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The stone mask of the Bocca della Verità is originally believed to have been employed as a drain cover during Roman times, but by the Middle Ages it had become the subject of a popular story and legend that illustrated the duplicity of women. A woman accused of adultery was required to place her hand inside the mouth of the ancient mask in the presence of her husband and a judge. In the present scene, the Bocca is represented not by the mask of the river god but by the fearsome sculptural form of a lion.
Cranach depicts the story of an accused woman who conceived a cunning plan when brought before the statue by dressing her lover up as a fool and instructing him to embrace her just before she reaches her hand into the statue’s mouth, thereby saving herself from exposure and humiliation by announcing: 'I have never been touched by a man other than my husband and by this Fool here beside me'. On the right of the scene Cranach has depicted the cuckolded husband in a sombre black coat, his intense gaze fixed on the lion in anticipation of the verdict. The adulteress confidently places her hand inside its mouth, not with a look of fear, but rather in the assurance that she will come to no harm, thanks to her clever deceit of disguising her lover who, dressed in blue as a fool, grasps her around the waist, seemingly to no concern to the husband. To the left of the scene two judges confer to affirm that the woman’s hand has remained unharmed, whilst on the right two elegant court ladies, presumably supporters of the accused, appear pleased with the outcome.
Cranach has devised a wonderfully balanced composition within the almost square format of the work, with the arrangement of figures and the colours of their costumes imparting a polished sense of rhythm to the narrative. In the blue cloak, the fool in the centre of the composition is flanked by paired figures of the judges and ladies depicted in black and red draperies, whilst the fur coat of the husband on the right of the scene echoes the mane of the lion on the left margin. In a delightful touch, on the right margin Cranach includes the face of a man looking out to the viewer and engaging us ourselves as witnesses to the highly theatrical and juristically flawed episode.
This panel has generally been dated by scholars to around 1525–30. Friedländer and Rosenberg initially suggested a dating of around 1530, correctly surmising that the finer execution and quality pointed to a date prior to another version of similar design from Cranach’s studio painted in 1534 and today in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg (fig. 3). Dieter Koepplin and Tilman Falk, at the time of the ground-breaking exhibition on Cranach in 1974, suggested a slightly earlier dating to around 1528, specifically comparing the fluid and crisp handling of the panel to the Lot and his daughters in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, as well as to the Unequal Lovers in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, both of which are dated to that year.1 The design of the room setting, with the scene lit by leaded windows from above, they also compared to a slightly earlier work of 1526, the Judgement of Solomon in a Brussels private collection.2 Brinkmann, in the catalogue of the Frankfurt–London exhibition of 2008, also proposed a slightly earlier dating to around 1525–27.
Cranach’s depiction of the actual Bocca della Verità as a lion on a pedestal is not, of course, strictly accurate. It is not, however, unusual within the context of other treatments of the subject in northern European and specifically German art of a similar date.3 It recurs, for example, in a drawing of 1512 by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538) today in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (fig. 4);4 and in an impressively large woodcut by Lucas van Leyden (1494–1533), generally dated to around 1514 (fig. 5).5 Two decades later Georg Pencz offers another interpretation of the subject with his engraving of the Mouth of Truth (fig. 6). It appears again, of course, in the inferior version of the present work of 1534 now in Nuremberg.
The Nuremberg panel is of more rectangular format and differs in the composition in that the figures are shown at half-length and brought very much to the forefront of the picture plane. The panel, however, quite lacks the brilliant characterisation of the figures and clarity of narrative that exists in the present work, and as Kurt Löcher has suggested, may possibly have been the work of Cranach’s eldest son Hans, who died a few years later in 1538.6 Such a notion is supported by the existence of a drawing by Hans Cranach of the same subject in a sketchbook, today in the Kestner-Museum in Hannover (fig. 7). Here the woman places her hand in the mouth of a male bust, clasped by the fool and watched by three women. The design is not a repeat of the present painting, but in its depiction of the figures at full-length rather than half-length, it would certainly seem to suggest that Hans Cranach had some knowledge of it.7
The legend of the Bocca della Verità and its tale of female cunning seems to have appeared in travellers’ descriptions of the sites of Rome from the fourteenth century onwards. However, it also appears in Germany at a similar date in an anonymous fourteenth-century poem, which relates the medieval legend of the magician Virgil and his miraculous powers. This Virgil (72–19 BC) was none other than the famous classical author, who in medieval legend had been endowed in the popular imagination with magical powers. The story runs along similar lines and again involves a case of possible adultery and use of a sculpture, in this case invented by the magician himself, to serve as the Bocca della Verità.8 The stories were later joined and more widely spread in a German publication of the Latin Mirabilia Urbis Romae, the Mirabilien Blockbuch of around 1475:
Zu unser frawen Scola graeca do stet noch der stayn der len lewtten die vinger ab pays so sie unrecht gesworen hetten. Der stayn hayst welsch, la buca de la veritate. Den stain hat Vergilius gemacht.
