Temptation in Eden at Courtauld Gallery

    Cranach the Elder's fleshly scenes hide a subtle Christian message for Waldemar Januszczak

    Lust is one of art’s favourite subjects. Or, at least, it used to be. But to understand what was going through Lucas Cranach’s mind in Germany at the beginning of the 16th century, when he painted the charming Adam and Eve that is the focus of an enticing new display at the Courtauld Gallery, we need to understand lust in the old way, and not in the new way. Which is to say, we cannot approve of it on any level. We cannot show it any tolerance or allow it any mitigating circumstances. We cannot mistake it for a mere human foible, and we cannot, most certainly, in any situation, forgive it. To understand Cranach’s Adam and Eve, to understand any of his paintings in which naked chaps are paired with naked girls in pretty forest clearings, we need to recognise lust as the atom bomb of sins: the ultimately destructive human weakness, a lethal crack in our make-up through which everything that is terrible in the world slunk in.

    Excuse the sermon. My ambition is not to drive you away from this intrepid display, but to prepare you properly for its tone. Because tone is a problem with Cranach. He’s an artist who can easily be accused of shallowness, and, indeed, has been. Kenneth Clark, the haughty art historian who used to run the National Gallery (and not the bon viveur who specialised in losing Tory-leadership elections), was snooty about many artists, but particularly about Cranach, whom he accused of possessing “a sense of chic that would make him the patron saint of all fashion designers”. Ouch. If there is one thing a 16th-century German moralist and close friend of Martin Luther – as Cranach was – would not wish to be accused of, it is chicness. What a hurtful barb.

    But Clark wasn’t thinking too deeply when he threw it. He was responding glibly to a delightful painting that was once under his charge at the National Gallery, and that is on show here, too, of Cupid being stung by bees while his mother, Venus, the goddess of love, from whom Cupid has inherited a dangerous taste for putting his hand into honey pots, looks out at us with a flirtatiously knowing look. Cranach’s naughty Venus is naked except for the extraordinary hat she sports, some sort of northern Renaissance sombrero ringed with fluffy white pompoms, which could, indeed, sit happily on a modern catwalk.

    This amusing Cupid and Venus always brings a smile to my lips, because poor little Cupid manages to look so gloriously hurt and puzzled as he swipes uselessly at the bees that are attacking him. “Mummy, mummy, me want tasty sweet stuff, but nasty bees hurting,” he sobs – or something like that. And I know what Clark meant about Cranach’s chicness. Jerry Hall in her heyday might have posed for this tall and pale Venus, leaning so provocatively on her fruit tree. Like the juicy apples above her head, she demands to be picked and licked and bitten. The point is that it’s a painting about temptation, whose opening gambit is to tempt you. You reach in. You get bitten.

    I am confident you have heard of Cranach, becausehe is one of the bigger names in northern Renaissance painting, but I am also sure you know nothing about him, because that is the boat we are all in. Astonishingly, this is the first exhibition in Britain ever devoted to him. He was born in 1472 in the town of Kronach, in Bavaria, which gave him his name, and the only other surviving early facts about him are that he was christened Lucas, and that his father, Hans, was a painter as well. In 1502, he moved to Vienna as a fully qualified artist who signed his pictures LC, and by 1505 he was court painter to Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony, a position he held, almost without interruption, until his death in 1553. So he lived to be 81, an impressive age for a painter then.

    But Cranach’s modern reputation is not particularly glorious. There are two difficulties. The first is that he ran a huge and hugely successful studio that churned out so much lower-grade and repetitive stuff, his signature is rarely trusted. And the second problem is the one Clark hinted at with his quip about fashion designers: there’s a sweetness to Cranach’s vision, an extra helping of charm, that seems sometimes to invalidate his sincerity, and can feel sticky, particularly with the Eves and Venuses for which he is best known. So, plenty of weighty art historians have described the final two-thirds of his career as a huge decline.

    The Courtauld has set out to challenge this view. All the mysterious alfresco seductions gathered here are from late in Cranach’s career, and they prove immediately how silly it is to insist on a slump. The Courtauld’s gorgeous Adam and Eve, signed and dated 1526, is the maypole around which this feisty bit of revisionism dances. Eve has just handed Adam the forbidden apple, and he, poor thickie that he is, is busily scratching his head and wondering whether to bite or not. Satan, disguised as a notably phallic snake coiled in the tree, is whispering sweet nothings to Eve. And all around them, a fabulous array of beasts attempts to evoke the unspoilt nature of the Garden of Eden as it was before Adam succumbed to his temptation.

    The surrounding show unpicks this deceptively sweet image, examines its various component bits and invites in a group of like-minded companions in which Cranach continues his sly researches into lust and its consequences. There’s a painting of Apollo showing Diana his bow. A fertile faun surrounded by his naked family. And the National Gallery’s amusing Venus and Cupid. Seeing them all in a huddle makes super-clear what a slippery painter Cranach was, and how cunningly he hid his Christian message behind pagan themes.

    Cranach was a fierce friend and supporter of Luther, to whose son he was godfather. He illustrated Luther’s writings and paid to have them published. But this was the age of iconoclasm, when gangs of Protestant lunatics went about attacking overtly religious art with axes and knives, so the clever religious painter had to be particularly sneaky. Which Cranach was. The naked female forest-dwellers who make up this fascinating parade of secret Eves are a deceptively dangerous bunch. There’s something worryingly snaky about Cranach’s temptresses, something insidious. Where Dürer’s Eves are muscular and hefty, Cranach’s are slight and a tad prepubescent. I was going to write ‘boyish’, and that might not be wrong, either. Once lust has got its talons in, the truly wicked sinner is too busy giving in to his urges to care about the differences between the sexes. The boyishness of Cranach’s Eve is the wicked icing on a fatal cake.

    Cranach’s employer, Frederick the Wise, for whom this coven of temptresses would probably have been painted, was a mad huntsman whose appetite for the chase was notorious. And with its thickly forested greenness, its stags and its boars, the paradise we keep revisiting here looks just like Lower Saxony to me. Even when these forests have a lion on the prowl in them, they surely represent a paradise that’s close to home: the paradise on Cranach’s doorstep.

    This is one of those shows in which it really pays to lean in and examine the paintings. There is so much joy to be had in Cranach’s details: the weird cities that haunt his horizons; the marvellous cascades of vegetation; a particularly fine menagerie of beasts. The show also includes drawings in which Cranach shows off his skills as an animal artist with some impeccable partridges, a rampaging boar, a dead deer. Look into the eyes of his beasts and you’ll find all the dread and sadness you need to convince you of the intensity of his Christian message. The animals see what the art historians missed.