Lucas Cranach the Younger (German, Wittenberg 1515–1586 Wittenberg)
Oil on beech panel
6 x 8 in. (15.2 x 20.3 cm)
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 953
This small, astonishingly well preserved painting shows a nude woman reclining on the grassy bank of a river, near a spring that issues from a rock formation. Looking toward the viewer, she identifies herself and offers a word of caution through the first-person Latin inscription at the upper right: “I, nymph of the sacred spring, am resting; do not disturb my sleep.” The scene’s open eroticism is heightened by the nymph’s sultry, half-closed eyes; the red tinge of her cheeks, buttocks, elbows, knees, and feet; the transparent veil that meanders from head to foot, as if to guide the viewer’s gaze along her body; and the bundled red dress, which evokes the thought of her disrobing. A bow and quiver hang in a nearby tree, signaling that the nymph belongs to the entourage of the huntress goddess Diana. A green parrot perched on the bow and two rock partridges in the grass probably serve as symbols of the Luxuria (lust) that is embodied by the nymph and called forth in the male viewer. The creatures’ unperturbed proximity to the nymph underscores the calm that reigns after the hunt. The two white animals in the immediate foreground are old additions to the composition; they are possibly rabbits, added by a later hand to further emphasize the notion of Luxuria. The meticulously detailed landscape background is populated by tiny humans and animals. To the right of the mill, one person walks along the riverbank while another kneels by the water. A rider drives three donkeys, loaded with sacks of grain, toward the mill. A boater navigates the river. Farther back, beyond the walled city, two deer graze in a grassy clearing, and persons on foot and on horseback follow trails into the forest. A castle set high upon a bluff presides over the landscape. Like the Judgment of Paris and Venus with Cupid the Honey Thief, the Nymph of the Spring counts among the most popular mythological subjects treated by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop. The present panel, which is most probably by Lucas Cranach the Younger, is one of at least seventeen versions that survive. They date from the mid-1510s to about 1550. In the two earliest examples, a panel dated 1518 in the Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig, and one of about 1515 – 20 in the Jagdschloss Grunewald, Berlin, the spring (fons) is depicted as a man-made fountain basin, with the inscription (the nymph’s address to the viewer) painted as if carved into it. From about the mid-1520s onward, however, the nymph lies before a natural spring flowing from a rock, the inscription is no longer fashioned as a fictive carving, and a bow and quiver, partridges, and, frequently, stags appear as accessories. Authors have detected in this subject matter an ambivalence between the sensual allure of the nude figure and her admonition not to disturb her rest, which is comparable to the moralizing aspect of the Venus with Cupid the Honey Thief paintings. The Cranach nymphs are thus connected with the courtly ideal of control of the emotions and with the Christian and humanist concern for the restraint of carnal desire. In the case of the Museum’s picture, these ideas appear to be at play not only in the iconography but also in the intimate viewing experience, for its small size and minute execution encourage the viewer to approach within just inches of the seductive nymph. The subject matter appears to have originated in a pseudoclassical Latin epigram thought to have been composed by the Roman humanist Giovanni Antonio Campano before 1465. It reads, Huius nympha loci sacri custodia fontis / Dormio dum blandae sentio murmur aquae. / Parce meum quisquis tangis cava marmora somnum / R umpere; sive bibas sive lavere tace. (I, the nymph of this sacred place, keeper of the spring, am sleeping and listening to the endearing murmur of the water. Take care, whoever approaches this marmoreal cave, not to disturb my sleep; whether you drink or bathe, keep silent!) The passage found its way into many contemporary compilations and, its modern origin mostly forgotten, rapidly became one of the most widespread of all pseudoclassical epigrams. Evidence that it was current north of the Alps reaches back to the 1470s at the court of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (r. 1458 – 90). In a compendium drawn up before 1486, Michael Fabricius Ferrarinus, prior of the Carmelite monastery in Reggio Emilia, remarked that the Huius nympha loci quatrain was to be found carved beneath the figure of a sleeping nymph on a fountain “on the banks