The ample fig leaf served our artistic forefathers well as a botanical shield against indecent exposure for Adam and Eve, our naked parents in the primeval bliss and innocence of Eden. Yet, in many ancient paintings, foliage hides more than Adam’s genitalia; a wandering vine covers his navel as well. If modesty enjoined the genital shroud, a very different motive – mystery – placed a plant over his belly. In a theological debate more portentous than the old argument about angels on pinheads, many earnest people of faith had wondered whether Adam had a navel.
He was, after all, not born of a woman and required no remnant of his nonexistent umbilical cord. Yet, in creating a prototype, would not God make his first man like all the rest to follow? Would God, in other words, not create with the appearance of pre-existence? The issue was surely vexatious; in the absence of definite guidance, and not wishing to incur anyone’s wrath, many painters literally hedged and covered Adam’s belly.
A few centuries later, when the nascent science of geology was gathering evidence for the earth’s enormous antiquity, some advocates of biblical literalism revived this old argument for our entire planet. The strata and their entombed fossils surely seem to represent a sequential record of countless years, but would not God create his earth with the appearance of pre-existence? Why should we not believe that he created strata and fossils to give modern life a harmonious order by granting it a sensible (if illusory) past? As God provided Adam with a navel to stress continuity with future men, so too did he endow a pristine world with the appearance of an ordered history. Thus, the earth might be but a few thousand years old, as Genesis literally affirmed, and still record an apparent tale of untold aeons.