Cupid, the god of erotic love, is complaining to his mother, Venus, the goddess of love: he has been stung by bees after stealing a honeycomb. Venus directs her attention towards the viewer instead. Her narrowed gaze appears flirtatious and she clutches the branch of an apple tree, evocative of the biblical temptress Eve.
This is a morality tale, based on a Greek poem from the third century BC – though Venus wears a velvet hat and jewelled choker in the style of those worn at the Saxon court where Cranach worked from 1505. The poem describes how life’s pleasures are mixed with pain, as the inscription at the top of the painting observes. Venus explains to her son that the wounds of love he inflicts with his arrows are far worse than any physical pain he may be experiencing.
Cupid, the god of erotic love, is complaining to his mother Venus, the goddess of love: he has been stung by bees while stealing a honeycomb from their hive. Venus has little sympathy for her son’s plight. When he asks her how something so small can inflict so much pain, she points out that the suffering Cupid causes by firing his arrows of love is worse and lasts far longer than a bee sting.
The subject is based on a poem, ‘Idyll 19‘ (The Honeycomb Stealer), by the Ancient Greek writer Theocritus. Two Latin translations by German scholars, dating from 1522 and 1528, are known. This moralising poem was popular in the humanist circles in which Cranach moved, and lines from it appear in Latin in the sky at the top of the picture. This 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.’
Venus stands in the centre of the composition, nude apart from the gold jewelled choker and chain around her neck and the wide-brimmed red velvet hat with ostrich feathers on her head. A gold hairnet can be glimpsed underneath the hat. Her jewellery and hat reflect the fashion of the Saxon court where Cranach worked; he routinely dressed female figures from biblical history or classical mythology in contemporary accessories. Cupid stands next to Venus clutching the honeycomb he has just stolen. Bees buzz around his face, and more emerge from the hole in the tree – presumably, this is where he found the comb in the first place. His hand is raised towards his forehead and he looks distressed as he whines to his mother.
Venus’ body is turned at a subtle three-quarter angle, her left leg bent at the knee as she steps over a tree branch. She reaches up to grab a branch from the apple tree behind her – evocative of the Old Testament temptress, Eve. With her right hand, she reaches out towards Cupid. Her stretched pose opens her upper body towards the viewer and emphasises the long limbs and the curves of her silhouette. Her pale skin is illuminated against the dark background of the forest backdrop and her smooth porcelain complexion contrasts with the rough bark of the tree. Her flirtatious gaze is directed towards the viewer. Cranach often depicted his female nudes with this expression; the theme of weibermacht (the power of women over men) was popular in Germany in the sixteenth century. Cranach’s erotic portrayal of the goddess is both a warning about the pains of love and a temptation in itself.
The density of the forest behind Venus and Cupid contrasts with the open expanse of water in the distance. A stag and hind hide in the thick vegetation, a detail which would have appealed to Cranach’s princely patrons, as hunting was a popular pastime among the elite. On the other side of the lake, a rocky crag crowned with a castle rises from an outcrop of land. Cranach has paid close attention to detail: we can see the delicate reflections of the houses and swans in the water, and two tiny figures walking down the steep hill. The vivid blue of the sky lightens and fades into warm peach and yellow hues, suggesting that the sun has just set. The water mirrors these colours, obscuring the line of the horizon and giving the location a sense of other-worldliness.
This picture was painted around 1525 when Cranach produced a series of important, high-quality commissions. The artist’s insignia can be seen on a rock face by Venus’ raised foot. Cranach adopted this signature, a winged serpent with a crown on its head and a ring in its mouth, after being granted his own coat of arms by Elector Friedrich the Wise in 1508.
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