Adam and Eve brilliantly combines devotional meaning with pictorial elegance and invention.
The scene is set in a forest clearing where Eve stands before the Tree of Knowledge, caught in the act of handing an apple to a bewildered Adam. Entwined in the tree’s branches above, the serpent looks on as Adam succumbs to temptation.
A rich menagerie of birds and animals – a stag, a hind, a sheep, a roe-buck with its mate, a lion, a wild boar and a horse, and partridges, a stork and a heron – completes this seductive vision of Paradise. On the tree-trunk are the date 1526 and the bat-winged serpent which formed part of Cranach’s coat of arms.
The painting is particularly admired for its treatment of the human figure and for the profusion of finely painted details, including animals and vegetation. Cranach delights in capturing details such as the roe-buck catching its reflection in the foreground pool of water.
Cranach, who was a close friend of Martin Luther, worked at the court of Saxony. The artist, who was famous for his landscapes, representations of animals and nudes, found Adam and Eve a subject which was ideally suited to his gifts and to which the Lutherans did not object. He and his workshop treated it many times in paintings and prints.
This painting is influenced by Dürer’s celebrated engravings of the same subject, dated 1504. Dürer had also included many animals, but, while Dürer’s animals may be interpreted as allusions to the Four Humours, Cranach’s animals are less solemn and portentous.
A related drawing at Dresden, though closer to Dürer’s print, is still less solemn than the painting; there Eve puts the apple in Adam’s mouth and Adam holds a phallic apple-branch which both conceals and connects his and Eve’s genitals.
The vine, not present in the drawing, refers to the Redemption, so that the picture has some didactic function. While the pairing of the sheep with the lion may have a moral meaning, the association of Adam with the sheep is perhaps intended as a wry comment on his behaviour.
The principal purpose of the painting, which was presumably made for a wealthy collector, is evidently to give pleasure rather than instruction. Cranach holds a balance between highly decorative, stylized forms and an immediacy and liveliness of presentation. The unexpectedly free technique of the foliage and grass is a reminder that Cranach was renowned for his speed of working.