of the Danube” (super rippam danuvii). For fifteenth-century Italian humanists like Ferrarinus, the Danube River was associated with the ancient Roman province of Pannonia, or modern Hungary; thus, Ferrarinus’s reference may well have been to a fountain monument in Buda erected by Matthias Corvinus and since lost. Further awareness of the epigram in northern Europe is documented in the literary remains of imperial poet laureate and humanist Conrad Celtis. Also, Albrecht Dürer, an acquaintance of Celtis, reproduced the full passage in a drawing of 1514 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The Cranach paintings of the theme reduce the epigram to a single-line abridgment, “Fontis nympha sacri somnvm ne rvmpe qviesco,” which raises the question of a variant textual or epigraphic source. It has been suggested that that Lucas Cranach the Elder knew of an actual sculpted fountain nymph “on the banks of the Danube,” and that Cranach might have encountered Matthias Corvinus’s fountain firsthand on a trip to Buda about 1502 – 4, when he resided in Vienna, as suggested by a description written by the Hungarian humanist Thomasus Jordanus, in which the fountain’s inscription is recorded not as the usual four-line epigram but instead as a couplet whose first line is the same as the verse on Cranach’s paintings, which suggests that the monument described by Jordanus was Cranach’s source. Some scholars have doubted the historical and epigraphical accuracy of Jordanus’s note, but nevertheless maintain the value of his remarks as evidence of the fountain’s existence in Buda. Whereas the extent and manner of influence of the Buda fountain on Cranach is difficult to gauge, it is clear that the reclining pose he used for most of his nymphs derives from a woodcut published in Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice, 1499) that shows an imaginary nymphean fountain. In the book illustration and the majority of Cranach’s paintings, the nymph supports her head with her right hand, rests her left hand on her left thigh, and crosses her left leg over her right. The bow and quiver, which appear commonly in paintings after 1525, find a precedent in a 1510 engraving by Giovanni Maria Pomedelli. That print, which shows a reclining nymph in a landscape surrounded by animals in repose (except for the retreating boar with an arrow in its rump), is inscribed Qvies (quietude) and thus emphasizes the notion of rest after the hunt found also in Cranach’s pictures. Other proposed sources of influence are less direct but nevertheless demonstrate a growing interest in the reclining female nude in the years before the first appearance of Cranach’s fountain nymphs. The Nymph of the Spring has convincingly been attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger and its high quality sets it apart from routine workshop production. The folded wings of the serpent insignia on the tree trunk confirm a date after 1537, when the Cranachs began using that form of the mark. The overall bright tonality, the gray undermodeling of the flesh, visible with the naked eye and infrared imaging, the paleness of the flesh tone, and the exaggerated local reddening all speak in favor of an attribution to Lucas the Younger. The dimensions of the Museum’s picture associate it with a group of small panels produced in the second half of the 1540s that share a doll-like quality of the figures and a pronounced rosiness in the faces. This group is also close to certain contemporary large-scale pictures that have been attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger, such as Elijah and the Priests of Baal of 1545 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and Saint John the Baptist Preaching of 1549 (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig). The dates of the comparative works suggest a likely range of about 1545 – 50 for the Museum’s Nymph of the Spring, slightly earlier than the dating of about 1550. The composition of the Museum’s Nymph of the Spring served as the basis for three copies. While those in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel and a private collection were probably produced within the workshop, the one in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe appears to be by a copyist of the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. [2016; adapted from Waterman 2013]
Inscription: Signed (on tree trunk) with winged serpent (wings folded); inscribed (upper right): FONTIS NYMPHA SACRI SOMNVM NERVMPE QVIESCO (I am the nymph of the sacred spring; do not disturb my sleep; I am resting)
James Simon, Berlin; Rudolf Chillingworth, Lucerne; [A. S. Drey, New York]. Acquired by Robert Lehman from Drey in April 1928.