Now showing: the titillating nudes of Martin Luther's friend

Friend of Martin Luther, prolific painter of female nudes and devotional illustrator of biblical scenes, the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder led a remarkably varied artistic career. He even managed to be banned by the London Underground 455 years after his death.

The Royal Academy had elected to publicise its exhibition of Cranach's work through a poster featuring his portrait, Venus. It was initially judged too titillating for commuters, although the ban has now been lifted. From Saturday, travellers will have a chance to judge for themselves.

Cranach produced more images of the female nude than any other artist of his age. So numerous were his portraits of classical deities in a state of undress that he is now considered to be the first artist who bought the genre of the nude to wood panel painting in Germany.

"Cranach", at the Royal Academy of Arts, is the first survey of his work in Britain. It brings together 70 paintings including the "teasing Venus" portrait as well as a triptych of the Holy Family and numerous portraits of Luther. The two formed an close friendship and were godfathers to each other's children.

Cranach himself was perceived as a pillar of the Protestant establishment, although in an age when painters were heavily dependent on patronage, he was also happy to paint Catholic cardinals. The exhibition, which opens on Saturday, will show many works never before been seen in Britain.

Bodo Brinckman, from the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt, who co-curated the show, said when Cranach unveiled his Venus painting, it may have raised eyebrows but was not met by outrage because he had a "moral" purpose in mind.

"The painting is teasing the spectator but it didn't cause controversy because we think she was painted as a counterpart to another portrait of the Greek figure of Lucretia. The two images mirror each other except Venus is shown at her most lascivious and frivolous, while Lucretia, who killed herself in Roman mythology after she was raped, is sorrowful and desperate. He is showing the two kinds of love, faithfulness on the one hand and frivolous adultery on the other."

Mr Brinckman added that nudes were not a popular topic among German painters at the time, but Cranach, heavily influenced by Italian Renaissance painters such as Botticelli, brought the genre to panel painting. "Until then, nudity was presented differently in Germany in panel paintings," he said. "They were only in drawings and prints."

When Cranach was not depicting naked goddesses, he was painting pious portraits of Luther, biblical stories and decorating altar pieces. One religious painting, the Martyrdom of St Catherine in Budapest, created in 1505 and regarded among his most significant, is a show highlight.

Norman Rosenthal, the RA's outgoing exhibitions secretary and co-curator of the show, said he was proud "Cranach" was his departing exhibition. He also echoed critical comments by the National Gallery director, Nicholas Penny, about "blockbuster shows", saying: "That is what I've tried to do myself. Art is a bottomless pit of possibilities. Blockbusters are not a bad thing in themselves; Monet and Van Gogh and Manet will be perpetually interesting but there is more to art than 20 big names."

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