Adam and the fig leaf: An uncomfortable wardrobe choice

Tintoretto’s 1550 painting of Adam and Eve depicts man’s first parents falling to the temptation of original sin. After the fall, Adam and Eve wore fig leaves to cover themselves, a clothing choice with many layers of meaning.

Tintoretto’s 1550 painting of Adam and Eve depicts man’s first parents falling to the temptation of original sin. After the fall, Adam and Eve wore fig leaves to cover themselves, a clothing choice with many layers of meaning.

We’re all familiar with the story of the fall of Adam and Eve; how they followed the temptation of the Serpent and ate the fruit. As a result, Genesis 3:7 says, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” And you know the rest of the story. But did you ever wonder why our first parents chose to make garments of fig leafs?

The first reason was so that they could hide their nakedness before God. The early Church fathers saw that Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God was a type of spiritual adultery, and because Original Sin is passed down through natural generation, they wanted to cover these areas of the body in shame. But why fig leafs?

Were fig leaves were the first thing they could find that could be sewn into clothing? Possibly. But there might be a second reason that has escaped our notice. We don’t live in a part of the world where fig trees commonly grow. According to Balfour’s Plants in the Bible, “The (fig) tree is a native of the East, and has been transported into Europe. It is grown in the south of Europe, including Greece and Italy; and in Northern and Western Africa. A wild type is known in Italy by the name of Caprifico.” You normally don’t see fig trees growing in the northern Midwest, so chances are you don’t know much about them.

Fig trees are not very user-friendly. They contain an enzyme call “ficin,” which, when touched, can cause severe skin irritation. If you’d like to see how gruesome fig tree rashes can get, jump on your favorite search engine and type “fig tree rash.” Trust me. These rashes are not pretty.

What’s fascinating is that our first parents, after they had sinned, decided to cover themselves with these itchy, irritating leaves. Why?

The early Church fathers, who knew fig trees very well, saw that this new clothing had some spiritual significance. For example, St. Augustine understood these itchy coverings to signify the “irritations of lust to which he had been reduced by sinning.” In other words, just as these leaves cause irritation to force us to scratch, they signify how the irritation of lust beckons us to sin.

Another, similar way to look at the fig leaf clothes is to see them as penitential garb. It has long been a custom within the Church for those who are called to such acts to wear clothing that is uncomfortable as an act of penance. For example, Scripture speaks of people being clothed in sackcloth (Genesis 37:34, 2 Samuel 3:31, and Esther 4:1). This rough clothing is uncomfortable and itchy. It’s possible that Adam and Eve didn’t make their first clothes out of fig leaves by accident; they may have not only wished to cover their nakedness, but to repent of what they did.

In Genesis 3:21, God gives Adam and Eve a new pair of clothes: animal skins. These skins may not have been quite as bad as the fig leaves, but according to St. Ambrose, these animal skins were penitential as well: “God cast Adam out of Paradise immediately after his fault; there was no delay. At once the fallen were severed from all their enjoyments that they might do penance; at once God clothed them with garments of skins, not of silk.”

It’s amazing how a little detail like fig leaves can add another level of meaning to a familiar story. It just goes to show that there is often a reward for those who are willing to dig a little “Behind the Bible.”


 Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.