A Painting of Eve as a Brown Woman Brought Me Back to My Faith
When I looked at her, I simultaneously saw divinity, and myself.
I was visiting the Museo de Malaga alone, while my companions spent the afternoon shopping in the southern Spanish town square. I wasn’t even there for the art—I was there for the historical exhibits, and wandered into the art wing largely out of boredom.
The Ten CommandmentsThe Passion of the Christ
I saw it even from a young age, in children’s movies like Aladdin, a movie I adored because Jasmine was the first princess I saw who looked like me. Jasmine, who is captured as a sex slave and then uses her sexuality to defeat the villain.
Arab as terrorist. Arab as exotic. Eve as demon. Eve as gullible.
But in this Eve, my Eve, I saw a brown woman as whole, as human. When I looked at her, I simultaneously saw divinity, and myself.
These are the sort of ideas my Sunday School teachers would have smacked me for voicing. God, an all-knowing, all-powerful being, needed to be a white man, logically. I slowly became less engaged with the church as I grew up, less interested in the idea of this white Jesus, who told people who they could and couldn’t love and demanded that parishioners give money each week. By the time I left for college, I completely fell out of love with the idea of religion at all.
It was a sharp turn from where I’d been just a few years earlier, receiving my confirmation in the church. When the bishop traced the holy oil across my forehead, I felt like the Holy Spirit was there, speaking to me. I knelt at my pew in reflection with tears streaming out of my eyes, secure in the strength of my belief. That day made giving up my faith all the more difficult years later, because I knew I had felt something then that made me believe in a greater, holy purpose.
Losing Catholicism wasn’t just about losing community or a weekly routine, it was losing the very foundation of truth in my life. When I came out as bisexual and began to explore my gender identity, I knew that our priests could never understand the multitudes living inside of my brown body, or the questions bubbling up in my throat begging to challenge the superiority of white men. So I let go.
And that’s how things stayed, until I met her.
I could see the artist—who I was certain was a woman—in her studio, staring at the pasty white and distressed portraits of the first sinner: Eve staring blankly at the snake. She is evil; she is woman and nothing else, she is the downfall of man. She is white/girl/delicate/flower/ignorant/foolish/nothing. In my mind, the artist sees this and she knows, just as I do, that Eve deserves better.
I took a picture with my phone, but I forgot to look closely at the plaque to get the name of the artist or the year it was painted. Long after I flew out of Málaga, long after I returned from my semester abroad, all I had was a picture in which, if I zoomed in close, I could make out the name of the painting and nothing else.
I spent a year googling “eve painting” and “malaga museum eve” and every other search term I could think of to find her, but there was nothing. I spent hours scrolling through the museum’s digital archives. She was a ghost. If it wasn’t for the picture in my phone, I would have thought I imagined her. But I had proof. I was trying to find the painting not just to find out where it came from, but to find a reason to believe again.
I showed friends the picture and tried to explain why I was so in love with the painting, and a lot of them agreed that she was pretty, or that it was a nice work, but I could never get them to see why I needed to find her. I was looking for the version of myself I saw reflected there, the duality I held in my need to believe and my predisposition to doubt.
I finally tried using a reverse image search from the photo I had taken. Sure enough, she popped right up, and I spent several more hours searching until I found a blog post from an art student writing about her. I had finally found it, my long awaited kindred, the artist who saw Eve for who she truly was—and his name was Juan Barbero Martínez.
If it wasn’t for the picture in my phone, I would have thought I imagined her.
I read on and found out that the woman who modeled for the painting was a young flamenco dancer and prostitute named Isabel Expósito Junco. She met Martínez while waiting in line for food rations and agreed to model for him to get some extra money.
My initial despair at this discovery made me feel like I’d wasted a year fantasizing over a silly pipe dream, conjuring up some imaginary powerful woman artist who somehow held all the same beliefs and conflicts that swirled in me. I’d gone and fallen in love with this idea of Eve that gave me a glimpse into a religion where I could see myself, with brown skin and dark eyes and women who exist independent and whole. Discovering the painting’s true origins made me feel gullible for actually thinking that I could find something to believe in that didn’t come from a man’s invention. I’d thought this painting was a feminist act created by a pioneering woman, only to learn that it was, essentially, a practice run for an artist trying to get his start.
Still, some magic about her kept teasing me with the idea of believing again. I was intoxicated with the idea that we have control over our own destinies, that we are more than the stories that are told about us, and the hope that religion could exist outside the control of white men. The sting of Martínez’s identity began to fade as I started to build my own beliefs around Eve.
After spinning my wheels for several months, I went to a spiritual advisor at my school and told her everything: that I didn’t want to go back to the Catholic church, but that I couldn’t go on living like I didn’t believe in anything when I so desperately wanted to. I was hopelessly stuck. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life worshipping the idea of a painting.
She told me to visit a Unitarian church in Boston to see what I thought. She gave me the address, and I made plans to go there, in the hopes that someone would be able to tell me what to believe and how to believe it. I craved the order of recited prayers and an easy answer. But when I tried to go, Eve stopped me.
Eve, who stood alone; smiling, knowing. Eve who was not some white, distressed, tragic damsel in distress plucked from a children’s book. Eve, my brown-skinned goddess. Who, if she could have, would have reached through that painting, grabbed me by the shirt, and told me, “You know who you are and you know what you need. It isn’t the God you knew, and no other man’s God will fix it, either.”
I never did visit that Unitarian church, and I still haven’t been to a Catholic mass since high school. But I’ve kept my confirmation name, and I pray, if only to feel like I have some control back in my life. I don’t pray to Eve, but she is still what I see when I visualize my faith: this bold brown woman who transcended her own mythology and entered my life when I needed her most. It wasn’t God, the omniscient all-knowing Father, who guided me to the Museo de Malaga that day, and it wasn’t Eve, either. It was me.
Abigail Hadfield grew up in the Philadelphia area and now attends Emerson College in Boston, where they study creative nonfiction and political science. As a freelance writer and editor, their work has been published in HuffpostUK, the Harvard Gazette, and various collegiate media outlets.