Controversy over what’s depicted in the image, and what it may say about early Christians, has raged for decades.
Adam and Eve stand in the Garden of Eden, both of them faceless. Eve’s ribs are bold slash marks, as if the artist wanted her to appear almost skeletal. But that is not the strangest thing about this faded 13th-century fresco inside France’s medieval Plaincourault Chapel. Between Adam and Eve stands a large red tree, crowned with a dotted, umbrella-like cap. The tree’s branches end in smaller caps, each with their own pattern of tiny white spots.
It’s this tree that has attracted visitors from around the world to the sleepy village of Mérigny, some 200 miles south of Paris. Tourists, scholars, and influencers come to see the tree that, according to some enthusiasts, depicts the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria. Not everyone agrees, however, and controversy over the fresco has polarized researchers, helped ruin at least one career, and inspired an idea—unproven but wildly popular, in some circles—that early Christians used hallucinogenic mushrooms.
The question of what was painted on the back wall of Plaincourault goes back at least to 1911, when a member of the French Mycological Society suggested the thing sprouting between Adam and Eve was a “bizarre” and “arborescent” mushroom. The idea that the Tree of Life was actually A. muscaria pops up in the 1925 book The Romance of the Fungus World, which presents a “curious myth” about the Plaincourault fresco depicting the hallucinogenic mushroom, though there is no suggestion of its use by early Christians.
A quarter-century later, the earlier mentions lured R. Gordon Wasson to see the fresco for himself. Wasson was a PR exec in banking, and also an amateur mycologist. Although he had no formal training in the field, he’s known today for his prolific writing on mushrooms, particularly of the hallucinogenic variety, and fungi-focused travels, some of which were secretly funded by the CIA, which had its own interests in the topic. In 1952, when Wasson saw Plaincourault for himself, he wasn’t convinced, and sought the opinion of Princeton art historian Erwin Panofsky. The scholar was blunt. “The plant in this fresco has nothing whatever to do with mushrooms,” Panofsky wrote.