The subject is taken from a Latin poem erroneously given to Theocritus and included apocryphally in his Idylls, xix (trans. J. Edmonds): 'When the thievish Love one day was stealing honeycomb from the hive, a wicked bee stung him, and made all his finger-tips to smart. In pain and grief he blew on his hand and stamped and leapt upon the ground, and went and showed his hurt to Aphrodite, and made complaint that so a little a beast as a bee could make so great a wound. Whereat his mother laughing, 'What?' cries she, 'art not a match for a bee, and thou so little and yet able to make wounds so great?'
The theme was a popular one at the time, combining as it did the slightly whimsical charm of the subject with the more salacious appeal of the naked Venus fairly thinly veiled beneath the respectability of a morality tale. Some versions, such as this, bear an inscription that translates as: 'As Cupid was stealing honey from the hive, A bee stung the thief on the finger; And so do we seek transitory and dangerous pleasures That are mixed with sadness and bring us pain'. It was treated on several occasions (in differing compositions) by Cranach and his workshop: Friedländer and Rosenberg, op. cit., record twenty-four examples, of which the earliest is that of 1527 in Schwerin, Staatliches Museum. Other versions of the subject include those in the Borghese Gallery, Rome (1531); the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (1530); the Musées Royaux des Beaux-arts, Brussels (1531); the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (after 1537); and the Germänisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (after 1537).
Most of Cranach's versions of the theme are on a smaller, cabinet-picture scale; the present painting is, therefore, one of only a handful to be conceived on the present, distinguished scale, including the Borghese painting (with which it shares the distinctive placement of the honeycomb in the crook of Cupid's arm). It is quite possible that Cranach had in mind in their design his earlier, monumental Venus and Cupid of 1509 (Hermitage, St. Petersburg) that represents the artist's first major depiction of the idealized nudes that would form the core of his oeuvre. That supposition is supported by the proximity of Venus' pose in the Goudstikker painting to that in the Hermitage, the composition of which itself derives from that of a woodcut by Cranach of 1506. Certainly this and the Borghese painting are closer to the Hermitage masterpiece in their depiction of the female form in the mannered style of Cranach's earlier work, rather than the slimmer proportions and rather adolescent contours more commonly found and employed by the workshop in the 1520s.
The nature and degree of assistant involvement in Cranach's oeuvre has been extensively discussed. That Cranach operated throughout his career with a large workshop is well-known and documented (his first known pupil is mentioned in 1507). After the death of his eldest son, Hans, in 1537, the workshop's direction was handed to Lucas II, and the majority of Cranach's output after that date is now believed to be the work either of the younger Lucas and/or his assistants. Even before then, however, and certainly from after 1520, some degree of participation can rarely be ruled out, even on a work of unusually impressive format such as this. Given that, the present cataloguing of the picture as a part studio work is perhaps conservative, and the primacy of Cranach himself in its design or execution should be considered in any assessment of the painting.
We are grateful to Dr. Werner Schade for confirming the attribution to Lucas Cranach the Elder and studio on the basis of photographs.