With two superb paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder at its center, this exhibition examines the role of women in Northern Renaissance art and explores their surprising duality as virtuous beings and temptresses. Cranach’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1525) and Lucretia Committing Suicide (1529) reveal his fascination with the relationship between femininity and violence, and exemplify the demand for images of illustrious women who caused the downfall of powerful men. The ambivalent nature of the female nude in western art is strongly apparent during the Renaissance, when nudity could be interpreted as either an expression of simplicity and sincerity, or as an indication of lust and amorality. As a way to explore these variations, the exhibition investigates conventions of dress—and undress—in these works.
One important theme in Northern Renaissance art was the Power of Women genre, to which both the Judith and the Lucretia paintings belong. In the late fifteenth century, artists began to produce images poking fun at men made foolish by their lust for women. Though the subjects varied greatly, they all expressed the male fear of being undone by a woman’s sexuality, offering male viewers a thrill at the perverse thought of a woman holding power over them. Did the people who paid for these paintings and collected these prints take them as warnings about their conduct, or did they admire these powerful women, or both?
One of the most striking aspects of the Power of Women theme is that virtuous heroines and wanton seductresses were often classed together. For example, Eve, who was blamed for the fall of humankind through her disobedience in the Garden of Eden, was grouped in these depictions along with righteous women like Judith and Lucretia. In turn, even these righteous women began to be portrayed in an amoral or seductive way.
Andrew C. Weislogel
Assistant Curator / Master Teacher