“Forsoth it is an vnmete maryage
And disagreynge and moche agaynst the lawe
Bytwene fresshe youth, and lame vnlusty age
The loue bytwene them is scantly worth a strawe
So doth the one styll on the other gnawe” 
‘The Ship of Fools‘, published firstly in 1494, with illustrations by Albrecht Dürer, covers all human follies and vices, including lust, pride, greed, vice, negligence, impatience, addiction, lewdness, impudence, gossiping and selfishness. Humanity is folly-prone to a grand scale. Over the course of one hundred and twelve chapters, each failing is presented as an allegory, spoken through the voice of the fool, as in this guise, the author could freely express his own opinions. A devout Christian, Brant wished to chart the fallen behaviour of mankind, thus morally highlighting the redemptive path.
One of the allegories presented is that of the ill-matched couple, unequal in age, which became a popular theme in painting, particularly in the sixteen century, with artists including Dürer (1471-1528), Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and Quentin Matsys (1466-1529) making such portraits. This essay will focus on six such paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder  (the sixth by Cranach Workshop), charting the shift of the embrace depicted in each painting, by viewing them in sequence.
The first painting, ‘The Unequal Couple’ (painted circa 1530), currently hangs in the National Museum in Nuremberg, where I encountered it as an anomaly in a salon full of religious scenes. Nuremberg is an apt geographical location and moral loci for the work, in a city once described by Martin Luther as ‘Germany’s eye and ear‘  due to its printing presses and distribution of information.
The ‘happy’ couple stand in a dark room. The black wall behind them is divided in plane. It is complete darkness behind the old man, perhaps suggestive of the grave and longest sleep that awaits him. However, to the right of the young woman’s head, a window opens onto a sun-lit vista. Thanks to her youth, and the positioning of the window in her balance, this escape from the room hints at her possible, freer future.
The woman glows out from the canvas. Her skin is luminescent. Her hair, cap and dress are an iridescent copper. In contrast, the old, toothless man wears darker colours. His skull is all too visible through his thin hair whilst his grey beard curls downwards in a mournful fashion. The furs that the man wears and the intricately decorated dress and jewellery of the woman symbolise what has brought this ‘ill-matched’ couple together. In marriage, the value of the man lies in his wealth, whilst for the woman, her currency is in her looks and reproductive ability. See how her corset is nipped in at the waist, yet there is a swell to her belly.
Whilst this young woman, who returns his embrace and mirrors his smile, may be seen to overlook the obvious cosmetic detriments of her elderly companion, the painter most definitely has not. In his visceral detailing of the thinness of pate and yawning chasm of mouth, there is a grotesque aspect alluded to, with the painter inviting us to imagine this formal embrace progressing. By detailing these only too human failings brought about by age, Cranach the Elder has created a form of Memento Mori. If this picture were translated as a still life, this couple represent the maggot settling on the bloom of the apple.
This woman’s hand rests lightly on the shoulder of her partner, with her other, loosely entwined in his. His left hand gently holds her around her back. Her body is orientated as the object of desire to the viewer, whilst he gazes on adoringly. Let us now sequentially view the other paintings from this theme of ‘The Ill-Matched Couple’, and follow the shift in embrace.
The second painting is ‘Ill-Matched Couple: Young Widow and Old Man’, (1525-30). Although their unity is suggested in their matching caps, there is now no escape from this second dark interior; unlike the first painting, there is no window. The elderly male companion recedes into the shadow. Whilst he still gazes with certain ardour at his young partner, her grip has noticeably shifted. She still holds his hand, left in right, but her other is placed on the material object – his luxuriant fur collar. The copper of her finery has dulled, in comparison to the first painting. As she looks, more knowingly, her eyebrow arches, out of the plane of the painting towards us, her necklace has tightened and the braided detail of dress has slipped, to resemble the chains of a prisoner. The black stitching on the white ruffles on the arm of her dress appears like wire. The painting’s title gives us more biographical detail. As a ‘young widow’, this is her second marriage, more likely entered into for security, not love.
