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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Lucas Cranach the Elder: Adam and Eve - 1526

London, Courtauld Institute Gallery

In 1504 Lucas Cranach travelled to Wittenberg from Vienna in order to take up the post of court painter to Duke Frederick the Wise. Thirteen years later Martin Luther catapulted the town to prominence when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Palace church. Consequently Cranach found himself present at the birth of the movement that became known as the Reformation – at the epicentre of events which would change Europe forever. A close friend of Luther, he naturally became the favoured portraitist for the circle which gathered around the reforming monk at this pivotal moment. But he was not content merely to provide artistic services, he was also an activist involving himself in designing propaganda sheets, underwriting the costs of publishing Luther’s translation of the Bible and setting up a printing press in his house for this purpose.

However, his involvement with Luther did not stop him from accepting commissions from prominent members for the Church of Rome. His work was in demand and according to surviving tax records, from 1528 only one other citizen in Wittenberg was paying more tax. Much of his fortune was accumulated as a result of his celebrated working speed, producing many versions of the same subject or theme. Adam and Eve was one such theme and it had the added attraction of being sanctioned by Luther as a worthy subject.

Here, the first pair of human beings stand either side of the Tree of Knowledge. It is noticeable that Cranach’s nudes are a long way from the Italianate renaissance ideal. They represent a model of beauty which harks back to International Gothic painting and is perhaps more familiar to the modern eye – Eve is slim with small breasts; Adam also has a natural, life-like build. They are amidst the verdant pastures and luxuriant woodland of the Garden of Eden, surrounded by a most beautifully realised selection of beasts – two different types of deer, a lion, a sheep, a boar, a horse, and in the foreground, an out of scale stork, a pair of partridge and a heron.  All is set against a perfect evening sky, the horizon alight with the last colours from the day’s sun. But alas, we know that this paradise will soon be denied to our common ancestors for ever.

The tree is heavy with ripe fruit which forms a pleasing decorative effect against the surrounding foliage. From its crown slithers the serpent which has tempted Eve to take a forbidden apple. She hands it to a decidedly bewildered Adam who scratches his head in puzzlement. We are witnessing the very last moments of their blissful innocence and Man’s subsequent fall from Grace. But around the base of the tree a vine had taken root and is sinuously winding up the trunk, echoing the attitude of the snake above. We notice, however, that two vinous tendrils have grown with coy precision to shield us from the sight of both male and female genital areas. The vine is a reference to the Eucharist through which man can find redemption.

Image: Courtesy of the Courtauld Institute Galleris, London

Visit the Courtauld Institute Galleries website

Contemporary Works

1525   CorreggioThe School of Love (Venus with Mercury and Cupid), London,National Gallery

1526   Albrecht DürerThe Four Apostles, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

1526   Titian: Madonna with Members of the Pesaro Family, Venice, Sta Maria del Gloriosa dei Frar


Further Paintings of Interest

The Ambassadors (Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve)

Hans Holbein the Younger

Pietà of Villeneuve-les-Avignon

Enguerrand Quarton

Landscape with the Flight into Egypt

Pieter Bruegel the Elder