There is a mythic quality to the women of the 16th century German painter, Lucas Cranach. They are disturbingly fay. With their red hair, red gowns, snaky chains around their necks, and hat brims like earthy halos, they have the air of Fallen Angels. They never appear as bruised by life as fallen women would be, nor do they appear darkly evil as demons are. Often young and oozing wealth, they seem experienced and yet untouched, natural yet divine, innocent yet knowing, coy and seductive. Under their society lady veneer, lurks something feral, lunar: the uncanny magic of the witch.
Of course in 1544 being a witch wasn't quite safe was it? So I like to think the conventional presentation of Cranach's women is a symbolic mask for his true perception of the nature of his subjects and, by extension, of all women.
In this painting, entitled Three Princesses, the artist uses the traditional iconography of the Pagan Triple Moon Goddess, patroness of witches. Reading from right to left, we see the three ages of women as they correspond to the lunar phases: Virgin waxing crescent, maternal full moon, and elder waning moon? Even the colors suggest a lunar connotation. They shine in the black of night. The youngest one is dressed in silver, the middle one red, and the last in autumnal gold and black, her hair plaited close to her head as are the rays of the moon when it is dark.
If you think Mona Lisa is enigmatic, take a look at this girl! The slanted eyes, the black halo hat brim that almost looks like a bat's wing, the serpentine slope of the face, the calm self possession. What was he trying to say by creating an image like this? As a Cranach was friend and painter of Martin Luther, Biblical allusions cannot be discounted.
Eve was the first woman. She started it! Not content to be Adam's little sidekick, she wanted to know. And she got burned for it! Again, in Cranach's image, we see the slanting eyes, and the red-gold hair like tendrils of flame. If we compare this picture with the one above, we may note, in the silvery scales of Eve's serpent, an echo of the silvery weave of the cord around the neck the girl. Eve's hair looks like one of Cranach's woven necklaces unloosed and wild. This element combined with Eve's free unclothed state contrasts with the binding gowns of his civilized women, their woven necklaces like chains around their necks.
The cord and choker the girl wears in the painting above, cut her head from her body, making a symbolic separation between the two. The serpent scale cord then disappears under her bodice suggests that her sexual secrets, the sins of Eve, are still active -- just hidden for propriety's sake.
The other culprit in woman's disturbing magical wickedness is Venus, or Aphrodite. Like Eve, she is shamelessly nude. A bit more civilized, or urbanized, than Eve, she wears the choker, her hair is bound in a snood, and she does a sly strip tease with an invisible veil. She looks like the serpent with her hooded eyes and sinuous body, daring us to look and decipher her meaning. Standing in the darkness, pale and trimmed with gold, she evokes the moon, as well as the luxuries that material wealth can buy.The only natural thing about her is the spot of earth she stands upon.
Like the serpent, she is sheer temptation to sin. Let's call her Venus of the Bordello.
Unlike the previous Venus of the Bordello, Cranach also created Venus figures that were combined her qualities with Eve. Cupid, the little boy with the bow and arrow who signifies the forces of love, is her son. She attempts to shield him or protect him with her hand -- as if she could! Venus, is in a sense, the First Mother of Love.
Note the snaky, silver necklace combined with the wavy unbound hair. The natural pose of the body as opposed to the bordello Venus's sexy come-on. No snake in the grass, this Venus has the face of a sorrowful mother, uncertain of what she has unleashed into the world.
Note also the little red necklace around Cupid's neck like a ring of blood.
Whether Salome or Judith, Cranach's art is full of women with severed heads. Despite that fact that it is the women that wear the tight chokers, chains, and snakes around their necks, it is the heads of men that they carry, along with their weapon of choice, the double edged sword. One could concoct a Freudian revenge fantasy, a projection by the artist of male guilt in their restriction of the female race. On the other hand, these paintings could be an allegory of woman's sharp tongue, symbolized by the sword, and her ability to reduce the man to unthinking, instinctive reaction. Maybe men lose their heads over women against their will; maybe Cranach suffered paranoia towards women based upon his deep awareness of primal feminine power.
Here we see Lucrece, the Lady of Tragedy who killed herself for love. Cranach turns the tabkes on his sword weilding women by turning their weapons on themselves.
Note that though her hair is tight to her head, it is unbound. Gone are the necklace/ chains, though she still flaunts the sheerest of veils. Somehow she has transgressed either nature or culture, but which? Could she have been in a double bind whose only escape is death?
This Lucrece is very similar to the Venus of the Bordello. Poor thing must have broken the cardinal rule of the whore and fallen in love! What does this say about Cranach's perception of woman and Eve's sin? Perhaps that there is no redemption, efface herself she must!
Hmmm. What iconography is this? The Mother of God with flowing, crinkly, unbound flame colored hair sitting under an apple tree in a green gown? Christ holding an apple? Her face looks sweet, but she is holding something back. Raised in a French Roman Catholic family with deep reverence for the Virgin Mary, I can say that this is no Christian Madonna!
I don't want to spell it out, but green is the color of the earth, is the color of Faery, the color of Luciher's crown. There is an apocryphal gnostic text that suggests that Lucifer was Jesus's brother, the Son of God's left hand.
The Wicked Woman is deified. The Angels of the Lord wrestle overhead. She stands on the earth in her golden chains carrying her vessel of sacred oil that has been equated with the seed of Christ. Her loose hair replaces the woven serpent necklace.Her expression is serene and open -- she hides nothing.
Though she stands on her customary patch of dry ground, the land is teeming with life and growth. Her gown seems looser, less restrictive and just under her sleeves is the hint of hidden green.
Could this be Cranach's sense of true redemption for women? Has he resolved his intuitive sense of the nature of feminine power, and found that answer in the Magdalene? How did he arrive at this answer? I may embark on a quest for that knowledge...
I leave it to you, my friend, to decipher this Tau cross. In my recollection, it usually has a serpent entwined around it as if crucified, with the word LUX under it...Bear in mind that Cranach was Luther's portraitist.
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