Art, Beauty, and Complementarianism


The Genesis 2 narrative of Adam and Eve has been for centuries a popular muse for visual artists.

Maybe that’s because painters like to titillate, and the pre-Fall duo’s lack of clothing provides an artistic rationale to display the human body. Or maybe it’s because artists enjoy the subversive or the reinterpreted, and the Adam and Eve story, being one of the first pieces of human history, is ripe for deconstruction. For example, the theologically misinformed Hendrick Goltzius shows an Adam and Eve whose first sin against God was a sexual coupling, not eating the fruit forbidden to them. Likewise, Michaelangelo depicted Eve’s tempter as a half-woman, half-snake, an unscriptural anthropomorphization of the serpent.

But the primeval account of the first man and woman has, I think, served as a frequent inspiration for artists because we can see how the same characteristics attending the first man and woman—relationship with God, love, desire, sin—still indwell us today. Virtually all canvas renderings of Adam and Eve capture the anguishes of sin now embedded in all men: guilt, curse, regret, banishment, judgment. Examine this work by the painter Domenichino: God’s obvious displeasure with Adam leads him to shovel blame onto Eve. Eve, in turn, points to the serpent lying on the ground. Aren’t we just as quick to distribute our guilt when the Spirit convicts us of our sin?

Adam and Eve as the archetype of sinful man is well-documented in art. But absent from the aesthetic record is their embodiment of the complementarian model which God has instituted. Where is the painting that isolates the fulfillment of Adam’s desire for a helpmate, as expressed in Gen. 2:23’s resounding “At last!”? What about a scene (admittedly hypothetical) of post-fall Adam grateful for Eve, his helpmate, rubbing his sore feet after a day of hunting, or Eve rejoicing in how her husband provided for her as he displays the day’s kill?

Some might suggest that art which does not challenge a traditional narrative is boring. But Christians should maintain that these missing scenes of Adam and Eve are more worthy of a visual rendering than so many bleak portraits of the Fall. A pictorial recapturing of the first man and woman faithfully conforming to their God-authored roles as husband and wife displays God’s original plan for mankind. And this plan itself is beautiful and worthy of attention if only for its divine provenance. Fixing our focus on the good in God’s original design, and subsequently praising him for it, is untold orders of magnitude more wonderful than dwelling on the rupture of Paradise.

But this concentration ought not only be expressed in art. We must also cultivate in our hearts a reverence for God’s complementarian schematic. Here are some ways to do it:

1. Remember that complementarianism is from God.

In our time it is fashionable, even for Christians, to scoff at the biblical arrangement of a man leading his wife and his wife submitting to her husband. First, the word “submission” does not have a nice connotation. When I hear the word I think of the finishing moves of wrestlers like Bret Hart and Ric Flair, moves which my brother and I mercilessly used to perform on each other as kids. They were painful, and their great object was to induce “submission,” a term of art that expressed the victim’s surrender.

Secondly, our own hearts are perpetually in rebellion to the authorities appointed over us, and the culture reverberates with notions of gender identity that oppose God’s authorship. But God’s understanding is unsearchable, writes Isaiah (40:29), and his wisdom makes foolish the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 1: 20). God’s ways are often inscrutable, but as Psalm 18:30 makes clear, God’s Word will ultimately prove to be flawless: “This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true.”

2. Consider that complementarianism points to the unity of Jesus and God the Father. 

A husband and wife’s mutual conformity to biblical ideas of headship and submission is beautiful because it reflects a unity of being found in Jesus’ relationship to God the Father. In John 6:38, Jesus states his mission: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” We should also remember Jesus’ pre-crucifixion cry: “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

Without God the Father sacrificially offering up his Son, and without the Son submitting to God the Father, we would have all perished in our sin. Fortunately, both fulfilled their appointed roles: God “made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (1 Cor. 5:21), and Jesus “humbled himself by being obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8). In many ways, we will never fully grasp the architecture of the atonement. But it is worth considering that it was not possible without submission—and leadership.

3. Remember that complementarianism depicts the union of Christ and the church. 

Lastly, the biblical idea of complementarianism is beautiful because it prefigures a Christian’s great hope: his eternal, indivisible union with Christ. From Adam and Eve, to Ruth and Boaz, to Paul’s theological description of husband and wife in Ephesians 5, the Bible’s treatment of husband and wife points toward a greater idea of spiritual fulfillment: Christ as the head of the Church, redeemer of the wicked, the broken, and the needy—“Love to the loveless shown,” as the hymn goes, “that they might lovely be.” In the same way, the wife’s (often difficult) submissive reverence for her husband images how members of Christ’s body forego their own desires out of sheer love and obedience, not self-interest.

In fact, some of the artistic renderings of the Garden do offer a flash of the glory of the complementarity of the man and the woman. Quite poignant, for instance, are the paintings which capture the sublime entwinements of flesh and gaze which a husband and wife enjoy in the height of physical intimacy. Adam’s physical embrace of Eve in so many works exalts an a supremely intimate, God-designed arrangement between the two that foreshadows the experience the church will enjoy on that day of perfect unification with Christ. On that day, we the bride of Christ, seeing Jesus face to face, will too exclaim, “At last!”


DW is a writer in Washington, D. C.

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