Animals in Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve

Each of the animals portrayed bears a distinct moral meaning.

Adam and Eve (1525) by Lucas Cranach the ElderThe Courtauld Institute of Art

Adam and Eve

The scene is set in a forest clearing where Eve stands before the Tree of Knowledge, caught in the act of handing an apple to Adam. In the tree’s branches above, the serpent looks on as Adam succumbs to temptation. The painting is particularly admired for its treatment of the human figure and for the profusion of finely painted details, including animals and vegetation. 

Adam and Eve (1525) by Lucas Cranach the ElderThe Courtauld Institute of Art

Mature stag with antlers

Cranach’s representation of the mature stag with antlers probably refers to the resurrected Christ, and also to the righteous at the Second Coming, whom the theologian Aponius compared to stags raising their antlers. The parched deer is a reference to Psalm 42, which compares the human thirsting after God to the stag in search of water. The very species depicted is also relevant: roe deer were famed for their chastity and their devotion to one mate.

The Sheep

Along with the deer, the sheep grazing contentedly behind Adam recalled the docility of true Christians, for whom “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23, v.1).

The roebuck

The most common symbol of Christ the redeemer was the stag. The young antler-less roebuck (shown drinking from the pond at the lower right) could not defend himself, and thus was at the mercy of mankind, like the defenceless Christ when he first entered the world.

The stork

A stork stands directly under the grapes at the edge of a pond. This bird was associated by Christian iconographers with piety, purity and resurrection. A prudent creature, it had only one nest, which was used as a metaphor for the true Church, the only home for the faithful.

The heron

The heron, at the bottom right edge of the panel, shared these moral readings, as well as signifying one steadfast in the right path.

The partridges

The partridges next to the stork have a more ambiguous allegorical meaning. The Physiologus, an early medieval treatise, described them as creatures prone to deceit and impurity. It is probable that Cranach uses them here, as a pair, to represent the positive power of love.

The lion

There are alternate readings of the lion – as an opponent of the stag and a personification of the devil; or to signify Christ, with whom it shared three natures, and naturally overcame evil (the devil).

The boar

There is evidence to support a reading of the boar as representing qualities opposite to those of the sheep (anger, brutality and lust) and as an embodiment of the Antichrist. But the position is not clear-cut: the boar could be interpreted more positively as justice, independence and courage in the face of God’s enemies.

The horse

Cranach’s horse, another symbol of Christ, which appears to be on the point of moving out of the pictorial space, suggests that the powers of good are about to abandon Eden with the imminent arrival of Original Sin.

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