Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Nymph of the Spring

Lucas Cranach the Younger (German, Wittenberg 1515–1586 Wittenberg)
ca. 1545–50
Oil on beech panel
6 x 8 in. (15.2 x 20.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Accession Number:
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
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.
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