Cupid complains to Venus of being stung by bees when stealing a honeycomb. This is to be taken as a moral commentary; as the abbreviated Latin inscription observes: life's ‘pleasure’ is mixed with ‘pain’.
The inscription translates as: 'Young Cupid was stealing honey from a hive when a bee stung the thief on the finger. So it is for us: the brief and fleeting pleasure we seek/ is mingled with sadness and brings us pain'.
The subject derives (but the last two lines of the inscription do not) from the Greek poet Theocritus' 'Idyll' 19, ‘The Honeycomb Stealer’. The work of Theocritus was published in the original Greek by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1495/6, and it is possible that Cranach may have had access to this edition through his employers, the Electors of Saxony. Melanchthon, a humanist of Wittenberg, the principal seat of the Electors of Saxony, appears to have been responsible for initiating several textual variants of the subject in Latin during the 1520s.
Melanchthon also spearheaded visual responses to the subject: the inscription on this painting has been taken from an epigram by the young humanist Georg Sabinus, who was in the circle of (and became the son-in-law of) Melanchthon.
Evidence survives that Cranach’s composition was known by these scholars: another member of Melanchthon’s circle, Eoban Hess, wrote 'Tabella Luce' (‘the painting by Lucas') in his copy of the poem, perhaps referring to the composition by Lucas 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