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Lucas Cranach the Elder

The Garden of Eden

Panel: 50,8 x 38,1 cm
Monogrammed with a serpent on the tree trunk

introduction

Our version of the Garden of Eden is a completely original work in the “Cranach corpus”: often portrayed standing opposite each other in front of the tree of knowledge, humankind’s first couple is lying down in this painting. This nonchalant position is reminiscent of that adopted by couples in the golden age. Leaning against a stag, Eve is looking at Adam, lying on his side. The lasciviousness of the bodies combined with each character’s intense gaze is truly striking. Their hands intertwine, enveloping the apple in their respective palms, the fruit of knowledge that will lead to their downfall. Besides the aesthetic beauty of the painting, the scene is both surprising and troubling: it is not clear which of them is leading the other into temptation. Moving away from tradition, Cranach seems to want the original sin to be shared. This stance does not follow the classic and rather misogynistic view of an Eve depicted standing and holding out the apple to Adam. However, while the weight of the sin is shared by the couple here, temptation remains the prerogative of womankind. The artist portrays the Devil as a siren: the head and torso of a woman with the body of a serpent, as depicted in the Middle Ages. The hybrid animal is clearly addressing Eve while holding out the apple to her.

Omnipresent in 16th century iconography, the Garden of Eden was an inexhaustible source for artists. Encouraged by the Lutheran Reformation, artists began to paint the major episodes of the Old Testament and, in particular, those from Genesis. The portrayal of the story of Adam and Eve holds a special place in the artistic production of that era. It raises the issue of the original sin (an essential issue for the thinkers of the Reformation during the Council of Trent in 1545) but above all, it accepts man’s nudity; at the time, there were few “suitable” subjects that allowed its depiction. Luther’s century lies at the heart of the Renaissance and the rediscovery of the classical arts.

Following the Italian painters, German artists wanted to master the human body regardless of the issues raised by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. The Cranach’s were obviously aware of the upheavals within the Church and, just like Dürer, painted several versions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This episode was no longer associated with the right-hand panels of the rich polyptychs of the Last Judgment, but became a separate theme that was highly successful and the source of great fascination.

The nature present in this version is nurturing and all powerful. Living in perfect harmony with the animal and plant world, the couple enjoys the delights of the Garden of Eden. Their vigorous, curved bodies express their youthful and carefree existence. Contrary to Italian Renaissance artists, who painted the shamefulness of nudity, Cranach prefers to render the beauty of the bodies with skill and perfection. The two characters gracefully and gently blend in with the landscape. The fragile, rosy flesh tints contrast with the freshness of the green and gold tones. Like many other painters, Cranach associates the original sin with the pleasures of the flesh. Adam and Eve are represented as man and woman, expressed through particularly well-shaped bodies, whose curves convey the sensuality of the moment. Since they have not yet bitten into the fruit, Adam and Eve are totally unaware of their nudity and therefore do not think of covering themselves with a vine or fig leaf. In a desire to adhere to the biblical text without painting completely naked figures, Cranach manages to mask the nudity of his two models by cleverly-placed bushes scattered throughout this luxuriant garden, as is the case in the monumental painting of the Garden of Eden in Dresden.

Lovers of Cranach’s work will find all the master’s talent in this extraordinary painting: the magic of the compositions, the meticulousness of every line, the intensity of the colour and the passion of the feelings. This Garden of Eden richly depicts the sumptuousness of a perfect world, which we know to be lost but still hope to regain one day. Just like a great director, Cranach transports us back to the few seconds preceding the fatal moment that was to dramatically change the world and the fate of humankind forever.

Provenance :
Private collection, New York.

Letter Dr. Koepplin.

Expositions :
Autun, Musée Rolin, Eve ou la folle tentation, 22 June – 15 October 2017.