Expanding Eden: Animal discovery and rethinking paradise in Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Garden of Eden

Published in Eden and Everything After, ed. Jean Marie Carey and Kristin Armstrong-Oma, 63-66 (University of Stavanger Museum of Archeology, 2023).

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) painted one of the earliest European representations of guinea pigs in his work Garden of Eden (1613). In Brueghel’s creation, newly discovered animals from early explorations of the Americas, including the guinea pig, turkey, and scarlet macaw, are included alongside animals known from Africa, Asia, and Europe. The theme of the work—a depiction of Paradise as described in the Bible—was a common one, but in his vision of paradise, Adam and Eve discussing the apple are overshadowed by pairs of animals representing God’s creation. Brueghel’s painting offers a vision of an Eden which had to be rethought in light of new discoveries: the painter—as well as contemporary naturalists—had to expand their catalog of paradise’s inhabitants. 

This moment of expansion would later be disrupted by contraction, as naturalists in the 18th century grappled with and finally accepted extinction as a possibility. We have documented over 800 named species as becoming extinct in the modern era, although the actual numbers of lost are orders of magnitude higher because in most cases we haven’t even identified something as a species before it becomes extinct. At the same time, new species continued to be found and described by scientists. Approximately 15,000 new species are described annually under the Linnean system. The new forces—expansion of biodiversity through discovery of new species and contraction of biodiversity through loss of extinct species—continue to operate in tandem, forcing a continual reexamination of Eden and what is in it.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Garden of Eden (1613), in Thyssen-Bornemisza Museo Nacional, Madrid

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