Lucas Cranach the Elder (Kronau 1472-1553 Weimar) Venus with Cupid stealing honey unframed

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Lot 60
Lucas Cranach the Elder
(Kronau 1472-1553 Weimar)
Venus with Cupid stealing honey unframed

Sold for £ 2,210,500 (US$ 2,782,806) inc. premium
Lucas Cranach the Elder (Kronau 1472-1553 Weimar)
Venus with Cupid stealing honey
signed with the artist's device of the winged serpent and dated '1537' (on tree-trunk, upper left)
oil on panel
51.1 x 36.2cm (20 1/8 x 14 1/4in).


    In the collection of the present owner's family since the early 20th century
    (the cradling of the panel was carried out by Leedham in London circa 1900)

    The recent discovery of the present panel is an exciting addition to this major artist's oeuvre. Cranach painted the first version of Venus and Cupid in 1527 and subsequently he and his workshop painted at least twenty-six versions of the theme. A Dürer watercolour of 1514 is the earliest known visual interpretation of the theme from the perspective of Northern European art. The closest important examples of Venus and Cupid by Lucas Cranach the Elder are: that which was by 1713 at the Castle of Wartburg (panel, 51 x 34 cm.; see M.J. Friedländer and J. Rosenburg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, London, 1978/79, no. 398); that in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum (panel, dated 1545, 20 ¼ x 14 ¼); and most closely that in the National Gallery (panel, 82.1 x 55.8 cm., London, National Gallery, NG 6344), which Koepplin dates to 1526/7 (see fig. 1).

    The subject is ultimately derived from the pseudo-Theocritean Idyll XIX, (The Honey Thief), which tells the story of Cupid's complaint to his mother after being stung by a bee as he was stealing a honeycomb. The first version of this theme had been dated to 1527 and the bulk of translations of Idyll XIX by scholars must have been written around the same years: between 1528 and 1530, at least nine Latin Honey-Thieves were published, including poems by Hess, Velius, Camerarius, Moltzer, Stigel, and Melancthon. While a number of scholars have attempted to link the theme of Cranach's paintings with a single text, Pablo Pérez d'Ors suggests that the very abundance and homogeneity of the related poems of the time lead one to believe that the paintings, of which there are many similar versions, respond to an ongoing theme or trend, rather than to a single work. In his view the fact that Cranach's paintings of Venus and Cupid were familiar to Eoban Hess, Johannes Thulius, Lorenzi Pignoria and others proves that these Cupid Complaining to Venus panels were objects known to a large and international scholarly community. ('A Lutheran idyll: Lucas Cranach the Elder's Cupid Complaining to Venus', Renaissance Studies, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 87).

    The specific inscription in the present painting, which is unusual, is taken from the book, Enchiridion utriusque musicae practicae by the musician and music theorist, Georg Rhau (1488-1548). It was published for the first time in 1518 and was intended for the instruction of church musicians. After being dismissed from his post of cantor of the Thomasschüle of Leipzig owing to his Lutheran sympathies, he moved to Wittenberg, where he established himself as a printer and became a crucial figure in the dissemination of Reformation ideas by publishing some of Martin Luther's and Philipp Melanchthon's chief writings. Rhau was a friend of both Luther and Melanchthon and there is a woodcut portrait of him by Lucas Cranach the Younger dating to circa 1542. Seven editions of the Enchiridion appeared within Rhau's lifetime and the book played an important role in the development of the service music of the newly-born Lutheran church. The 1536 edition is the first to contain the poem of the inscriptions.

    It is thus important to realise how the subject Cranach chose reflected Cranach's contacts with a significant community of scholars. In d'Ors's words, Cranach 'created objects of a sensuous, refined and complex elegance which appealed to those interested in classics and antiquarianism as well as having a moral and religious dimension dear in those same scholarly circles.' Cranach's employment of the Honey-Thief and 'using it to convey a moral and religious meaning parallels with the archaeological, literary and pedagogical interests of some of his contemporaries.' The Christian humanist movement or pietas litterata championed by Melanchthon's circle 'encouraged this sort of permeation between the Bible and the classics. Also, it should be noted here that the image of Venus and Cupid was a way of putting across a religious reflection bypassing the qualms and the rage of the iconoclasts, which Cranach himself witnessed in Wittenberg in 1522. The very heathenness of the image precluded any form of apprehension that the paintings may lend themselves to becoming objects of idolatrous or superstitious practices'. (op. cit., pp. 98, 94-96).

