are they? The answer has seemed obvious to some: they are Jesus and Mary
Magdalen. But there is no early provenance for such an opinion, nor is the
canvas (parchment on wood, actually) conclusive in the matter. The picture is,
in fact, one of the most enigmatic of all Lucas Cranach the Elder's works.
First there is the
palette. This dual portrait is an essay in brown and black, even the flesh tones
and the carefully modulated shadows have the same chromatic resonance. Only the
pink of the lips and the intense blue of the two pairs of staring eyes relieve
the monotony. The effect is sepulchral, but the faces are very much alive,
confronting the observer with a fixed but intelligent gaze.
The man's face
corresponds to the traditional representation of Jesus (a tradition, some claim
which goes back to the shroud, mandylion or 'images made without hands').
The woman has the ample hair often associated with the Magdalen. Her head is set
to one side, perhaps
Cranach: Christ and Magdalen
tenderness or sentimental attachment to the man. Does the way in which her body
overlaps his indicate something of the nature of the relationship or merely her
relative importance in the painting?
One of Cranach's most
memorable images (I noticed the crowds it gathered at the recent exhibition at
the Royal Academy), this is also a picture which poses most acutely the problem
of the subject matter of art. Can we know - without
a word from the
artist, or some narrative intrusion - who or what is being represented? Does it
The figures here have
a poignancy which can stir deeply religious emotions. Yet this is not an icon,
demanding such a response, and created with the specific intention of evoking
it. Here Everyman and Everywoman, somewhat disconcertingly, become what we make
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