Who 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
Lucas Cranach: Christ and Magdalen
indicating some 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 matter?
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 of them.