Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve

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Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve

21 June — 23 September 2007

Adam and Eve
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Adam and Eve, 1526, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

This stunning exhibition was the first in Britain devoted to the great German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472-1553).

Temptation in Eden focuses on one of Cranach’s most memorable and enchanting works: the Courtauld’s Adam and Eve, painted in 1526 when the artist was at the height of his powers.  This beguiling painting demonstrates Cranach’s outstanding gifts as a portrayer of landscape, animals and the female nude.

A seductive version of Paradise

Lucas Cranach the Elder Cupid complaining to Venus, c.1526-30 © National Gallery, London
Lucas Cranach the Elder Cupid complaining to Venus, c.1526-30 © National 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 completes this seductive vision of Paradise.  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.


Reuniting Cranach’s masterpieces

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Apollo and Diana, 1530, The Royal Collection © 2006 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Apollo and Diana, 1530, The Royal Collection © 2006 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Adam and Eve is shown alongside a number other works which express the same themes of temptation and beauty, and were made on a domestic scale between 1526 and 1530.  They include the Royal Collection’s Apollo and Diana, the National Gallery’s Cupid Complaining to Venus, and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s A Faun and his Family.  The exhibition considers the possibility that these paintings were commissioned by a single patron, perhaps for the future Elector Johann Frederick, on the occasion of his marriage in 1527.


Remarkable powers of observation

Lucas Cranach the Elder A Dead Hind, c.1525-30 © Musée du Louvre, Paris
Lucas Cranach the Elder A Dead Hind, c.1525-30 © Musée du Louvre, Paris

A number of exquisite animal studies – drawn from both living and dead beasts – are displayed to show the complex processes which went into transforming these real animals into their idealised representation in the Courtauld’s Adam and Eve.  These drawings, together with fine engravings and woodcuts, offer a unique opportunity to enjoy Cranach’s remarkable powers of observation and story-telling as well as his outstanding skills as a graphic artist.

Each of the animals portrayed in Adam and Eve bears a distinct moral meaning.

The roebuck

cranach detail roebuckThe most common symbol of Christ the redeemer was the stag. The young antler-less roebuck (shown drinking from the pond at the lower right) could not defend himself, and thus was at the mercy of mankind, like the defenceless Christ when he first entered the world.

The stag

stag-antlers[1]Cranach’s representation of the mature stag with antlers – which overlap Adam’s body – probably refers to the resurrected Christ, and also to the righteous at the Second Coming, whom the theologian Aponius compared to stags raising their antlers.

The parched deer is a reference to Psalm 42, which compares the human thirsting after God to the stag in search of water. The very species depicted is also relevant: roe deer were famed for their chastity and their devotion to one mate.

The sheep

sheep[1]Along with the deer, the sheep grazing contentedly behind Adam recalled the docility of true Christians, for whom “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23, v.1).

The stork

stork[1]A stork stands directly under the grapes at the edge of a pond. This bird was associated by Christian iconographers with piety, purity and resurrection. A prudent creature, it had only one nest, which was used as a metaphor for the true Church, the only home for the faithful.

The heron

heron[1]The heron, at the bottom right edge of the panel, shared these moral readings, as well as signifying one steadfast in the right path

The partridges

partridge[1]The partridges next to the stork have a more ambiguous allegorical meaning. The Physiologus, an early medieval treatise, described them as creatures prone to deceit and impurity. However, it is probable that Cranach uses them here, as a pair, to represent the positive power of love.

The boar and the lion

lionboar[1]There is some evidence to support a reading of the boar as representing qualities opposite to those of the sheep (anger, brutality and lust) and as an embodiment of the Antichrist, and the lion as an opponent of the stag and a personification of the devil. But the position is not clear-cut: the boar could be interpreted more positively as justice, independence and courage in the face of God’s enemies, while the lion was also used to signify Christ, with whom it shared three natures, and naturally overcame evil (the devil).

The horse

cranach meaning detail horseCranach’s horse, another symbol of Christ, which appears to be on the point of moving out of the pictorial space, suggests that the powers of good are about to abandon Eden with the imminent arrival of Original Sin.

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 adam and eva inrfra red reflectogram
Infra-red reflectogram

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.

21 June to 23 September 2007

Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve was accompanied by two drawings by Albrecht Dürer from the Courtauld’s extensive permanent collection. It was the second in a series of displays designed to complement the programme of temporary exhibitions and increase public access to this outstanding collection.

A Wise Virgin (recto)
Albrecht Dürer, A Wise Virgin (recto), 1493, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Emperors Charlemagne and Sigismund
Albrecht Dürer, Emperors Charlemagne and Sigismund, 1507 – 1510 (circa), The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The Emperors Charlemagne and Sigismund was produced by Dürer in preparation for two large paintings commissioned by the town of Nuremberg in 1510, when he was at the peak of his career. The works were intended for the Heiltumskammer, a room where the Imperial Insignia of the Holy Roman Empire were kept the night before an annual ceremony of display to the people.

One of the Wise Virgins is an outstanding early work by Dürer, drawn in 1493 during his travelling years or wanderjahre. It shows a figure from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins holding a burning oil lamp.  The twisting arrangement of the figure and the fluidity of the penlines, capturing details such as the ringlets of hair and swirling wedding garland, indicate the young artist’s ambition, confidence and ability.  The reverse shows two studies of a left leg, almost certainly Dürer’s own, and provides remarkable early evidence of his scrutiny of the human body.

The display also includes an outstanding large roundel by the Bavarian Hans Rottenhammer (c.1564-1625) who created a distinctive South German style with Italianate overtones, and a drawing by Joseph Heinz (1564-1609), who worked at the Court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague.  Rare sheets by lesser-known artists complement the group.


The exhibition was generously supported by:

  • Apax Partners
  • Columbia Foundation
  • The Doris Pacey Charitable Foundation
  • The German Embassy London
  • (H. E. the Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger)
  • Mr & Mrs Hughes Lepic
  • The Kilfinan Trust
  • The Mallinckrodt Foundation.

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