Cupid complains to Venus of being stung by bees when stealing a honeycomb. This is to be taken as a moral commentary; as the inscription observes: 'life's pleasure is mixed with pain.'
The subject derives (but the last two lines of the inscription do not) from Theocritus' 'Idyll' 19 (The Honeycomb Stealer). Two Latin translations of 1522 and 1528 by German scholars are known. Johann Hess, a humanist, made, in his copy of one of them, the manuscript note 'Tabella Luce', which means 'Picture by Lucus', perhaps referring to this work by Cranach.
Louise Govier: We’re seeing Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, shown as an ideal woman for Germany in the early 16th century. So she’s very sort of slim with quite full hips and she’s showing herself off to us in a very lascivious way. She’s actually draped rather like a pole dancer around a tree, looking out incredibly suggestively. She’s wearing no clothes, but has a very fancy hat – I mean, she kind of is the definition of ‘all hat and no knickers’, it has to be said, but she’s accompanied by her son, Cupid, god of love, who is looking very unhappy and who is complaining to his mother.
He’s complaining because he has tried to get some honey out of a tree and has been stung by the bees and, of course, this is all about the other side of love, when love doesn’t go quite right, and the idea that you can’t have the fulfilment and the sweetness of love like the honey, without also putting yourself in danger of getting stung.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Four, February 2007