Cranachs from Copenhagen

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Cranachs from Copenhagen

Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review

Whilst the Kunstmuseum in Copenhagen is being refurbished, the London National Gallery has been enriched by the loan of three of its Cranachs: The Judgement of Paris, Cupid the Honey-Thief and Melancholia. There are ten paintings attributed to Lucas Cranach the Elder in the Copenhagen gallery, but only these three are of undisputed authenticity. They were in the Danish royal collection well before the eighteenth century, and may have belonged to Christian II, who fled to Wittenberg, where Cranach painted his portrait, in 1523.

They may be compared with variants, wholly or largely the work of the Elder Cranach, already in this country. The Judgement of Paris at Hampton Court has been in the British royal collection since at least the reign of James II. It was possibly presented to Henry VIII by Cranach's patron, the Elector John Frederick of Saxony, who was trying to form a Protestant League in Northern Europe from 1531 onwards. John Frederick sent an embassy to Henry VIII in 1539. If, as was customary, the ambassador brought a gift, it may well have been this small panel. Anne of Cleves, whom Henry VIII married for six months in 1540, was the Elector's sister-in-law. Cupid the Honey-Thief was bought by the National Gallery in 1963, and has been starkly cleaned. Melancholia, benignly lent by the Earl of Crawford, is in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Whilst there is no direct reference to the three goddesses' beauty-competition in the Iliad, the myth persisted in Greek Literature from Euripides's Trojan Women to Lucian's ribald Dialogues of the Gods. In the thirteenth-century age of chivalry Guido delle Colonne took up the story in his Historia Destructionis Troiae, which was imitated in most western European languages. The first book William Caxton printed was an English translation of a French compendium of the tales of Troy. The illuminations and, later, woodcuts in these Troy Romances always represented Paris and Mercury in late-medieval costume: Paris as a knight in armour and Mercury as a herald: a reverend signor fantastically plumed (half-bird sometimes, not just wing-sandalled). Consistently, in The Judgement of Paris (from Cranach's Studio) in the Bode Museum, Berlin, Mercury is feathered from neck to ankles. In classical times Mercury was thought of as an unageing youth and, indeed, the stepson of Juno, one of the competing goddesses, but the astrologers of the Middle Ages saw him as an elderly sage who, in his planetary guise, presided over artists and scholars; which is how Cranach's contemporary, the Master of the Housebook, depicted him.

Cranach painted six versions of The Judgement of Paris between 1527 and 1537, although he interrupted the sequence with pictures of The Three Graces, three of which, dated from 1531 to 1535, survived the destruction and looting of the Second World War. The two series cohere. The three goddesses of The Judgement of Paris are positioned in guileless attitudes (front, side and back) like the three Graces, and a model for The Three Graces sometimes reappears as one of the goddesses. Around their necks the Graces and the goddesses wear jewelled collars and gold chains, which may be evidence that Cranach was able to persuade ladies of the insouciant Saxon courts to pose naked for him, or at least allow him to impose their portraits on anonymous nudities.

In 1534 Cranach painted a portrait, now in the Dresden Gemaldegalerie, of Christiane von Eulenau, clearly a lady of some importance at the ducal court. He further depicted her as Voluptas, nude except for a prim oak-leaf, shortly after 1537, in his Hercules at the Crossroads. She also appears as one of Omphale's handmaidens in Hercules and Omphale, painted by Cranach's eldest son Hans in 1537 and now in the Thyssen Collection. Venus, in the studio picture in the Brussels Musee d'Art Ancien, at least facially resembles Sibylle of Cleves, wife of the Elector John Frederick. Lucas Cranach, fiend and supporter of Martin Luther, godfather to his children, and three times Burgomaster of Wittenberg between 1537 and 1544, remained 'a fellow of infinite jest'. …

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