Sexuality and sainthood

Cranach painted Venus to titillate Luther's contemporaries and chaste virgins aimed at keeping women in check, argues Itala Atteih

Itala Attieh, 8 May 2008

Cranach VenusAs soon as I had heard that a poster of Lucas Cranach the Elder's 'Venus' was initially banned from display in the London Underground, I knew I had to go see the exhibition that is causing such a stir.

My original perception of Cranach was of a German artist working in the Northern Renaissance period. More crucially, I knew of him as the close companion of Martin Luther and a participant in the religious Reformation taking place at the time, and so to hear of a risqué portrayal of Venus by the artist surprised me.

Many have speculated over the reasons for the ban, suggesting it may be because the figure resembles a young girl rather than a woman, or that certain religious groups have asked for it to be banned, or it may just be because the painting is a depiction of an overtly sexualised, full-frontal female nude. Whatever the reasons, I was intrigued and so I visited the exhibition with many expectations and burning questions.

As I entered the exhibition at the Royal Academy, which finishes 8 June, I was first confronted with pretty inoffensive and quite impressive detailed woodcuts, such as 'The Penitent Magdalen in Ecstasy'. The subject matter is traditional, but rather than depicting the female figure in the conventional manner, with long hair covering her body, she is completely nude and all that hides this figure are the angels that surround her.

The work is highly innovative, but not scandalous enough to have changed my preconceived opinions on Cranach. The woodcuts were followed by religious paintings and portraits, which I rushed through in order to see the ever so scandalous 'Venus'. As I walked towards it, I was struck by how relatively small the work is, surrounded by other female nudes. The 'Venus' on the poster had been blown up in size to advertise the exhibition because, like Cranach, the Royal Academy of Arts is well aware that female bodies sell!

The power of these works for a deeply religious society, in a time without photography, must not be understated

The painting is a female nude, set in a black background that serves to heighten the paleness of the soft, boneless flesh of the figure. She is posed with her weight on one foot, shifting the angle of her hips and therefore accentuating the curves of her child-bearing hips and swollen abdomen; characteristics of the contemporary ideal beauty. This Venus suggestively holds a transparent veil in her tapered fingers, not hiding her body, but instead drawing attention to its nakedness. The figure wears what appears to be contemporary jewellery and head-dress. She is unashamed in her nudity, and a little knowing, with a seductive facial expression. Cranach paints this nude, not specifying its setting or purpose, with no narrative or meaning. Is the mythological subject matter an excuse to paint a beautiful female nude?

As I studied the other nudes such as 'Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey', the idea of mythology as a justification of sexualised nudity became more convincing. The figure of Cupid is set in the narrative while the figure of Venus merely poses as a seductress in the northern landscape. Is Cranach warning contemporary viewers against temptation, or is he titillating them? His painting of Lucretia as an honourable heroine suggests that the answer may be both. Lucretia is a representation of marriage and fidelity and Venus is the symbol of seduction, the personifications of two types of love, that warn viewers and, at the same time, seduce them.

I was quite taken aback seeing these nudes, from an artist I knew as a deeply religious man who is renowned for his sober portraits.

Yet he created different works for different patrons: his quest for realism transformed into idealism, producing images that not only pleased male viewers, but also dictated to women how they should look.

Seeing Cranach's nudes made me want to go back around the exhibition, revisiting the paintings I had ignored. In the same way that these secular images were setting standards of ideal beauty for audiences at the time, were the religious images setting moral standards for contemporary viewers, and how did these affect the women who looked at them?

Cranach painted his virgins in contemporary dress and placed them in a northern European landscape, to help women of his time and place to relate to St Catherine as a model of female chastity

From the first room to the last, there was an abundance of religious imagery, which you might expect from an artist like Cranach, but the implications of these pictures can sometimes go without real consideration, brushed away with the hype of the erotic female nudes.

The power of these works for a deeply religious society, in a time without photography, must not be understated. Works like the 'Mystic Marriage of St Catherine Accompanied by Holy Virgins' and 'The Education of Virgin Mary', are works with undoubtedly moralising intentions, yet these morals seem to be aimed solely at women. The cult of the Virgin and of the saints found its way into art and was used alongside literature to control women of the time.

St Catherine was popularly used in imagery at the time to promote chastity and piousness. Women often affiliated themselves to St Catherine, using her as a role model for religious devotion and Cranach's paintings are examples of the way imagery was exploited in order to embed certain ideas and values into society, and particularly for the 'benefit' of women.

The painting shows the saint surrounded by other virgins with the figure of Christ as a baby who places a ring on her finger, indicating their spiritual marriage. The figures are placed in dress contemporary to the painting and are placed in a northern European landscape, which further helps to aim this image at women who could relate themselves to the St Catherine. They could have interpreted the work in various ways whether it be to devote themselves to Christ by living a chaste life, or devoting themselves to their husbands and being loyal to them.

Cranach's images of the Virgin Mary in childhood weaving and reading also encouraged particular ideas in contemporary women. Not much is written about Mary in the Bible, yet artists like Cranach regularly painted her to promote values such as reading which was important to the Lutherans and weaving which was, well... women's work

Cranach's Adam and EveUnlike the smaller religious panels in the exhibition, one cannot help but notice the large-scale, detailed and richly-coloured painting of Adam and Eve. The figures are set in a nocturnal landscape with a Venus-like Eve and an oblivious looking Adam. Eve knowingly gives Adam the forbidden apple, seducing him with her fanned out curly blonde hair and idealised form. Adam scratches his head and involuntarily takes the apple from the deceiving and manipulative looking Eve, who almost forces it into his hand. This painting and others shown in the exhibition reveal how imagery paired with patriarchy made sure that women were forced to believe that they were the cause of sin and were forever sinners unless they aimed to live their lives like the virtuous and honourable saints, within the boundaries and confines defined to them by men.

In considering Cranach's work, the eroticised depictions of Venus and other female nudes displayed in the exhibition seem to embody the sin that Lutheranism warned against: vice, temptation and the seductive power of women over men. The paintings blame women for men's actions, consequently controlling them and their sexuality.

Furthermore, the paintings are blatant images of female nudity, used to please the so-called religious and moral men of the time who viewed them. The idealised forms controlled the way in which women were expected to look, standardising notions of beauty. The religious paintings and portraiture by Cranach, were tools that promoted marriage, chastity, and pious devotion. It was clear from the exhibition how Cranach's art lead to certain ideas and values penetrating contemporary society, which shaped the way women were treated and controlled. As I wondered around the exhibition I could not help but ponder on the power of these images, and how the values encouraged and forced upon women at the time were so entrenched, that they still prevail in today's society, our society! Images still exist of the virtuous women, which we must feel pressure to aspire to and the secular sinners, which we as a society scorn. At first, Cranach's art may seem outdated or simply of its time, but the exhibition highlights that sadly not much has changed, for we are still being controlled by patriarchal images that dominate our culture.

About the author

Itala Attieh

Itala Attieh is a 19-year-old Bristol University student who wants to be a feminist art historian when she grows up

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