Venus, the goddess of love, leans against a leafy tree while her son Cupid, the god of desire, tries to get her attention. Clutching a stolen honeycomb, he complains as bees swarm and sting him – but Venus is uninterested in her son. Instead, her attention is directed towards us.
The Latin inscription on the tree trunk explains Venus' lack of concern for her son, as well as the moral of the picture: brief and fleeting pleasure is mingled with sadness and pain. It alludes to the sting of Cupid’s arrows of love, which cause a more enduring agony than any bee sting.
Cranach painted numerous versions of this subject; there’s another in the National Gallery’s collection, Cupid complaining to Venus. His depictions, which combine a moralising message with blatant eroticism, were especially popular with his patrons.
Venus, the goddess of love, leans against a tree while her son, Cupid, tries to get her attention. He clutches a stolen honeycomb in one hand and raises the other to his forehead in anguish as bees swarm and sting him. The pair stand on a gravel path in a verdant and rocky landscape, and grand steepled buildings are visible in the distance.
Despite Cupid’s distress, Venus pays him no attention. Instead, her gaze is directed towards us. Her tilted head is inclined towards us and her gaze could be interpreted as curious or coquettish. She clasps the transparent veil that is draped around her body, accentuating the curves of her form and emphasising her identity as the goddess of love. She wears a bracelet and a choker of gold and pearls, as well as a hairnet decorated with pearls underneath a wide-brimmed red hat. The inscription on her headband reads ‘all is vanity’. These accessories would have made the timeless goddess appear modern to Cranach’s original audience as they reflect the fashions of the Saxon court where the artist worked for the electors of Saxony. Cranach often depicted female figures from classical mythology and biblical history wearing accessories that were stylish in Germany in the sixteenth century.
The Latin inscription on the tree trunk explains Venus‘ lack of concern for her son, as well as the moral of the picture. It describes how, just like the stings felt by Cupid for stealing the honey, the ’brief and fleeting pleasure we seek is mingled with sadness and brings us pain‘. This alludes to the sting of Cupid’s arrows of love, which cause a pain that lasts far longer than the mere sting of a bee.
Cranach painted numerous versions of this subject, and there is another in the National Gallery’s collection: Cupid complaining to Venus. Although they differ in size, these two pictures are visually similar: in both, the pair are stood outdoors, with Venus positioned centrally and Cupid to her right. Both pictures include the same Latin inscription, emphasising that Cranach intended them to serve a didactic function. The artist’s depictions of this subject were especially popular with his patrons for combining a moralising message with blatant eroticism: here, Venus’ open pose shows off her body. The date of the painting and Cranach’s signature of a winged serpent appear upon the stony ground at the lower right of the composition.
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