The depiction of the forbidden fruit
Year mention: 1617
Adam ; Forbidden fruit
Open doctrinal issues

There is no certainty on how the forbidden fruit that Adam ate actually looked like. One tradition claims it was a fig tree, but this is ignored by others and many choose to depict the fruit as an apple. However, by so doing they do not wish to make any claims about what the fruit must have looked like and the choice for the apple generally follows from the wish to use a more commonly known fruit. Therefore it means nothing more than that the fruit Adam ate, was beautiful and pleasant. This constitutes no dangerous error and should thus be tolerated

Molanus, Johannes
Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem - Temptation and Fall, 1592
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,

In chapter 30 of book 2, Molanus examines a further matter regarding errors and whether they are dangerous errors and how to deal with them; this discussion goes on in the following chapter. The central position in this chapter is taken by errors that are not real errors even though they do not correspond to the Scriptures or the teachings of the Church. The problem lays often in the fact that there is no certainty in the Scriptures about the matter nor a univocal position among the commentators. The cases presented by Molanus in this and the following chapter are also often relatively popular depictions among the popular devotees, which requires an even more careful stance from the authorities. For Molanus in these cases, the most important aspect to consider is whether these errors still can be probable, because if so, he does not see a strong motive to adjust or abolish them.
The second case presented in this chapter is the question of how the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam from the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil should be depicted. Molanus explains that despite several commentators agreeing Adam probably ate a fig from the tree in the Garden of Eden, the depiction of an apple in paintings is no less probable. Since they are equally uncertain, more important, according to Molanus, is the figurative meaning of the fruit, namely that it was beautiful and pleasant, therefore painters can depict the more common apple, which does not contain any dogmatic statement by the artist since the fruit only represents a category.

“There is no certainty about the type of fruit that Adam, the first parent of all, ate. In a letter, Isidore of Peluse said that, according to the tradition of our ancestors, the tree of Adam’s transgression was a fig tree. Gennadius and Theodoret, quoted by Aloysius in the chain, think so too. However, as others ignore this tradition, they prefer, with no less probability, to hang a beautiful apple on the tree of good and evil in their painting. Not that they wish to argue that this is the kind of fruit Adam ate, but because it is equally uncertain whether he ate a fig; so they prefer to paint a more pleasant and common fruit and a more general type rather than a species. Consequently, they mean nothing else than that Adam ate the fruit of a tree, which, according to the most probable of our conjectures was beautiful and pleasant, whether apple or fig.” 

“Adam primus omnium parens qualem fructum ligni comederit non est certum. Isidorus Pelusiota dicit in epistola: ‘A maioribus nostris nobis traditum est arborem transgressionis Adami ficum fuisse.’ Idemque Gennadius et Theodoretus ab Aloysio in catena citati. Verum cum alii istam traditionem ignorent, malunt non minori probabilitate pulchram malum appingere arbori scientiae boni et mali. Non quod afferre velint huiusmodi fuisse fructum de quo comedit Adam sed quia aeque incertum est an ficum comederit, ideo malunt appingere fructum et delectabiliorum et comuniorem, ac in genere magis quam in specie. Ut nihil aliud significare velint, quam quod Adam comederit de fructu ligni qui secundum probabiliorem nobis coniecuram fuit pulchrum et delectabile pomum vel malum.”

Model to follow

Isidore of Peluse Gennade Theodret Aloysius

Adam, apple, fig, Forbidden fruit, Garden of Eden, tree of knowledge of good and evil

Date mention

Historical Location

Iconclass Number

Molanus, De historia sanctarum imaginum et picturarum (1617), book 2, ch. 30, 113

Molanus 1996, 211.

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