CRANACH, Lucas the Elder
(b. 1472, Kronach, d. 1553, Weimar)

Venus and Cupid

Oil on canvas, 176 x 80 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Renaissance scholars attributed to Theocrites, the 3rd century BC Greek poet, the fable that recounts how Cupid, having been stung by bees when stealing honey, complained to his mother Venus about the pain produced by such small animals. To which she replied that he too was small and that the wounds occasioned by his arrows were much more painful. Cranach knew this text from the translation by his friend Melanchthon, whom he had met in the intellectual circles that he frequented at Wittenberg. The Latin verses at the top of the painting explain the subject. This gave the artist the opportunity to paint nudes, their strong sensuality conflicting with the moralising side of the story. Treated several times by Cranach himself or by his workshop, this mythological subject matched the taste of the Prince-Electors of Saxony, who commissioned these works to decorate their private apartments. The version in Brussels is one of the most successful out of twenty or so known variants.

Venus' white, weakly modelled body stands out against a black background in a sinuously seductive pose. The artist's interest in the human body is very superficial, far from the anatomical researches undertaken so passionately by his contemporaries. The few accessories adorning the model, like the heavy red velvet hat or the precious necklace enriched with stones, are clearly added for erotic intent. The light, transparent veil attracts the viewer's attention much more than hiding any nudity. The goddess's oblique glance and almond-shaped eyes increase the equivocal nature of this image. Through the harmony of this drawing, Cranach nonetheless succeeds in transcending this seductive aspect and responds to Theocritus' verses by creating a veritable visual poem in which the fluid lines of the model, of rarely equalled elegance, snake melodiously through space. Alongside Venus, the baby winged Cupid holds the honeycomb that he has just stolen, a source of immediate pleasure but also of pain. Behind him, the uniformity of the dark background is broken by a tree, at the base of which we find the mark of the artist's workshop, taken from the coat-of arms granted to him by the Elector of Saxony: a winged serpent with outspread wings, and the date 1531.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 4 minutes):
Francesco Gasparini: The Meddlesome Cupid, aria