The subject of this painting has been much debated, but it’s generally thought to show an imagined view of a past and primitive society. Cranach made a number of similar paintings from 1527 to 1535. Since the twentieth century it has been assumed that the origin of the subject lies in a classical source.
Two pairs of men are fighting – violence which is more disturbing for its close proximity to three small children. While one woman watches the fighting with a look of shock on her face, another is staring at something over her shoulder, beyond the picture frame. A third woman seems unaware of – or unconcerned by – the chaos around her. Their primitive behaviour takes place outside the realm of civilised society, represented by the buildings in the distance.
The subject of this painting has been much debated, but it is generally thought to show an imagined view of a past and primitive society. Cranach made a number of similar paintings from 1527 to 1535, though other versions show a more densely populated scene.
Two pairs of men are fighting, but the presence of women with children adds a disturbing sense of domesticity to the violent scene. The woman reclining on the grass appears unaware of – or unconcerned by – the fighting behind her, as if Cranach is implying that violence is a common occurrence. The two standing men are separated from the rest of the figures by their darker skin tones and long beards; their weather-beaten appearance and unkempt facial hair could suggest they are the most wild of all the figures. The two other men, lying on the ground with their arms raised defensively, are in positions of vulnerability.
Since the twentieth century it has been assumed that the origin of the subject lies in a classical source, and there are a number of texts that Cranach could have used as inspiration. The Ancient Greek author Hesiod wrote about the evolutionary ages of man – the Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age – and described the people of the Silver Age as weak and uncaring (hence why the painting has been given this title). Cranach most likely knew Hesiod’s work through an adaption of the text by a contemporary German humanist writer. In his Metamorphoses, Roman poet Ovid sets out the deterioration of man from the Golden Age, and describes forest dwellers who live away from the rest of society during the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Despite the similarities with these two texts, Cranach was likely drawing on a number of literary and visual sources, as well as contemporary ideas about and perceptions of earlier civilisations.
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