Lucas Cranach the Elder

Adam and Eve, 1526

Oil on panel
Samuel Courtauld Trust: Courtauld Bequest, 1948

Van Gogh Self Portrait Adam and Eve, 1526, The Courtauld Gallery, London 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.

Detail from Adam and Eve by Lucas CranachDetail from Adam and Eve, 1526, The Courtauld Gallery, London 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.

Detail from Adam and Eve by Lucas CranachDetail from Adam and Eve, 1526, The Courtauld Gallery, London 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.

More about this painting:

arrow See it in the gallery (click and turn right)
arrow Buy a print
arrow Read about the 2007 exhibition featuring this painting
arrow How X-ray imaging lets us watch Cranach at work
arrow What Cranach's animals mean
arrow Get up close to Adam and Eve
arrow Read what writer Geoff Dyer has to say about this work of art (The Guardian)
arrow Listen to novelist Hisham Matar discuss this version of mankind's origins (The Guardian)
arrow See what others have to say (Artfinder)
arrow Find out more about Lucas Cranach (Wikipedia)

arrow Explore the Courtauld's collection further