Day 11 – Lucas Cranach the Elder, Cupid complaining to Venus, 1526-7, National Gallery, London.
Originally posted on 29 March 2020
I’ve had a request to talk about Cranach, partly to make up for the fact that the exhibition at Compton Verney, which opened on 14 March, can no longer be seen. I’m delighted to do so, although at this point, I must put my cards on the table. He is not my favourite artist. Not every artist can be (though most of them are…). Every artist’s career develops in a different way, but there are certain set patterns. Some just get better and better (Rembrandt), some get better and level off – at a consistently high level (Caravaggio) or an average one (no names – or maybe Sickert, who often painted in a colour I would describe as mediochre), some go up and down (Hockney) while some get better, get good, level out, then tail off. I’m afraid I’d put both Canaletto and Cranach in this last category, as in both the endless repetitions, whether of motifs or formulae – or entire images – make their late work seem automatic and ultimately uninteresting.
That said, Canaletto is one of my favourite artists (his not-so-good was better than many artists’ best), and Cranach is not only an important artist, both as portraitist, and PR guru for Martin Luther, but also created paintings that both delight and charm, which contain passages of extreme beauty. Today’s painting is one of these – his ‘Cupid complaining to Venus’.
Unlike Botticelli’s ‘Birth’ (#POTD 8) there is no mock modesty here – Cranach’s Venus is brazen. It’s not often you wander around in the woods with no clothes, but accessorising your birthday suit with a chunky gold chain and a red plush hat trimmed with fur can only look louche. Particularly given the shape of the hat, its colour and the fact that it is trimmed with fur – I’ll leave it to your own imaginations to decide what it was that Cranach was really thinking about. Also, she is clearly standing astride a branch, rubbing her foot along it, her left arm holding another branch above her head so we see her apparently smoothly shaved armpit. When I was at drama school I was told that, in medieval dance, ladies never lifted their arms above their shoulders, it’s just not ladylike. I would suggest that the same should apply here, and that Venus is being deliberately provocative. But you’d probably realised. Not only that, but she’s looking at you. Yes, you! And it’s an apple tree. It brings to mind other paintings of naked women under apple trees – I’m just showing you the second illustration as an example that I have chosen at random. Apart from the fact that it’s anything but random, of course, as it’s also by Cranach and it was painted at about the same time. There is even some suggestion that the two might have been painted to be seen together. Its long-term home is the Courtauld, just down the road from the National Gallery.
This is ‘Adam and Eve’, of course, and we’ve got to the point in the story where Eve is handing Adam an apple, and he’s clearly not sure what to do with it. It’s not obvious whether Eve has taken a bite yet (in some paintings it is – you can see the bite marks), but he certainly has not. It is purely by chance that they are standing behind low-lying branches, thus fortuitously preserving their modesty. Mind you, if I were Adam I’d definitely be wary of those antlers.
In this painting, Eve is looking at Adam, holding out an apple, her left hand clasping a branch, provocatively showing him her armpit and tempting him to take what she has on offer. And that’s exactly what Venus is doing in today’s painting: looking at you, tempting you to take what she has on offer. But in a thoroughly Christian society, which Cranach’s was (a Protestant one, as it happens) the pagan subject matter is justified by its moral – Christian – tone. That is an apple tree, this is temptation, and you would be wrong to fall for it. It’s a tease.
And Cupid? What’s going on there? Well, look at the third image: he is holding a curiously shaped and patterned object, there are insects on his chest, arm and forehead, and he reaches up to his head, looking to his mother in some distress. The ‘object’ is a honeycomb, and the insects are bees – he has been stung. And what do you do, as a small child (albeit a minor deity with wings) when you’ve been stung by a bee? You go and tell mummy. And what does mummy do? Ignores him completely. Not only that, but her right hand is held down towards him, as if to say ‘Sshh! Darling! Not now! I’m flirting with the viewer’.
Cranach included an inscription at the top right of the painting, so we do know what is going on, even if it is written in Latin. Artists weren’t as ‘uneducated’ as we sometimes think. It’s a reference to ‘Idyll 19’ by the Ancient Greek poet Theocritus, writing in the first half of the 3rd Century BC. The verse is also called ‘The Honeycomb Stealer’, which I prefer, as ‘Idyll-19’ sounds like a highly infectious strain of poetry. What has happened is that Cupid has reached into the hive to take the honeycomb, and the bees have flown out and stung him. The moral here is not ‘do not steal honey’. After all, look at the shape of the hole in which the bees built their hive, while at the same time remembering (a) this is an apple tree, seen as the tree of temptation, (b) the act of reaching in, and (c) the shape of Venus’s hat. I’ll leave the rest to you.
So, how does Venus respond, when he’s finally got her attention? In the words of Theocritus,
‘”What?” cries she, “art not a match for a bee, and thou so little and yet able to make wounds so great?”’
(This is clearly an old translation, which I gleaned from this site: https://www.theoi.com/Text/TheocritusIdylls4.html)
Basically, he has stolen the honey, and the bees have stung him. In the same way, he shoots his arrows to make people fall in love. Sometimes, love is sweet like honey – but sometimes it really hurts.
The atmosphere of love is woven through the painting. In the background, on the left, a pair of deer, stag and doe, is successfully self-isolating in the depths of the wood. But elsewhere, we see the sting. In the far distance, on the lake, towards the right-hand side of the painting, in one of those moments of sublime beauty that Cranach can conjure up, we see a cottage reflected in the limpid waters of the lake, the leaves and branches of the distant trees sketched out with poetic delicacy. Just above the reflection of the cottage, there is a pair of swans, and they look like they are about to start fighting. Ay me… The course of true love never did run smooth. I trust things are going better for you, wherever you are socially distanced.