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Lucus Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, 1526, oil on panel (Courtauld Gallery, London). 

Speakers: Rachel Ropeik and Steven Zucker

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Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Steven: We're in the Courtauld Galleries and we're looking at Lucus Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve from 1526 and it's a pretty big Cranach. Beth: It is. I think we're used to seeing perhaps Cranachs that are smaller and on a more intimate scale, but I guess that sort of matches the grandeur and importance of the Biblical Adam and Eve story. Steven: So German paintings of this time, I think especially Cranach's, are so peculiar visually. The representation of the body, there a kind of stylization of nature and of the human body that I think strike many people as wonderfully awkward, but also elegant in a curious way. Beth: Both Adam and Eve look like they're in courtly poses or very carefully posed and elegantly standing there, but it also just happens to be in the perfect place for this little grapevine to grow up naturally and Steven: (laughs) Steven: Okay, so a little poetic [?], Beth: (laughs) Steven: Now that idea of the courtly is important because Cranach was actually very much a part of the Saxon court. Beth: And he was painting for the court and the upper classes at the time, but also, interestingly I think, kind of encouraging people to read his images not simply for their religious importance, but also looking at the details of things that they might recognize. These animals, if you were out hunting and you would see deer or sheep or pheasant, all these little animals ... Steven: They're almost didactic. They're almost illustrations of these animals and maybe becomes a kind of menagerie, a kind of excuse to enjoy this complexity of animal forms and type. Beth: Well, that's certainly also reflecting that all these animals would have been in the Garden of Eden. I also think it's interesting, as a little historical side note, Cranach not having seen a lion in his own life. He was known to use pattern books. He would look up pictures that were made for artists of, "Here's what a lion looks like if you ever need to put a lion in your painting." The little lion over on the right side of the painting looks kind of like a dog, but that's (laughs) a Saxon artist in Bavaria at the time not having access to real lions. Steven: Of course, many people would have relied on a painting like this to understand what a lion looked like [entermed] and might have been led astray a little bit. Beth: Yeah. Steven: Let's talk about just the central scene for just a moment because it's pretty wonderful. You have Eve who's at the point of literally handing Adam the forbidden fruit which we generally think of as an apple, and he looks a little reluctant. Beth: He does, like he's scratching his head, "Should I take this? Should I not?" which is a little bit out of the ordinary for how we see Adam depicted, I think. Steven: He looks a little bit the innocent here. In turn, Eve looks somewhat sinister. Beth: She has kind of a sly, sideways glance going on which does give her a womanly wile appearance. Steven: I think that's actually amplified by the hair which is pretty extraordinary. She's got these curls that radiate out almost like electricity, in a variety of different angles and makes her seem a little bit wild. Beth: And also kind of connects her to the foliage right behind her, so it's as though she's connected to the tree and the fruit of knowledge and all of this. Steven: The serpent, the symbol of evil, is paying attention to her. That kind of misogyny or that kind of attention or implication that Eve is the responsible party, is a fairly old tradition. Beth: And I think that's also emphasized by the fact that her left hand is still holding the branch of the tree while she offers Adam the fruit with her right. Steven: So the story itself is pretty wonderful. They eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and know their nakedness. When God reveals Himself to them, they hide. Like a parent, God just simply asks the question, "Why are you hiding?" Of course the fact that they had eaten the forbidden fruit comes to light. What I find interesting relates back to something you said earlier which is that this is a more secular rendering that is in some ways less religious. If Cranach, the artist is actually thinking about the secular, thinking about knowledge itself as good, that is displaying these animals, displaying the foliage in a very particular way, giving as much visual information as he can, very much a characteristic of the Renaissance, then this notion of eating of the Tree of Knowledge is interesting in the way that that's folded in, that knowledge in an inherent good and he is a product of this original sin. Beth: Which definitely would have been, in a Renaissance context, something worth emphasizing because they were very interested in the pursuit of knowledge and including that in their paintings and giving a great amount of emphasis to all of the learning that they have done. Steven: But in this context, there's something slightly naughty then, about that knowledge that it is somehow linked to sin. Beth: Yes. Steven: And so it's an interesting kind of balance. Beth: It becomes a good subject I think, for that little play of the good and the evil connected with knowledge. Steven: What a great painting. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)