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A mother is shown standing with her three children. She clasps the forearm of a girl in her right hand while a smaller boy clings to her left leg and she suckles a baby (of indeterminate sex) at her left breast. All the figures are represented naked, but the mother has a transparent veil which extends over her forehead and from behind her neck over both shoulders, part wrapping around the arm holding the child in the form of a sling, and part extending over the front of her body and right leg. She also wears two necklaces, a choker with a stone around her neck and a gold chain with large links over her shoulders. Her hair is fair and is bound with a black band. The hair of her daughter (and of the other two infants) is also fair. In an echo of her mother’s pose, the small girl carries a female doll in her right arm, dressed in a long square-necked dress with a white high-necked blouse underneath. The doll’s hair is also held back with a black band. The figures stand on stony brown ground against a black background, both of which consist largely of overpaint (see Technical Notes). Although it is reasonable to assume that this repainting follows the original, this cannot be proven to be the case. However, many other paintings by Cranach of such subjects include similar dark backgrounds, for instance classical subjects such as Hercules or Venus and Cupid.

Cranach’s images of Charity

The image is identified as Charity by the inscription. Some dozen similar representations of Charity by Cranach and his workshop, dated from 1529 onwards, show a woman seated with her young children against a landscape, for example that dated 1534 in Schaffhausen.4 The number of children included varies from one to seven, but is more usually three.5 These depictions follow the traditional representation of Charity as a female figure with children.6  Koepplin has argued convincingly that these paintings should be read in connection with Luther’s reinterpretation of the concept of Charity or Caritas, namely as the love arising from faith in the grace of God, which should naturally extend to loving our neighbours: in his Preface to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans of 1522 Luther wrote ‘Without compulsion man becomes willing and eager to do everyone good’.7 

A variant type is reflected in a painting attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger (Hamburg, Kunsthalle), in which, in addition to the seated group, some of the children are shown knocking apples from a tree. In some post-1537 versions of the subject that action is missing but a little girl resembling the one seen here holds an apple, not a doll, while the family are seated under an apple tree.8 Koepplin has suggested a possible connection to a remark by Luther in 1533, in which he compared the Bible to a fruit tree and its fruits of faith as gifts of God, and noted that for Melanchthon love for God was the fruit of faith.9 In yet another representation by Lucas Cranach the Younger the children offer grapes, symbolising the Eucharist, with apples (erroneously restored as pears) again hanging on the tree (Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts).10 The association of the apple tree and charity occurs also in woodcuts by Holbein made for the London-based Protestant printer Reynold Wolf, in which small children knock down an abundance of fruit.11 

The standing female figure of Charity in NG2925 is unique in the treatment of this subject by Cranach and his workshop. The presence of a black background instead of a landscape is highly unusual, although a black background occurs in a version of the seated type by Lucas Cranach the Younger (private collection, Hamburg).12 Here the figure of Charity is veiled and wears jewellery, but otherwise bears some resemblance to the seated or standing woman with her small children who is a recurring motif in Cranach’s paintings representing wild people (see NG3922). A somewhat similar figure occurs in three paintings, dated to the mid- to late 1520s, in which a standing woman with two small children, one in her arms or being suckled, is paired with a faun with a lionskin (for example, that in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles); Wind suggested that they are intended to represent 'fortezz'a and 'caritas', or strength and charity.13 Koepplin argued that the development of the nude seated figure of Charity might have been influenced by Cranach’s own representation of the virtue of Sophrosyne or Temperance in 1523 in a woodcut made for a work by Melanchthon, as well as perhaps by an engraving by Georg Pencz of Charity of around 1528.14 There is no obvious reason for the development of a standing version of Charity, other than the possibility that, with its small scale and plain background, it made replication by the workshop simpler; yet this is the only type of this subject which survives in a single example.

Further sections

4. For Cranach’s representations of the subject see Koepplin 2007–8: fig. 1, reproduced on p. 64, is dated 1529, but its current whereabouts is unknown (see note 10, p. 77). Friedländer and Rosenberg give the earliest dated version as 223A dated 1529 (recorded in 1913). For post-1537 versions of this type see Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, no. 406, including paintings at Weimar, Antwerp and Hamburg. Ibid. no. 223, Museum zu Allerheiligen, Schaffhausen, Sturzenegger Stiftung (reproduced in Koepplin 2007–8, p. 71, fig. 14).

5. De Tervarent 1959, pp. 175–6.

6. Early representations of the subject (and one by Raphael) also include a symbol of the love of God such as a flaming heart, the woman with children being indicative only of amor proximi: see Freyhan 1948. For early sculpted versions in Italy see Seidel 1977.

7. Koepplin 2007–8, esp. pp. 65–6.

8. Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, no. 406, citing the versions at Weimar, Hamburg and elsewhere.

9. Koepplin 2007–8, pp. 68–9.

10. I am grateful to Gunnar Heydenreich for drawing this to my attention.

11. For the Holbein woodcuts see Dodgson 1938–9. The image derives from the opposition between strength and charity, the tree, which stands firm in spite of the apples knocked from it, being a representation of strength. For the opposition between fortezza and caritas see Wind 1969, pp. 3–4.

12. Koepplin 2007–8, p. 65, fig. 3 and p. 77, note 11.

13. Wind 1969. Other versions of the subject are in the collection of the Fürst zu Fürstenberg (Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, no. 266, Koepplin and Falk 1974–6, vol. II, no. 502) and private collection, formerly Heinz Kisters collection, Kreuzlingen (Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, no. 267, Koepplin and Falk 1974–6, vol. II, no. 501).

14. Koepplin 2007–8, pp. 72–3 and 75.