elephant, in the distance to the right of Adam's hand, refers to the Christian virtues of piety, temperance, and chastity and represents a symbolic contrast to Adam's weakness of the flesh and infidelity to God. Goats, which are sometimes associated with Eve, signify a lack of chastity; Goltzius painted two goats. The cat looks out at the viewer expectantly, indicating that you are intended to judge and understand the consequences of succumbing to temptation. Through these symbolic references, Goltzius suggests that humanity's fall from grace was tied to Adam's and Eve's inability to restrain their physical appetites.
By re–creating the look of the real, visible world, Goltzius entices his viewer to become emotionally engaged in this biblical narrative. He placed the almost life–size figures of Adam and Eve so close to the front of the picture that they seem to occupy a space coexistent with our own. Details of flesh, hair, even grass and plants, are all painted in a bewitchingly believable fashion. Although no preparatory drawings survive, Goltzius must have worked from observation in combination with the classical Roman sources he also used for the figures’ poses. The result is an early instance of what would be called the baroque style, a naturalistic manner of representation that depends upon the viewer's empathetic response to fulfill its meaning.