    It was Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, who embarked on a programme of elevating the relatively humble status of his capital, Wittenberg, attracting artists such as Albrecht Dürer and founding a university there in 1502. Two years later he managed to attract Lucas Cranach the Elder to move from Vienna to Wittenberg, where Cranach achieved great status, securing positions as councillor and mayor in the city, while achieving significant wealth as a landowner and owner of apothecary monopolies as well as from his work as a very successful painter, printmaker and publisher. Frederick's court in Wittenberg became the centre of the Reformation and significantly Cranach became a friend of Martin Luther, one of the greatest personalities of his time.

    Cranach and the Wittenberg humanists developed the image of honey and bees as a symbol of human inclinations, and used it to deliver a moral lesson. Pleasure does us harm and is mixed with pain. D'Ors comments on how the picture is above all designed for the viewer to focus on Venus as an object of desire, its eroticism serving to enhance the moral lesson it carries (op. cit., p. 94). In Protestant theology it was Christ who eventually came to free man from the seemingly endless spiral of desire and grief. The relationship between the Christian and pagan readings of the 1538 Enchiridion was a point on which the person responsible for the illustrations wanted his readers to reflect. Analysis of these illustrations suggests that a number of them 'might have been intended to elicit the thought that Christ chose an apparent selfish pain (the Passion) which had a generous joy (the salvation of men), while Cupid, standing for human inclinations, was attracted by an apparent selfish pleasure which was later shown to be mingled with pain' (op. cit., p. 96).

    The design of the reclining stag in the present composition had been thought to emerge shortly after the close of 1537 in a drawing by Lucas Cranach the Elder of Adam and Eve in Paradise (formerly in the Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden, see fig. 2). The stag may be a reference to Pliny's Natural History, in which it is said that stags have keen hearing when they raise their ears and also that stags apply their nostrils to snakes' holes in the ground and by inhaling them they force them out and kill them. The stag was thus adopted as a symbol of prudence and of virtue defeating vice; the latter meaning was used by Camerarius in his book of emblems and by Hans Baldung in a picture of Prudence, as well as by Cranach in his Hercules at the Crossroads of 1537. Also featuring stags with this connotation is Cranach's Hercules and Omphale, of which he painted several examples in the 1530s, and which are also close to Cupid Complaining to Venus in that the image is accompanied by a moralistic epigram.

    In 1537, the date of the present panel, both of Lucas's sons were active in his workshop. Indeed, that year is an interesting once since that was when his eldest son, Hans, died, while his second son, Lucas the Younger, was beginning to take a more active role in his father's workshop. Lucas the Younger was later to take up a particular interest in the subject of Venus and Cupid and Koepplin believes that early on he may have been responsible for, for example, the tree trunk and foliage in some of his father's depictions of this subject.

    The coat-of-arms in the present painting is not immediately identifiable. However, we are grateful to John Allen for suggesting that the male (left-hand) element of the shield is similar to both those of the Waldeck family of Brandenburg and the Meurer family of Austria. We are further grateful to Lord Norrys for pointing out that the black eagle, battlements and lion are also typical of the heraldry of Bohemia.

    We are grateful to Dieter Koepplin for his assistance in the writing of this footnote and for confirming on first hand inspection that the present painting is an accomplished autograph work by Lucas Cranach the Elder. In a letter dated Basel, 24 October, 2013 he further writes that this painting has the genuine Cranach-signature (early type) and is in an excellent state of preservation.

    'Cranach created objects of a sensuous, refined and complex elegance which appealed to those interested in classics and antiquarianism as well as having a moral and religious dimension dear in those same scholarly circles.'

Saleroom notices

  • Please note that it has been suggested that the present painting was transferred to another panel in the late 19th Century.
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