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Sexy Nudes, Cross Dressing, and Freaky Toes at the Lucas Cranach Exhibit

Christian art never interested me much. I pointedly shied away from most diptychs, triptychs, and any other -tychs I came across in my studies and travels. All that religious symbolism seemed so tired, like it had been regurgitated so many times that it had lost any shred of spiritual import. My perception changed when I enrolled in a Northern Renaissance art history course in college. Our professor revealed to us with contagious enthusiasm the creepy works of Hieronymus Bosch, the astonishing precision of Jan Van Eyck, and the distinctive, snowy scenes of Pieter Bruegel. I was astonished at the level of creativity, how the artists interpreted Christian allegories into fantastical, mythological, or contemporary settings. I finally realized what all the fuss was about.

Visiting the Musée du Luxembourg last week rekindled my fondness for this artistic époque. The current exhibit focuses on the life and work of the great German painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Allegory of Justice, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1537 via

Posters are scattered around the city luring visitors with a print of the exhibit’s centerpiece, Allegory of Justice. Admittedly, when I first saw this painting in poster-form illuminated by the dingy light of the metro corridors, I thought that the woman’s mons pubis had been pierced. The entire focus of the painting is drawn to her sex so on first glance I didn’t notice what she was carrying, just that the two objects seemed to pierce through her in one continuous line. Doesn’t her skin appear to pucker around two insertion points? Upon further reflection I realized (with some disappointment) that her flesh had not in fact been pierced and that I really needed to get my head out of the gutter. Still, the line formed by the hilt of the sword and the arm of the scale creates a very powerful focal point.

So how did a 16th century painter get away with such overtly sexual subject matter? As it turns out, Cranach was a master of saturating his nudes with religious or political allegories. As long as his sexy models conveyed a moral message, no one minded their curiously perky breasts and bedroom eyes.

Hercules and Omphale, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1537 via

In addition to his gratuitous female nudes, I was pleased to find some mythologically inspired pieces. Representations of Hercules peppered the exhibit, the most intriguing of which was Hercules and Omphale. As the story goes, Hercules was forced into the service of Queen Omphale of Lydia for a year, during which time she dressed the hero as a woman while she herself toted about his club and Nemean lion skin. Though Cranach has chosen to ignore the lion skin in favor of more contemporary attire, he still fully explored this interesting role reversal. Omphale looks on with mild amusement as her maids poke and prod the emasculated Hercules at his loom. The moral appears to be “don’t subject yourself to the wily ways of a beautiful woman,”, or more broadly, “don’t be persuaded by an attractive political agenda. Be a man and stick with your convictions”.

My favorite painting features neither nudity nor mythology. It is the Madonna with Child, because honestly, look at that Kid’s toes!  With a gift like that his fate really could have gone one of two ways: “circus freak extraordinaire” or, you know, “savior of mankind”.

(Freaky toes!) Madonna and Child, 1520-25, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Practical Info

The exhibit “Cranach in his Time” runs until May 23. The museum is open daily from 10am – 8pm, and until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays. For more info, refer to the Musée du Luxembourg website.

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