After mastering the woodcut, Dürer applied his talents to engraving and became what some would say an unparalleled exponent of this art. No finer example of the 107 engravings he produced exists than this, his 1504 masterpiece Adam and Eve, the only work to which he signed his name in full.
The engraving depicts the first two humans on Earth but it is not set in the Garden of Eden, rather the backdrop is a dark Germanic forest.
One of Dürer's main concerns when working on this gravure was to produce idealised proportions in the two human figures. These were inspired by classical Greek statues, for example the Apollo Belvedere and the Venus de' Medici.
He descibed using a ruler and compass during the construction of the Adam and Eve figures in order to get the metrics completely correct in line with the theory of perfect human geometry that he was developing. The ideal human form was a career long preoccupation for Dürer, indeed his oil painting completed three years later, also entitled Adam and Eve and depicting the two figures life-sized is considered one of the most magnificent of its type.
Another feature of Dürer's work is the symbolism it contains. It is interesting to note that a trial impression of the print shows that the background, including the parrot, snake and elk, was finished first; the figures of Adam and Eve were added later in the process.
The engraving is divided centrally by a tree trunk, with the nude - apart from leaves covering their private parts - figures of Adam and Eve either side of it in contrapossto positions, gazing towards each other. The trunk is that of a fig tree, representing the Tree of Knowledge. To the left of the composition, Adam's right hand holds a branch of a mountain ash, which signifies the Tree of Life.
There are eight animals in the scene. It is believed that four of these represent the four humours. In a theory prevalent at the time the engraving was produced it was believed that an individual's personality and health were governed by these humours, which ideally would be in equilibrium. These were meloncholic (the elk), phlegmatic (bull), sanguine (rabbit) and choleric (cat). All four of these creatures are depicted in placid poses, signifying a tranquil state of perfect equilibrium.
In the background there is a goat, traditionally a symbol for unbelieving and lust, perched precariously on a cliff edge. The parrot, perched on a branch above Adam, was often used as a symbol of the virgin birth and also represents wisdom. The mouse stands at Adam's feet, possibly a symbol of male weakness when confronted with woman - the cat is positioned lying with its tail between Eve's feet, facing the mouse.
Entwined around the fig tree is a snake, with what appears to be an apple in its mouth Eve also holds the apple in her fingertips. This can be interpreted as the snake giving the apple to Eve, but is also interpreted by some as the snake eating the apple. Either way the snake represents evil. The serpent's tail is fixed to the tree trunk by a bent over nail, a symbolism also seen in one of Dürer's earliest engravings, The Prodigal Son. There are four nails embedded in its head. There is a theory that the appearance of this snake is linked to the snake emblem that is on the coat of arms of Münzer.
Technically this is a sublime example of the engraver's art. The richness of texture that has been achieved and the depth of the engraved lines in the plate are testament to the artist's skill. Allied together, Dürer's upbringing in early printing technology and craft, his artistic bent, his thirst for knowledge of the techniques and theories of art and the research he carried out on his travels around Germany, Switzerland and particularly Italy culminated in this tour de force, the engraving of Adam and Eve.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.