‘Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance’: On Cranach and Christina of Denmark

'Venus' by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532.

‘Venus’ by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532.

The image above – Cranach’s ‘Venus,’ painted in 1532 – might be familiar to you from exhibition posters of a few years back. In 2008, the Royal Academy put on a show dedicated to Cranach, and this tiny painting, blown up to poster size, was briefly pasted all over the London Underground as an advert … until somebody complained. I remember the debates this story sparked, with some arguing that the painting sexualises a pubescent female body, others claiming that any female nude is unacceptably objectifying, and others again insisting that we cannot judge Renaissance art on the same scale as we judge other images. One thing was clear: people reacted far more strongly to this image – whose context is the German Renaissance – than they might have to the more familiar image of Venus by Botticelli or Raphael. Because this image was more unfamiliar, its details seemed more stark and more shocking.

Some of the same debates were in my mind this weekend, when I went to the National Gallery to see their current exhibition – ‘Strange Beauty: The Masters of the German Renaissance‘. Like the earlier exhibition, it’s fronted by a Cranach nude, in this case ‘Cupid Complaining to Venus’.

'Cupid Complaining to Venus,' by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1525

‘Cupid Complaining to Venus,’ by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1525

I’ve seen no evidence that the use of this painting to advertise the exhibition raised any complaint at all, so it’s my sad duty to break it to you that there really isn’t an international feminist conspiracy to censor all art everywhere. Yes, I know. And Santa isn’t real. But what I didn’t know before I went to this exhibition was that there’s a long history of objections to Cranach’s work, rooted in a rather different set of prejudices and concerns.

In the nineteenth century, when the National Gallery opened, there was a sense that German Renaissance art was ugly and inferior to the work of Italian artists. Would-be donors, including Prince Albert, tried quite hard to foist some of their collections on the gallery, who responded that they Knew Their Stuff and didn’t want any of this Cranach shite when they could be buying Botticelli.

The first couple of rooms in the exhibition were set up to demonstrate the limitations of this attitude, and they were fun. Panels of an altarpiece were set out so that you could walk around them, seeing the inside and outside. Another altarpiece showed Joseph grumpily rummaging in his purse for coins to pay the priest at the temple for the infant Jesus’s presentation. The real-life context of these paintings was obvious: you couldn’t help seeing their function as objects in front of which people would have knelt and prayed. This impression was deepened by the painstaking realism of small details: you could read the pages of the books of music and arithmetic in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors,’ and pick out the neat secretary script on a roll of paper clutched by a town clerk in his portrait. The attention to detail carried through to intricate prints and tiny, beautiful pearwood game-pieces, which featured portraits of their owners. The famous picture of Anne of Cleves is one of these, and it’s about two inches across.

All of this realism, though, contrasted sharply with what nineteenth-century curators of the Gallery had seen as the ‘ugliness’ of German Renaissance art: its asymmetry, its distortions and stiff postures. This was exemplified by the depiction of the Virgin. Where Italian madonnas are often young and beautiful, here there were pictures of Mary represented as an older woman with her face distorted from weeping, with her body twisted in sorrow, displaying heightened, almost grotesque emotion.

What was fascinating about seeing all of these paintings together was that you could trace the influences both of the realism and detail, and of the asymmetry, in the portraits of real people that hung alongside the religious art. The portraits by Holbein (but also by other German masters, some of them anonymous) showed tilted half-profiles with quirked lips or slightly raised eyebrows, with meticulously realized details. They seemed real, alive, arresting.

In this context, the Cranach Venus looked, to me, oddly insubstantial, and her symmetrical face and graceful pose seemed bland or oblivious rather than suggestive. The painting was unsettling in a way it might not have been if I had seen it surrounded by similarly beautiful and calm Italian Renaissance women. I’d expected to find this painting easier to respond to when surrounded by contemporary work by other German artists, but instead I found it more enigmatic.

The contrast between Cranach’s idealised Venus and the portaits of other women around the room was striking. I concentrated on this of princess Christina of Denmark, painted by Holbein in 1538 for the newly widowed Henry VIII. At this point Henry was 47, and on the lookout for wife number four. Christina was sixteen, and already a widow.

Christina of Denmark, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538. The National Gallery

Christina of Denmark, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538. The National Gallery

Dressed in sumptuous billows of dark fabric, fur edging and a demure widow’s cap, Christina gives the impression both of physical stature, and status in the world. It is a complete contrast to Cranach’s slim, child-like, naked Venus. In fact, these clothes look most similar to those of the richly dressed men whose portaits hang around the room. Near to Christina stand ‘The Ambassadors,’ painted by Holbein just a few years before and immortalizing two French diplomats in England.

