Lucas Cranach developed a close friendship with Martin Luther. From the beginning he shaped the public image of the Reformer both in prints and in painted portraits, of which the workshop produced entire series from the third decade of the sixteenth century onwards. He accompanied Luther’s tracts against Catholics with a number of particularly cutting illustrative schemes.
As a canon of preferred pictorial subjects slowly emerged and took definite form on the Protestant side, it was Cranach who found suitable artistic formulations for them. At this point he produced allegories of Law and Justice and paintings of Christ summoning the children, or showing mercy to the adulteress, each of which was produced in large numbers.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christ Blessing the Children, c. 1535–40. Oil and tempera on beechwood, 83.8 x 121.5 cm Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
This painting depicts an event described in the first three Gospels (Matthew 19, 13–15; Mark 10, 13–16; Luke 18, 15–17). Several women wish to bring their children to Christ to have them blessed, and are turned away by the Apostles (pictured top left) but Christ rebukes them with the following words: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.’
Prior to Cranach this subject does not seem to have been treated as a panel painting; at least no predecessors have been found. However, from the middle of the 1530s (the earliest dated versions were painted in 1538) the Cranach workshop produced it in large numbers over a long period; more than twenty versions have survived, and this alone shows the popularity of the subject.
The painting reveals Cranach’s outstanding talent as a storyteller – something which is also apparent in other works – even though some of the details here are not quite convincing, such as the precarious position of the infant on the cushion; these factors are outweighed by the general impression and, within the allotted framework of the scene and the need to reduce the faces to a selection of standardised types, by the telling way he conveys the moods and feelings of the people portrayed through their facial expressions and gestures, all described in loving detail.
The warning contained in the picture illustrates a central Lutheran position: only an unspoiled childish belief in God, as revealed in Christ, can prepare the way for sinful mankind to achieve redemption. In its emphasis on family values it also relates closely to basic Reformist views, giving a Protestant thrust to the picture. It has often been thought that pictures of this kind manifest clear support for the baptism of children against the emergence in the 1530s of the Anabaptists, but this does not seem to be the true message of this painting which is rather to be found in general statements of belief like those described. It would be more appropriate to compare its didactic character with that of a sermon.