The subject of the work, Lucretia's suicide, is one that Lucas Cranach the Elder returned to throughout his long career; there are more than thirty-five compositions attributed to him and his studio, the earliest dating from around 1504. The pose and details vary: she is portrayed in full-length, half-length or three-quarter-length; here, richly clothed and bejeweled, in other cases nude apart from a transparent veil. The story is taken from Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. Sextus Tarquinius, the king's son, rapes Lucretia and her father and husband swear revenge. However, before they can reach Tarquinius, Lucretia commits suicide by stabbing herself rather than live with the dishonour. Because of her actions, Livy considered her the exemplar of the virtuous Roman wife, and in the learned environment of the court at Wittenberg her conduct was celebrated as one of the antique virtues.
In the Cranach studio, the rape itself is not the subject but rather the aftermath. Lucretia is always pictured alone holding her knife, ready to commit suicide. The paintings are remarkably lacking in violence: the most we ever see is a little blood trickling from the wound. Like Judith, the Old Testament heroine, or Salome, the jealous daughter of Herod, both of whom Cranach and his circle frequently depicted, Lucretia is an iconic figure, an embodiment of virtue rather than an historical figure.
However, there is a contradictory element also present in Lucretia, an erotic subtext that runs through the works from the Cranach studio from around 1520 onwards. While on one hand Lucretia is the symbol of wifely virtue, on the other she is a sixteenth-century 'Venus in furs'. She is a young, slim Saxon girl, cool but knowing, gazing down demurely as she opens her dress to reveal her bare breasts. The audience for the paintings of Cranach and his studio was educated and sophisticated, familiar with the classics but not immune to the sensual pleasures of a narrow and wealthy society.
1. See Thieme-Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler, vol. XXXVII, Leipzig 1950, pp. 425–26 for a discussion of the artist and the core paintings in his œuvre.
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