Hans Holbein the Younger, 'The Ambassadors,' 1533. The National Gallery

Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘The Ambassadors,’ 1533. The National Gallery

The two men look, like Christina, older than their years: Georges de Selve, on the right, was just twenty-five when this picture was painted, less than a decade older than the sixteen-year-old princess. His dark, rich, fur-trimmed clerical robes echo Christina’s mourning dress, and it’s hard not to read both her clothing and her direct gaze as another kind of diplomatic statement, aligning her with these negotiators rather more than with the Venuses and saints who surround her.

This interpretation is one you can feed back into Christina’s history, too. As a teenager, after her first marriage ended, she lived in the court of her aunt, Mary of Hungary, who was governor of the Low Countries and a powerful woman in her own right. In 1541 she married the duke of Lorraine, and after his early death she acted as regent for their son Charles. She spent most of her life engaged in the same sorts of struggles for power that her male counterparts were busy with, and by the time she died, aged 69, her legacy was secure. She had fourteen surviving grandchildren, and the royal families of three (plus?) countries are descended from her, and her oldest son was married to Catherine de Medici’s daughter. Wiki has a really snide article on her, which alternates between representing her as an unsuccessful schemer and a Machiavel, and raises my cynical feminist antennae. If we compare her to Henry VIII and his children, who ruled England during her lifetime, she comes out pretty well.

It might surprise you to find that there’s a really creepy description of this painting in the Telegraph‘s review of this exhibition, which describes it as an icon of quiet but intense eroticism” and suggests that “somehow, we are tempted into imagining her body underneath”

Ahem. We?

I found this – and especially that tone of complicity – really grating, much more so than any comments on the Cranach nudes could have been. It seems to circumscribe Holbein’s painting, reducing the subject to a position of minimal agency, defined by her fleeting connection to an English king. For the negotiations that this picture reflect were soon ended: Christina rejected Henry’s offer, and throughout her life she spent far more time as regent than she spent as anyone’s wife. I know there are lots of paintings of medieval and Renaissance women that don’t come with so much historical backstory. Sometimes – as with Cranach’s Venus – we know nothing at all about the woman who posed for her painting. But this exhibition made me wonder how much we really know about what medieval and Renaissance viewers judged to be erotic or beautiful, ugly or grotesque, and how much we distort their work in our mind’s eyes to make it fit our expectations.


I’ve limited the number of images in this post, partly because not all of them are on wiki commons and partly because you ought to go find them – if not at this exhibition, on the National Gallery website. However, I really wanted to know what the grid of numbers in the background of this etching of Melancholia was meant for, and if you might know, please have a look and tell me!

How we explain misogyny in fiction: Malory’s Morte Darthur and Game of Thrones

I spent this past weekend at the Romance in Medieval Britain conference in Bristol, which was one of the nicest conferences I’ve ever attended. We listened to a lot of serious academic papers. But we also did the less serious stuff, including an obligatory moan about the number of mind-numbingly bad articles that seek to validate Game of Thrones with spurious parallels to medieval England*.

George R. R. Martin in happier times. From Robert de Boron's prose Merlin.

George R. R. Martin in happier times. From Robert de Boron’s prose Merlin.

I have been struggling with this issue. I enjoy GoT. I don’t enjoy the standard terminology for explaining away the misogynistic dodgy bits. ‘Sexposition’ casts the nastiest scenes as  mere narrative devices (albeit an unpleasant ones). The term takes agency out of the picture. We’re supposed to place the messy situation where we sympathise with characters whom we know to be propping up Westeros’s thriving brothel culture beyond the reach of analysis. That’s comfortable, but it’s also reductive and silencing.

Yet, an increasing number of people who seem to feel that it’s terribly important to explain away the misogyny in a rigorous, real-world way. The most inane arguments are a straight draw between ‘well, it was all, like, violent and nasty in history too ….’ or ‘but they’re Strong Women so it’s less upsetting seeing them raped/murdered/treated like objects‘.

I’m never quite sure how to respond to this last one, except to gawp a little bit at the levels of (unintentional, I am aware) offensiveness in that argument. What bothers me about these articles isn’t that they’re dubious history or dodgy feminism (though they’re often both), but that they’re trying so hard to insist that we need to be educated in the real, concrete, intellectual arguments in favour of GoT. If you don’t get it, well, you’re just less subtle, less sophisticated.

The parallels between GoT and medieval romance are actually pretty striking, much more so than between the TV show and the Wars of the Roses. We have an icestuous brother and sister … their murderous, throne-stealing offspring … dead warriors who come eerily back to life**… a lot of in-fighting between rival kings … prominent bastard children … lots of men called Sir this and that who carry complicated pictorial banners … oh, and dragons. Yep, full house. And that’s just Malory’s Morte Darthur.

Morally ambiguous and Not Dead Yet: that's pretty much King Arthur.

Morally ambiguous and Not Dead Yet: that’s pretty much King Arthur.