This text appears to be the first time that the original poem and the legend of the stone in S. Maria in Cosmedin were linked, and it is probably this conflation of the two sources that Cranach seems to have used.9 Significantly, the stone in S. Maria in Cosmedin is not mentioned in the earlier text, and therefore Cranach’s introduction of the lion into the composition is quite probably a development of this idea of a different form of sculpture.
The Bocca della Verità shares certain key elements with a parallel medieval legend, the story of Tristan and Isolde: a guilty woman who escapes punishment thanks to her own cunning; her lover as accomplice; a sworn testimony; and a final reckoning. Isolde, accused by her husband King Mark of adultery with Tristan, is called in judgement before God and is tried but the couple use trickery to preserve their pretence of innocence. The only difference is that the moment of truth takes place not before a sculpture with magic powers but in a sacred place. There the ultimate test involved burning iron pressed against flesh – painlessly, as it turned out, because Isolde was able to claim that she had never had relations with any man besides her husband and a peasant (played by Tristan) who had ‘accidentally’ fallen on top of her on the way to swearing the oath. His disguise chimes with that of the fool in the German interpretations of the Bocca.
Already in the twelfth century the legend of the Bocca was linked to the Tristan and Isolde cycle. Its transmission to Germany in the fourteenth century saw the substitution of Virgil with another magician, Merlin, his counterpart in the Arthurian romance. It was only in the second half of the fifteenth century that the lie-detecting sculpture became identified with the Roman Bocca. From thereon, the entertaining story of female cunning featured in innumerable guidebooks to the Eternal City and became a source of inspiration for sixteenth-century poets and painters.10
Friedländer and Rosenberg describe the sculpture in the Nuremberg panel as a stone lion but in fact the beast is depicted with life-like colours (its coat is golden brown; its tongue pink), more akin to a living animal than to carved stone. This is one of the striking features of the picture under discussion: that Cranach should have chosen to give his depiction of the lion sculpture a tonality that is closer to bronze than stone. Moreover, his lion is raised up on a pedestal. Rarely before the 1520s is the lion given comparable prominence. Altdorfer’s drawing is a rare exception, a sheet that Cranach is unlikely to have known. In the other graphic treatments mentioned above the lion statues are small and placed on the floor beside the throne of judgement, more closely allied to the commonly held notion of lions as emblematic of fortitude. Most surprising of all, is the appearance of the motif as part of a mural decoration on the façade of the house ‘Zum Weißen Adler’ in Stein am Rhein, a medieval town in Switzerland, where various allegories of Virtues and Vices were painted by Thomas Schmid (c. 1490–1556/60) in around 1520. Cranach’s Bocca della Verità is the first large painting on panel to elevate the leonine sculpture to such impressive form.
In its detailed attention to the facial features – especially its gaping mouth – and to its mane, Cranach’s lion shares striking similarities with the ‘Lion of Braunschweig’ (fig. 8). It is more than likely that Cranach had first-hand knowledge of the Braunschweig Lion, the greatest work of medieval casting north of the Alps. Made in a spectacular single cast, the Lion was commissioned by Henry the Lion (1129/30– 95), Duke of Saxony, in the mid-twelfth century and refers to its patron’s name.11 To this day this iconic sculpture has remained in the city of Braunschweig in front of Dankwarderode Castle and the Cathedral.12 This prominent symbol of ducal authority and jurisdiction cannot have been lost on the various dynastic lines of the House of Welf that reigned after Henry the Lion.
Cranach is known to have painted a portrait (now lost) of Ernest I the Confessor (1497–1546), Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg.13 The latter’s connections to Cranach’s employers at the Wittenberg court were strong: the two successive Electors of Saxony, Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast, were both uncles of his. Moreover Cranach’s work for the Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg was not limited to portraiture. For instance, recorded at Schloss Blankenburg, a castle once owned by the House of Welf not far from Braunschweig, was a painting by Cranach, also on the theme of the duplicity of women, Hercules and Omphale, now in the collection of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig.14 Its subject illustrates an episode from the life of the hero of classical mythology. As punishment for murder, Hercules was sold as a slave to Omphale, queen of Lydia. She humiliated him by requiring him to wear women’s clothes and perform women’s work. Cranach depicts him spinning yarn. The composition exists in a number of closely related versions produced by Cranach and his workshop in the 1530s. Among the most exceptional versions of the theme, and of the same date as the Braunschweig panel, is a picture of 1537, sold in these Rooms and now in the Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse (fig. 9).15 As in the Bocca, the mock-serious tone of the narrative is made all the more engaging for the viewer by its fashionable contemporary setting.
