In 1507, following his second trip to Venice, Dürer painted the life-size figures of Adam and Eve, defining the forms with a fluid and continuous line. He replaced the Vitruvian proportional canon of eight heads with a more elegant one of nine heads and barely suggested the anatomical details of the figures. Their unstable poses and rhythmical movements, as well as their artificial gestures and self-absorbed expressions, all anticipate Mannerism, an approach that Dürer would, however, soon abandon.

While no documentary evidence survives regarding the commission for these works, it is thought that they were originally painted for the Town Hall of Nuremberg as they were to be found there in the late 16th century when the City Council gave them as a gift to the Emperor Rudolf II, who displayed them in the new gallery of his castle in Prague. Looted by the Swedes during the Sack of Prague (1648), the panels were moved to Stockholm. In 1654, following her abdication, Christina of Sweden (who did not appreciate northern painting) gave them to Philip IV of Spain, a great lover of painting.

When they arrived in Madrid the panels were considered to be “nudes” and as such were hung in the “Vaults of Titian”, the summer quarters in the Alcázar that housed nudes by Titian, Rubens, Tintoretto, Ribera and other leading artists. Fortunately, this part of the Alcázar was little affected by the fire of 1734 and Dürer’s panels were taken to the Buen Retiro palace along with others saved from the disaster. In 1762 moral qualms led Charles III to add the paintings to a list of others considered “indecent” and which were to be destroyed. The intervention of the Court Painter Mengs saved Dürer’s panels as he was able to convince the monarch that both paintings “were very useful for his pupils to study.” With this didactic purpose in mind, ten years later the two panels were taken to the Academia de San Fernando where they were stored away. They could only be seen without restrictions during the reign of José Bonaparte (1809-1813), when they were hung in the Sala de Juntas for the purposes of “study by the Pupils of the Academy and delight for lovers of the Fine Arts.”

The paintings entered the Prado in 1827 and were kept in the closed store where nudes were housed until 1838, at which date they were incorporated into the display of works on view to the public.

These two panels are masterpieces within Dürer’s oeuvre, as well as outstanding examples of the monumental nude. They are, however, more than just an exaltation of nude flesh and both involve an underlying moral reflection. On the cartouche that hangs from the branch of the tree in the Eve panel and which includes the artist’s name, anagram and the date of the work, the words post Virginis partum [after the Virgin gave birth] refer to Mary as the “new Eve”, the immaculate Virgin, chosen by God to save mankind from the sin that Adam and Eve are about to commit.

Pilar Silva Maroto, Head of the Department of Flemish Painting (1400-1600) and of Spanish Painting (1100-1500).

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