A painting by the German 16th century master Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), not seen in public for over 100 years, is to be sold at Bonhams Old Master Paintings sale at 101 New Bond Street London on Wednesday 4 December. It is estimated at £1,500,000-2,000,000.
Painted in oil on panel in 1537, Venus with Cupid stealing Honey has been in a private collection unrecognised since the early 20th century. The attribution to Cranach by Bonhams specialists has been confirmed by the distinguished Swiss scholar Dieter Koepplin who examined the panel in person. The painting is signed with the early type of Cranach the Elder's signature and has been untouched by restorers for a great many years,
Cranach and his workshop painted at least 27 versions on the theme of Venus and Cupid, the first in 1527. The subject comes from Idyll XIX, The Honey Thief, attributed to the Greek poet known as the Pseudo Theocritus. The story tells how Cupid, trying to steal a honey comb, is stung by a bee and complains to his mother Venus. She laughs at him for making such a fuss over so trivial a wound when he himself is capable of inflicting far greater ones.
Cranach, however, re-interprets this classical tale in a Christian – specifically Protestant - way. For much of his career the artist was based in Wittenberg at the Court of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony who not only turned his capital into an artistic centre but, more significantly, made his Court the centre of the Protestant Reformation. Cranach was a friend of Martin Luther and in close touch with the leading Protestant thinkers of the age. The Wittenberg humanists developed the image of honey and the bees as a symbol of human inclinations and Cranach uses the story of Cupid being stung while seeking pleasure in the honeycomb to convey the message that pleasure does us harm and is mixed with pain. This is reinforced by the quotation in Latin in the top left hand corner of the picture which reads, "A bee stings the son of Venus while he is stealing honeydew thus sweet things are mixed with evil ones." This quote is taken from the work of Georg Rhau, initially a musician who later established himself in Wittenberg as a printer and published some of Luther's key works.
Venus is here pictured as a specifically erotic figure and a further symbol of temptation while the stag lying docilely in the background stands for Prudence.
The use of a classical theme to convey a humanist message spoke to a wide interest in antiquarianism within scholarly circles but may also have appealed to Cranach as a shield against accusations of creating religious icons or idols – a hugely contentious issue among Protestants at the time.
Other paintings on the theme of Cupid and Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder can be found in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, the National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
In 2010, Bonhams Old Master Painting Department discovered a previously unknown Portrait of a gentleman by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez which was sold at Bonhams the following year for £3million. The Portrait became the 99th undisputed work by the Spanish master.
NOTES FOR EDITORS
Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com