The Morte, if you don’t know it, is a long, rambling, chaotic series of Arthurian stories, mostly translated and partly composed by a prisoner of war at the end of the fifteenth century, and printed by Caxton a little later. The story, like Game of Thrones, starts out looking like traditional fantasy epic: lots of complicated family trees and awkward exposition dialogue, a rape presented as sex, and set-piece battles I skip over feeling vaguely guilty. It veers towards Raymond E. Feist on a bad day.

But, much like GoT, it does get better.  Malory has a thing for delivering revelations with a casual, heartless speed that somehow underlines their poignancy. There’s a scene where Balin, the hero of the early part of the story (spoiler: he dies. Everybody dies) runs through a castle fighting his enemy King Pellam. As he lands a blow on the king, the castle collapses around them and they lie crushed in the rubble for three days:

“And then came Merlin there, and took up Balin, and gave him a good horse, for his own was dead, and told him to ride out of that country. ‘I would have my damosel,’ said Balin. ‘Look,’ said Merlin, ‘where she lieth dead’.” 

'Lo here she lieth dead': Philippa Chaucer's tomb effigy (from Jonathan Hsy's site) http://home.gwu.edu/~jhsy/chaucer-ppp-pch.html)

‘Look where she lieth dead.’ The woman in this effigy is actually Philippa Chaucer, and the picture is from Jonathan Hsy’s information-packed site on Chaucer, Gower, and late-medieval literature.

It’s at this point that Balin finds out that his sword blow has not only wounded his enemy and caused the castle to fall, but has also reverberated through the surrounding country, killing the people, and ultimately setting in motion the search for the Holy Grail, which carried the blood of Christ, to heal the striken king again.

Angel bearing the Grail before the king. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Fr. 1453, f. 283.

Angel bearing the Grail before the king. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Fr. 1453, f. 283.

This is all beautifully written – and you really need to read it or buy the audio tape (there is one), because it’s great. But you notice that the woman, Balin’s lover, is just so much collateral damage, killed horribly as a result of something even Balin did not intend to set in motion. It doesn’t stop there: Malory’s Guinevere is morally ambiguous at best, and narrowly escapes being burnt alive only to die almost forgotten in a nunnery. Her opposite number (think Caitlyn Stark to Guinevere’s Cersei Lannister … ish …) is Elaine, who acts out every misogynist twit’s favourite cautionary tale that never, ever happened.

Attitudes towards sexual violence in the Morte are, again, disturbingly close to what we see in Game of Thrones. Malory makes rape an essential element of his fiction, which you can’t avoid any more than the ‘sexposition’ of the TV show. For example, there’s the giant rapist of Mont St Michel, who serves as an example of brute force against whom Arthur can show off his strength, landing a blow that “swappis his genytrottys in sondir” (cleaves his genitals apart) and disembowels him. The word ‘genytrottys’ is picked out in gory red on the page, the colour usually reserved for proper names. But Malory doesn’t leave this as a simple issue: rape is a fact of life in the Morte, responsible for the conceptions of both Arthur and (arguably) Lancelot’s son Galahad. The moral status of rapists is ambiguous, and the grey area around the act itself is about a mile wide. 

Now, some would argue this is just a failure to understand historical context. In medieval England, the meanings of the word ‘rape’ include abduction, and even, it’s been suggested, the abduction of a perfectly willing woman against the will of her male relatives. Both Malory and Chaucer were accused of this crime in real life, which makes their prominent stories of Arthurian rape more than a little bit difficult – triggering, even – for students to talk about in class.

This is something that was never acknowledged when I was studying these texts for the first time. In fact, to my shame, I only really thought about how to make it an explicit issue in my teaching when I was preparing for next term’s workshop on tragedy, and came across Liz Gloyn’s insightful post. She writes about how she deals with teaching rape narratives in Classical Literature to classes which, as she points out, are statistically almost certain to contain rape survivors. This made me realize that, while most books I read on Malory and rape are quick to point out the historical differences that allow us to avoid the uncomfortable thought that this author might have been a rapist in the modern sense, they seldom dwell on the other side of the issue. We are in exactly the same situation as modern media, quick to pre-empt the tide (yes, this is sarcasm) of false rape allegations but slow to acknowledge the commonness of the crime.

There’s a worrying situation where people who feel uncomfortable with certain texts or certain authors don’t speak up for fear of sounding like philistines. I’d like to think that most people who write about the sexism in GoT, and most people who work on historical fictions of sexual violence, are aware that these fictional texts can be triggering. But it’s not the fiction that needs explaining away, with neat terms like ‘sexposition’ or with the claim that it’s really a history lesson. What we need to tackle are the expectations around the fiction, that stress historical ‘reality’ or ‘authenticity’ but fall silent before acknowledging the reality of readers’ experiences that form a less comfortable context.


* Yes, I do know that’s what George R. R. Martin says. No, I don’t think that makes him right.

** Ok, I admit: I’m thinking of Malory’s Sir Colgrevaunce of Gore, and we’ve never been sure if he’s actually dead, or just a continuity error. But I’m sure there are zombies kicking around somewhere, too.