Evil woman? She-devil? Monster? A study on the cultural context of the snake with a woman’s head in the iconography of the Fall
Leeuwen, I.A. van
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This thesis will interpret the snake with a woman’s head in Western iconography of the Fall in its wider cultural context between the 12th and 17th century. During the 12th century this motif was introduced in the textual tradition and from the 13th century onwards it was incorporated in art. It quickly gained popularity and from the 14th century onwards this type of snake became more dominant in the visual tradition than its ‘naturalistic/dragonesque’ counterpart. Peter Comestor’s “similia similibus applaudunt,” from his Historia Scholastica libri Genesis (c. 1173) is often perceived as the main reason for the incorporation of the snake with a woman’s head in the iconography of the Fall. This would reduce the snake’s role merely to emphasise Eve’s gender. In this thesis I will show that this is just a part of the snake’s role, and that the iconography embodies much more. I examine the snake’s connection with Eve and the Fall, its theological, encyclopaedical and iconographical tradition, its possible link to the Jewish legends of Lilith and how it is related to the changing attitudes toward women. I will discuss that the textual tradition is not all-determining and that different cultural, visual and historical phenomena have influenced the snake with a woman’s head. It will strengthen the scholarly consensus that the snake should be interpreted as a misogynous motif and questions arguments against Lilith’s influence. I will also combine the snake itself, its encyclopaedical counterpart, the dracontopede, and the realm of the hybrid monsters. Within this thesis the importance of the viewers of the iconography is being stressed and the significance of their status and gender are being described. In other words, I will look at the snake with a woman’s head in the iconography of the Fall from a wider cultural context than has been done up until now.