Elysian fields

Art - Richard Cork is seduced by old visions of paradise, serpents and all

Do not be deceived by the air of rapture at the National Gallery. Although its new exhibition is called "Paradise", even the most blissful images turn out to harbour intimations of loss, defilement and catastrophe.

Claude, whose visions of idealised nature could hardly appear more beneficent, locates his story from Ovid's Metamorphoses in a luminous classical landscape. But Narcissus is already kneeling by a pool, hopelessly beguiled by his own handsome reflection in the water. The nymph Echo, doomed merely to repeat the last words spoken to her, tries to divert his attention by calling from a nearby rock. Nothing, however, can arouse Narcissus from self-infatuation. Soon he will die there, turning into a flower. And Echo will follow.

Another blighted nymph is detectable in Jan Both's equally idyllic Landscape with the Judgement of Paris. Here, she is relegated to obscurity, discarded by the Trojan prince Paris when he became enchanted by the beauty of three goddesses. Cornelis van Poelenburgh, who collaborated with Both, painted all the figures in this large, luxuriant scene. He makes the goddesses seem decorous by partially covering their nakedness. But Venus, who offered Paris the brazen bribe of Helen's love, shows no hesitation in stepping forward to accept the golden apple. Her machinations, combined with Paris's recklessness, led to the protracted calamity of the Trojan war.

The gift of an apple grows still more fateful in Joachim Wtewael's Adam and Eve. This time, however, the gender roles are reversed as a woman offers the fruit to a man. Their two hands, with the green-red apple passing from one set of outstretched fingers to the other, occupy the painting's tragic centre. Eve is openly playful, flaunting her pale flesh as she holds up a second apple like a trophy. Adam gazes at the tousle-haired temptress in naive wonder, touching his missing rib as if astonished to recall that she issued from his body. Only the animals clustered in this crowded picture appear conscious of the disaster to come. Two mournful dogs stare out from the shadows, while the goat lurking in darkness beneath the central apple symbolises the devil at his most rampant.

At several points in this engrossing show, animals and birds play a decisive role. A cornucopia of horses, deer, pigs, swans, tigers and other creatures clutter the foreground of Jan Brueghel the Elder's hectic Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The erring couple, pushed far back in the picture, are so diminutive that they scarcely seem to matter. Even when figures reassert their dominance in this show, in a tall altarpiece panel by Gerolamo dai Libri, they are undermined by the sinister presence of the dragon lying beneath the Virgin's feet. This mythological beast may represent the serpent defeated by Mary's advent, but its tomb-like enclosure acts as a prophecy of Christ's martyrdom.

There is no escape from portents of suffering. The most optimistic painting on show is a stark winter scene by Cas- par David Friedrich. Snow smothers the landscape in a layer of glacial whiteness, and the young man slumped against a rock, his crutches flung aside, cannot be expected to survive very long in such conditions. But a crucifix rises from the fir tree before him, and he lifts his hands to pray. The vitality of the evergreen leaves holds out a promise of perpetual regeneration and the gothic church emerging from the mist reinforces the tree's vertical vigour. Even if the young man is about to die, the silhouetted gateway in front of the church guarantees him access to eternal salvation.

Compared with this ardent display of Christian conviction, the shameless prettiness of Boucher's paradise seems ridiculous. Concocting a picturesque fantasy of rural charm in 1755, he shows indolent peasant boys lolling by a river as they eye a comely maid carrying a bucket. Everything, from the doves perched on a mill-house balcony to the cattle crossing a distant bridge, is sanitised. Boucher's charming confection says everything about denial of rural poverty and nothing about the national restlessness that would soon erupt in brutal revolution.

No wonder Gauguin's search for a lost golden age drove him to reject western civilisation and explore Tahiti. French colonials had already corrupted the island, and yet Gauguin set about imagining an ideal world in paintings such as Faa Iheihe ("to beautify"). Figures and animals appear transfixed in this dreamlike evocation of nirvana. His central female deity is inspired by a Javanese temple. The fruit at her feet ensure that she is redolent of Eve, and the nearby dog looks askance as he stares at her. Yet Gauguin insists on presenting a potent alternative to "Paradise Lost". It may be unattainable and imbued with melancholy, but the inhabitants of this primitive Eden are spellbound by their seductive surroundings.

"Paradise" is at the National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) until 28 September