Encouraged by the interest of the Wittenberg humanists, Cranach soon found that pictures from classical mythology took first place among the new subjects. This enabled him to apply his skill at painting nudes, in particular depictions of the female body, to heathen goddesses such as Venus, Diana and the Three Graces.
Eroticism and sensual pleasure are essential to the appeal of these works, though they are seldom without a didactic or philosophical message.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Venus, 1532. Oil and tempera on red beechwood, 37.7 x 24.5 cm Städel Museum, Frankfurt am MainA naked young woman stands against a deep black neutral background on a circular base with a sandy floor scattered with pebbles. Her deliberate pose, with the slight rotation of her torso in an S-curve, generates a rhythm continued to either side in the delicate play of her arms and hands against the black background and in the almost transparent material of the veil which, festoon-like, swirls in a gentle curve between her hands and finally drops vertically towards the floor.
The woman’s jewellery and headdress contrast somewhat with her complete lack of clothes: they feature a gold choker, a long gold necklace with a jewelled pendant, and luxuriant hair caught up in a decorative net. This beauty peeps at the viewer through slanting almond-shaped eyes, the veil further enhancing her frivolous coquetry.
The transparent material does nothing to conceal her hips and pubic hair; on either side of her body the white highlights in the folds and hems of the veil form almost calligraphic shapes against the dark background. But in the very place where it is most needed, the artistically held material almost disappears against the pale body; and where it is in fact unnecessary, the viewer can see it much more clearly.
In the absence of concrete attributes, the seductive pose and nudity of the figure provide the only clue to her identity as Venus, the goddess of love, beauty and desire. Cranach only seldom featured the Olympian goddess as a single figure; usually she is accompanied by her son Amor (Cupid) or is taking part in a mythological scene. This isolation means of course that there can be no play between the carefree infant Cupid, the messenger, mediator and initiator of love, and his rather more restrained mother. In this panel Venus not only reveals her celestial beauty; she also uses it to seduce the viewer. Works depicting an intimate relationship between picture and beholder were generally the preserve of the Kunstkammer or private collection. Cranach may have had a further motive in mind when he dispensed with the figure of Cupid for his Frankfurt panel and gave the goddess of love the role of seductress. It is possible that he needed this personification of lust as part of a pair of pictures showing the contrast between her and another very differently inclined female representative of love.
At all events, the unusual charisma of the Frankfurt Venus has secured her the attention of artists in the twentieth century. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner often declared that Cranach’s jewel of a picture had inspired him to paint his Akt mit Hut (Nude with Hat, Städel Museum, Frankfurt). Kirchner has also revealed that Otto Müller put up a large photograph of the Cranach picture in his studio. Alberto Giacometti copied it in the 1950s: in a drawing, now in a private collection, he combined the figure of the Frankfurt Venus with the three naked goddesses in Cranach’s Judgement of Paris.