Johann König, Adam and Eve in Paradise. German, c. 1629. FM: PD.63-1974. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

According to the tale told in Genesis, human life began in a garden, and to some extent all Renaissance gardens might be thought of as approximations or pale imitations of the Garden of Eden: attempts to regain the paradise on earth which God created for human beings, and from which He subsequently banished us.

If gardens are earthly paradises, however, they also contain their serpents. The story of Adam and Eve created a profound but unsettling association between the lush, fruitful fertility of the natural world, voluptuous desire, and a greedy, sinful desire for excessive knowledge. In this painting by Johann König, the fallen Eve places a lush round fruit in Adam’s outstretched hands while the animals watch attentively. Overhead, clouds loom ominously, perhaps presaging the beginnings of the very first thunderstorm, as mankind stands poised on the brink of a catastrophic error.