The later medieval texts would have been of particular interest to Cranach, for they formed part of a group of stories illustrating the theme of Weiberlist or the ‘cunning of women’. Just as Lucas van Leyden before him, whose woodcut of this subject had formed part of a larger cycle of similar subjects, Cranach linked the tale of the Bocca della Verità to the larger theme of Weibermacht or the power of women. This theme, which had enjoyed great popularity in medieval art and literature, formed an extremely important part of Cranach’s œuvre, where he treated it in a number of related subjects from classical or biblical sources, notably Hercules and Omphale, discussed above, David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah and Phyllis and Aristotle. This latter would, for example, have been familiar to Cranach and his contemporaries from Jacques de Vitry's thirteenth-century text Sermones feriales et communes and from the popular German fifteenth-century play Ain Spil von Maister Aristotiles, as well as engravings by Lucas van Leyden, Hans Baldung Grien and others. In a panel from 1530, Cranach shows how the famous courtesan Phyllis succeeds in seducing and humiliating the ageing philosopher Aristotle, in revenge for the latter having warned his pupil Alexander the Great against forsaking study for indulgent pleasures (fig. 10).16
Such subjects clearly enjoyed considerable popularity. It is far more likely that they appealed to Cranach’s patrons more on account of the humorous associations of the Weiberlist theme and its attendant moral warnings than, as some scholars have suggested, any principles of Anti-Aristotelian thought. Although the comic or erotic undertones in such works are never far from the surface, Cranach always strives to strike a balance with a suitable erudite moralising tone appropriate to the tastes of the Wittenberg court. The importance of such works lies in the fact that Cranach was the first – and usually the only – artist to take such ‘moral’ or ‘erotic’ themes which had previously been the preserve of graphic or decorative work and use them in the higher form of panel painting.
1 Inv. nos 9589 and 1465, respectively. Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, p. 110, no. 206 and 1932 ed., no. 235g.
2 Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, pp. 110–11, no. 211, reproduced. Related versions are recorded in the Royal Collection, London, and in the Deutsches Museum, Berlin.
3 See C. S. Wood, ‘La Bocca della Verità’, in C. Wagner and O. Jehle ed., Albrecht Altdorfer. Kunst als zweite Natur, Regensburg 2012, pp. 55–70.
4 Inv. no. 24; see E. Bock, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Die Deutschen Meister, Berlin 1921, Vol. I, p. 4, cat. no. 112, reproduced Vol. II, plate 4, fig. 112.
5 An impression is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 23.16.3; see G. Messling in Cranach et son temps, exh. cat., Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2010, p. 216, reproduced fig. 121.
6 Inv. no. Gm. 1108, panel, 75.5 by 117.4 cm. See K. Locher, Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg, Die Gemälde des 16. Jahrhunderts, Nuremberg 1997, pp. 151–53, reproduced.
7 Reproduced in the catalogue of the exhibition, Cranach, Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik, Basel and Stuttgart 1974, no. 482, fig. 301.
8 See B. Kurth, ‘Des Zauberers Virgil Ehebrecherfalle auf Werken der nordischen Renaissance’, in Städel Jahrbuch, vol. 3–4, 1924, pp. 49–54.
9 Friedländer and Rosenberg additionally cite as a possible source for the subject the Florentine poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75); see Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, p. 124, under no. 278. However, although many of the tales in the Decameron explore themes of adultery and duplicity, there would appear to be no exact counterpart to the episode shown here, where a perjurer is tested by a truth-telling automaton.
10 E. Cerulli, ‘Leggende medievali romane in Oriente e leggende orientali nella Roma medievale’, Bullettino dell’Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medio Evo e Archivio Muratoriano, 79, 1968, p. 25. See also pp. 13–25.
11 Bronze, 178 x 279 cm.
12 Since 1989 a replica has stood on the Burgplatz in order to protect the original, which is on display in Dankwarderode Castle.
13 A portrait drawing executed in oil on paper is in Reims; see Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, p. 27, fig. 13 and p. 132, under no. 323.
14 Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, p. 123, no. 274, reproduced fig. 274.
15 Sold 6 July 2000, lot 24.
16 Panel, 57.5 by 37.9 cm. Sold New York, Sotheby's, 24 January 2008, lot 78, for $4,073,000.
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