In the third painting ‘The Ill-matched Lovers‘ (1531) and variation, the young woman no longer looks towards us to meet our gaze. She is elsewhere, staring wistfully into the distance, whilst her male companion, hands clamped around her waist, devoid of the smile worn in the first two paintings, expresses more of an urgency, as he paws her. Her left hand is placed on the fur of his cloak, a detail that whilst referring to wealth also could signify that the man is more animalistic, given the nature of their embrace. The economic necessity of their exchange is stressed. As the woman returns the half embrace with her right hand, her left is slipped into the man’s open purse, positioned over his groin. With the sexual connotation of the hand in the purse, we are left in no doubt of the type of labour involved. With the complicity of the woman in this arrangement and the introduction of currency through the inclusion of the purse, the folly of greed also enters the frame.
The fourth painting in this selected series makes this exchange explicit in its title and labelling of the characters: ‘Ill-matched couple- peasant and prostitute‘ (1525-30). The male hold has shifted from the proprietary hand around his partner’s waist and shoulder, to both clasping around her neck. As he looks through rather than at his companion, the woman is freed to have both hands handling the purse. In all four of these paintings, reading in the western tradition from left to right, the man is always on the left, the woman on the right, making the male primary and the female secondary, in its order. In an intriguing variation of the theme, the next two in the series swap the ages of the partnership.
The fifth painting is Lucas Cranach the Elder’s ‘Ill-matched Couple: Young Man and Old Woman‘ (1520-22). The man now is clean shaven with lustrous curls, whilst the woman wears a white cap, denoting age. It is now the woman who has the toothless grin. She holds the money bag and places coins directly into his cupped palm. This inversion of order, of young husband and old wife, also appears in ‘The Ship of Fools‘, with the adage that with ‘no hope of children nor lynage‘ there can only be pain and strife:
Suche ar they that for treasour and ryches
Whyle they ar yonge in theyr chefe lustynes
An agyd woman taketh to theyr wyfe
Lesynge theyr youth, and shortynge so theyr lyfe 
In the sixth painting, ‘Ill-matched Couple: Young Man and Old Woman with a Maid‘, painted in 1540s by Cranach Workshop, (possibly Lucas the Younger, the painter’s son), a third person is introduced into the scenario. The old woman is more grotesque in this version, with wrinkles on her neck cascading towards her immodest cleavage. Her eyes and nose are pink and the few teeth she has left are sharp and wolf-like. As she cups the young man’s beard with one hand, her other is outstretched to receive a full bag of money. The maid kneels in the bottom left of the frame, proffering a glass, an open vessel, to the couple above. In this scene, the old woman becomes a procuress for the young maid or prostitute.
For this essay, I have gathered these six paintings together, in their own fictitious singular space, in order to show each in respect of its neighbour and establish a pattern. In this way, the decline of connection between the protagonists, can be charted incrementally, through the shifting nature of the embrace. In reality, each of these works is dispersed, residing in different museums across Western Europe. However, this was not the original architectural context for the paintings. With Cranach the Elder employed as Saxony’s Court Painter, such works would have been hung intimately in the chambers of German Princes, as a moral tale, instructing against hurried choices. In contrast, the paintings to be found in women’s rooms would have promoted chastity and virtue.
The other staple subjects that Cranach the Elder painted were religious iconography in support of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, a movement which was establishing itself in Germany at that time, and also the commissioned portraits of important people, in particular, of his employers, in his role as court painter to the Electors of Saxony. The ‘ill-matched or unequal couple’ does not hint at either glory or the good. Instead, through its parable of age and youth, and through representing the economy of such an embrace, it focuses on the foibles of the fallen, the human condition and how we can fool ourselves, often by circumstances, financial necessity or by society’s dictates.
Jenny Brownrigg, August 2014
 From the chapter ‘Of younge folks that take olde wymen to theyr wyues nat for loue but for ryches‘, p.347, ‘Ship of Fools, Volume 1‘, Sebastian Brandt, iBooks
 Lucas Cranach the Elder was a venerated German Renaissance painter and printmaker
 Cited in Albert Werminghoff’s ‘Conrad Celtis und Sein Buch uber Nurnberg (Freiburg i. B., 1921)
 From the chapter ‘Of younge folks that take olde wymen to theyr wyues nat for loue but for ryches‘, p.344, ‘Ship of Fools, Volume 1‘, Sebastian Brandt, iBooks