Adam and Eve
Lucas Cranach the Elder
Adam and Eve brilliantly combines devotional meaning with pictorial elegance and invention.
The scene is set in a forest clearing where Eve stands before the Tree of Knowledge, caught in the act of handing an apple to a bewildered Adam. Entwined in the tree’s branches above, the serpent looks on as Adam succumbs to temptation.
A rich menagerie of birds and animals – a stag, a hind, a sheep, a roe-buck with its mate, a lion, a wild boar and a horse, and partridges, a stork and a heron – completes this seductive vision of Paradise. On the tree-trunk are the date 1526 and the bat-winged serpent which formed part of Cranach’s coat of arms.
The painting is particularly admired for its treatment of the human figure and for the profusion of finely painted details, including animals and vegetation. Cranach delights in capturing details such as the roe-buck catching its reflection in the foreground pool of water.
Cranach, who was a close friend of Martin Luther, worked at the court of Saxony. The artist, who was famous for his landscapes, representations of animals and nudes, found Adam and Eve a subject which was ideally suited to his gifts and to which the Lutherans did not object. He and his workshop treated it many times in paintings and prints.
This painting is influenced by Dürer’s celebrated engravings of the same subject, dated 1504. Dürer had also included many animals, but, while Dürer’s animals may be interpreted as allusions to the Four Humours, Cranach’s animals are less solemn and portentous.
A related drawing at Dresden, though closer to Dürer’s print, is still less solemn than the painting; there Eve puts the apple in Adam’s mouth and Adam holds a phallic apple-branch which both conceals and connects his and Eve’s genitals.
The vine, not present in the drawing, refers to the Redemption, so that the picture has some didactic function. While the pairing of the sheep with the lion may have a moral meaning, the association of Adam with the sheep is perhaps intended as a wry comment on his behaviour.
The principal purpose of the painting, which was presumably made for a wealthy collector, is evidently to give pleasure rather than instruction. Cranach holds a balance between highly decorative, stylized forms and an immediacy and liveliness of presentation. The unexpectedly free technique of the foliage and grass is a reminder that Cranach was renowned for his speed of working.
Each of the animals portrayed in Adam and Eve bears a distinct moral meaning.
Using x-radiographs and an infra-red reflectogram, the Courtauld’s Department of Conservation and Technology has revealed some of the changes that Lucas Cranach made to Adam and Eve as he perfected it in 1526.
Cranach changed the placement of the antlers of the huge stag seated at the left foreground; initially these extended further over Adam’s body and genitals.
The sheep which grazes quietly behind Adam seems to have been modelled fully in shades of grey, despite the fact that it was always going to be partially covered by Adam’s leg in the finished painting.
The artist changed his mind about the position of Adam’s fingers as he scratches his forehead and those of Eve as she prepares to pick another apple. However, both gestures seem always to have been intended in some form.