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Lucas Cranach the Elder - Adam and Eve

by Frauke Maria Petry

An apple one day keeps Eden away

The subject of "Adam and Eve" is probably one of the most popular in the art world. There is almost no artist who has not devoted himself to the subject. Thus, the motif is always subject to socio-historical contexts and thus conveys different messages. In the Middle Ages still as a traditionally pictorial translation of the Bible template, the motif is taken up today with a critical attitude towards the patriarchal social legitimation. One artist who reproduced the motif himself in large numbers and at the same time created testimonies to the upheavals of his time is Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553):

A version called "Adam and Eve" is in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London and is an oil painting created in 1526. The 117 x 80 cm maple wood panel features the first human couple in the Garden of Eden. A tree with red fruit vertically divides the painting into two halves. The tree crown is slightly cut at the upper edge of the picture, in the middle - at the base of the branches - hangs a blue snake, which bends down to Eve. She stands to the right of the trunk and slightly turned in contrapposto towards Adam, who is to the left of the tree trunk (also in contrapposto). He in turn turns towards Eve. Both are naked, but their intimate areas are covered by vine leaves, the vines of which grow up the tree. The woman wears her long, blond curly hair open. With her left hand, she pulls down a branch whose end is studded with red fruit. With the right hand Eve hands an apple, which Adam grasps at the same time. His left elbow leans against the tree trunk; with his hand he grasps his curly head, brooding. The two protagonists are surrounded by animals grazing or lying in the meadow. Deer, roe deer, sheep, partridges, herons, wild boar, lion and horse live peacefully side by side.

Lucas Cranach the Elder made the work in 1526, or had it made. For at that time his workshop in Wittenberg was already flourishing. Lucas, from Kronach in Upper Franconia, was summoned by Frederick III (the Wise) in 1505 to the culturally up-and-coming city of Bavaria, where he served as court painter under two other dukes (John the Steadfast and John Frederick the Magnanimous). When he received a coat of arms from the Elector in 1508, the winged snake with a ruby ring in its mouth became the artist's signature or the workshop's trademark. Through standardized work processes and division of labor, paintings and prints were produced serially according to the master's designs and, through affordable prices, met an increased demand among the bourgeoisie, among others. Therefore, several versions of a theme existed in minimal variations. Of the approximately 5,000 paintings that continued to be produced under Lucas Cranach the Younger, about 1,500 are still preserved today. But the hands can hardly be separated, i.e. the authorship is often difficult to identify.

Cranach the Elder soon became the richest and most influential citizen of the city of Wittenberg. He ran a workshop with a printing press, a wine tavern and a pharmacy. The artist's success was influenced not only by his entrepreneurial talent, but above all by contemporary events: The Franconian was good friends with Martin Luther, who nailed his 95 theses to Wittenberg's castle church in 1519. From then on, Cranach became the painter of the Reformation, designing propaganda sheets as well as paying for Luther's Bible translation. But that did not stop him from continuing to accept Roman ecclesiastical commissions in addition to courtly and civic ones.

Cranach was also aware of another lucrative line of business: that of women's power. As this period was marked by humanism, the Renaissance, and the Reformation, so the boundaries of taboo subjects shifted. In the early Renaissance, myths and the Bible offered the first opportunities for nude painting. The invention of the seductive woman emerged - centuries later also called 'femme fatale' (French for 'fatal woman'). Cranach knew 'sex sells', so to speak, and the female figures were henceforth objectified in their nudity. Since Eve is supposedly to blame for the expulsion from paradise and original sin, she becomes the prototype of female power and women's sexuality is consistently declared a devilish sin.

According to the biblical account, Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat of the fruit of knowledge. The serpent's coaxing - not unlike the shape of a penis - is to be understood as a sexual avance. Afterwards Eve seduces Adam to the same act. For the punishment the man must plow the hard ground continuously and the woman must bear children under large pain. The mother of all life ate from the tree that "tempted to become wise" (The Bible, Genesis 3:6).

In Cranach's time, theology was interpreted in pictures and the court painter was committed to an iconography in the service of the church. However, art also underwent a change during this period and the Werkstadt style was influenced by Reformation views that, among other things, reinterpreted original sin. In Cranach's painting, monochrome or backdrop-like backgrounds were replaced by realistic depictions of nature. Also, the ideal of beauty does not go back to Italian Renaissance models, but to international Gothic painting. Adam and Eve have a more natural physique than would correspond to classical antiquity. The present depiction is primarily influenced by Christian animal symbols:

Deer and stag are signs of the defenseless and resurrected Christ. Likewise, the horse, which is located far back in the right half of the picture, is a symbol of Christ. Thus, the old human type Adam and the new Adam in the form of the Redeemer face each other here. The depiction refers to the forestry guidance of the narrative - the salvation of mankind through Jesus, who obediently follows the will of the Father in the death on the cross. The sheep makes this clear not least in connection with the phrase "The Lord is my shepherd" (Psalm 23, v.1). The birds stand between the human couple and for purity, piety, resurrection and the loving couple. The right half of the picture is somewhat more difficult in its iconography: on the one hand, the wild boar is antagonist of the lamb and symbolizes the Antichrist, while the lion, in contrast to the stag, personifies the devil. On the other hand, the boar could be interpreted as justice, independence and courage, and the lion again as a symbol of Jesus. Both interpretations would be conceivable in the sense of the Protestant church on the picture side of Eve.

The story of Adam and Eve as the creation story of man and woman was misused for centuries to propagate the physical, intellectual and moral inferiority of women. However, the traditional interpretation could be countered that the curious Eve had the courage to resist and think for herself. According to the Bible, only afterwards do both sexes learn about themselves and the joy of knowledge. The narrative virtually establishes the intellectual independence of mankind - an interpretation that would not contradict the emerging ideas of German humanism. Cranach was a child of the Middle Ages who entered the Renaissance. As a painter, graphic artist, book printer, politician and entrepreneur, he corresponded to the ideals of a man of that time.

Lucas Cranach the Elder - Adam and Eve

1526, oil on maple wood, 117.0 cm x 80 cm, Courtauld Institute of Art, London


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