March 21st 2020

“The Death of Adam” from “The Legend of the True Cross”, Piero della Francesca, Church of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy.  Baccio di Magio,  a wealthy merchant from Arezzo died in 1417 and left money for the decoration of the chapel in the Franciscan Church where he was to be buried (see above).  However, for various reasons the decoration did not begin until the 1440’s.  There was another delay when the first artist died in the early 1450’s. Eventually the commission was given to Piero della Francesca and it is likely that he began working began in 1457.  Piero drew on the stories about the true cross which are found  in The Golden Legend (c.1260) by Jacopo da Varagine. Taken together, these yield an overarching narrative about the wood of the cross which begins with the death of Adam and ends in the 7th Century.  In other words, in this funerary chapel, Piero presents us with a narrative which places the cross at the very centre of human history.  Moreover, it is the story, not just of the cross, but of the actual wood from which the cross was made, which Piero sets out in this cycle of frescos.

You can look at high resolution images of these frescos at In this article, I want to look at the first scene  which tells of the death of Adam. The diagram below shows its position high up on the righthand side of the chapel (marked ADAM). In the Book of Genesis,  Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel, but Cain kills Abel and then flees.  After this they have another son called Seth.   In Chapter 5 of Genesis  we are told that Adam was 130 years old when Seth was born and that he died 800 years later.   On the righthand side of this composite image,  Adam is shown as he is dying.  He is surrounded by his family.   On the far right Eve stands by his side.  She is now an old woman (930 years old).  The three other figures are Seth,  who according to Genesis was by then 800 years old, his son and a daughter, who both young adults.  Here is a family facing the death of a husband, a father and a grandfather as did the Baci family in 1417.   Adam and Eve already knew death. The lost their son Abel.  But his murder took place before Seth was born so these these two succeeding generations have no direct experience of death.  These days people don’t think of Adam and Eve as real people, but i would wager that Piero and his contemporaries may well have done so.  Indeed the significance of this moment should not escape us. Certainly, it resonates with me.  Here youth and old age are shown side by side.  three generations are held together by the bonds of family.  This is like a family funeral today, one of the few times you see the different generations together. Seth is middle aged man, shown with white hair.  But there is plenty of it and we can see from his bare chest that he is still in good shape!  On the left hand of the fresco Adam has died and is laid out on the bare earth.  A central part of the fresco has been lost, but you can see someone leaning over his dead body.   This is Adam’s son Seth.  He is planting a twig in Adam’s mouth.  When Adam began to die, Seth had gone back to the gates of Paradise to ask the Archangel Michael for  some “oil of mercy” so that Adam might go on living. The angel refused him but did give him a branch from the Tree of Knowledge and told him to plant it in Adam’s body. You can see them in the distance. A great tree overarches the whole scene.  Piero positions the dead Adam’s foot in front of the tree’s base in order for us to understand that this is the tree which grew out of Adam’s mouth.  It is from this tree that the cross will be made, but I am jumping ahead.  You will notice that Piero is not really concerned about chronology.   His concern is to speak directly to our human condition.  Original sin brought death to Adam and his descendants, but the sacrifice of Christ on the cross overcomes original sin and death and brings life to Adam and his descendants.  Understood as as the wood of the cross, the great overarching tree contains within it the remedy for the human predicament.  It offers us both shelter and protection. There is a younger couple on the far left. Some commentators say that these are Adam and Eve as they once were when they were young and innocent in Paradise.  If you look closely (online) you can see that the young woman who faces outwards bears a strong resemblance to the daughter of Seth on the far right. Notice too how one woman stenches out her arms in a dramatic expression of grief.  It reminds me of the young woman in Caravaggio’s “The Entombment”.  Perhaps in his depiction of grief at the death of Christ, Caravaggio was quoting this very fresco wherein Adam is mourned by his family.  This youthful couple, whoever they are, are certainly meant to frame the entire fresco along with the aged Adam and Eve on the right.  Very little is known about the life of Piero della Francesca or about his personality.  Records reveal something of his movements around Italy but show little that would reveal the significance of the many details detail he includes in his paintings.  However, this lends them a aura of mystery as you feel that nothing here is random. Each detail is charged with meaning, however elusive that meaning might now be.  And yet, this depiction of the funeral of first human being speaks to our own experiences of loss and grief.  In it we see the shape of our own lives. We can identify with Seth as he pleads with the angel and, later,  as he does what must be done for Adam and his descendants. see a new generation come into being. We see Adam age and to die.  We recognise in this family the bonds that unite us and endure. We see it physically in the family resemblances. We see it too on faces and in gesture which express strong emotion.  It is as if for  just a moment the world stood still high up on the chapel wall,  and we can sense the deeper narrative.  The deeper narrative, which is that of the cross on which hung the Saviour of the world, is there to be seen in these primeval events. We see the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection for us all as we go through life. His arms spread lovingly above us on the cross are foreshadowed by the outstretched arms of the great tree in this fresco.  We usually think of the cross as the place of suffering, but here it is seen as a sheltering tree offering us protection and the fullness of life.   More to come! 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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