Venus is the goddess of love and beauty. As a figure of classical mythology, she was back in vogue in the Renaissance. Lucas Cranach the Elder, a friend of Martin Luther’s, produced several depictions of her. Our little panel is special in that here the painter has demythologized Venus in a remarkable manner – she is neither accompanied by the usual Cupid, nor is there any narrative context.
At first sight, all we see is a simple nude figure, but even she raises questions. Her valuable contemporary headdress and necklaces are indications of an elevated status. A member of the aristocracy, however, would never have had herself painted naked. Venus strikes a dainty pose, her veil – so transparent as to be almost invisible – serving not least of all to facilitate the elegant movement of the arms. Also worthy of note is the manner in which Cranach handles the light.
Whereas the naked figure is bathed in light, the background behind her immediately sinks into a cosmic and inexplicable darkness. Today we are familiar with such effects from photos or stage sets. In Cranach’s time it would have been read as a surreal light atmosphere that would hardly have been associated with an earthly being. A depiction as enigmatic, seductive and intimate as this one would most likely have been executed for a private cabinet of art and curiosities.