RA Magazine Spring 2008
Issue Number: 98
A man for all seasons
Commissioned by both Luther and his Catholic enemies, Lucas Cranach made art that breached the spiritual divide of his day. Jerry Brotton profiles this painter polymath
Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Golden Age, c. 1530. Oil and tempera on wood, transferred to a new panel. 73.5 x 105.5 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich. Photo courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich
In May 1547, the 74 year-old Lucas Cranach was summoned to the military camp of the Habsburg emperor Charles V outside Wittenberg. Just a month earlier, the emperor had defeated Cranach’s Lutheran patron, John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, at the Battle of Mühlberg. This climactic battle in the clash between Catholic and Protestant in Reformation Europe was famously commemorated by Titian in his equestrian portrait Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg from 1548 (now in the Prado).
During his audience with the emperor, Cranach recollected with fondness the time when, nearly 40 years earlier, he had painted the young Charles’s portrait as an eight year-old boy, before the religious conflicts that ripped Europe apart and put prince and painter on different sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide. Cranach successfully pleaded with Charles to show clemency to his patron John Frederick I and subsequently followed the Elector into exile in Augsburg, as both watched their Lutheran city of Wittenberg handed to the Catholics. By 1553, Cranach was dead, followed less than a year later by John Frederick I.
This story certainly tells us something about both Cranach's artistic reputation and his impressive social status as a painter – a friend and adviser to princes and emperors. But many commentators on the period have also seen the meeting between the triumphant Catholic emperor and defeated Protestant painter as a symbol of the deeply polarized artistic and cultural world of Reformation Europe.
Cranach was, after all, a close personal friend and political ally of Martin Luther, acting as godparent to his eldest son. As Luther launched his assault on what he regarded as the corruption of the Catholic church, beginning with The 95 Theses published in Wittenberg in 1517, Cranach provided the visual complement to Luther’s reformed religious vision. As well as creating a series of definitive portraits of Luther right up to, and including, the monk’s death, Cranach also painted and printed a range of biblical scenes which were intended to disseminate the new message of Lutheranism as it developed into the theology of Protestantism that we understand today.
However, what the Royal Academy's exhibition of Cranach’s work reveals is that to see Cranach as a talented court painter hijacked by the spiritual fervour of Lutheranism is to diminish his remarkable ability to give new shape and meaning to a range of colliding influences, from religion to classical mythology, Renaissance humanism and the new technologies of printing and engraving.
Part of the problem for a modern audience looking at Cranach is that we search for the singularity of a driving artistic vision. But Cranach could not afford himself the luxury of such a vision at a time when an artist in northern Europe ranked as little more than a skilled artisan. Cranach responded to a whole range of demands placed upon him as painter not only to the princely court of the Electors of Saxony in Wittenberg, but also to Luther and his followers, as well as Catholic patrons such as Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (one of Luther’s fiercest opponents) and a range of private clients. Cranach also oversaw a large workshop based in Wittenberg that churned out an extraordinary number of portraits, mythological scenes, religious commissions, engravings and illustrated printed books, many containing little trace of the master’s hand.
To understand an artist who signed both an uncompromising Lutheran woodcut of the Pope as the Antichrist and a dark, erotically unsettling painting of Venus from 1532 we need to appreciate both the context of his life as a court painter in Wittenberg and the cataclysmic changes wrought by the Lutheran Reformation that swept northern Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century.
One way into understanding Cranach’s work starts with his name. He was born in 1472 as Lucas Maler, son of Hans, in Kronach, in the Franconian Forest in Bavaria. His father was a painter in charge of a workshop where Lucas first learnt his trade within the guild corporations of the region. In taking the name Cranach, which he used for the rest of his life, Lucas defined himself less through his family than his affiliation to a civic institution: his home town. It was this attachment to civic values and the collective ethos of the guild and the workshop that would shape his career. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Cranach had established himself in Vienna, painting humanist scholars such as Dr Johannes Cuspinian, a university professor of poetry and rhetoric. Cuspinian was part of a circle of humanists absorbing the new learning emanating not only from the Low Countries but also the courts of northern Italy.
In his early portraits and paintings of religious and mythological scenes (such as The Golden Age, above) Cranach was already fusing the disparate styles of the northern and southern Renaissance traditions, marrying them with his own intense and detailed observation of his native German landscape. He was also learning from artists closer to home: his vivid colouring and dramatic, panoramic landscapes drew on the likes of Albrecht Altdorfer, while his precise draughtsmanship acknowledged the influence of Dürer.
Cranach’s success soon brought him to the attention of Frederick III (also known as Frederick the Wise) Elector of Saxony, who appointed him as court painter in Wittenberg in 1505. It was a sign of the cosmopolitan nature of Frederick's interest in the arts that Cranach replaced the Italian Jacopo de' Barbari as court painter. The Italian influence can be seen in Cranach’s early commissions for Frederick, including the triptych The Holy Kinship from 1509 (page 52). As an altarpiece, it takes a familiar religious story of the Holy Family and Madonna’s mother, Anne, but it adds the ambitious detail of Anne’s three husbands (on the balcony above) and their children, depicted in the central panel and its two wings. This complex architectural and perspectival scene evokes earlier Italian designs, while the composition itself draws on the altarpieces of Cranach’s contemporaries in the Low Countries, such as Quentin Massys.
This was also a highly political commission. Cranach painted his patron, Frederick the Wise, in the left-hand panel and Frederick’s brother John in the right, with the German Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian portrayed as one of Anne's husbands in the central panel. The altarpiece clearly celebrates the loyalty of the Saxon princes to their emperor Maximilian, while also showing them flanking the imperial presence, supportive but integral players in the politics of the region.
Cranach's ability to fuse these different styles within his demanding brief as Frederick's court painter allowed him to establish a position in the civic life of Wittenberg that was unprecedented for a painter. His court salary, combined with the growing success of his private commissions, enabled Cranach to open a workshop that employed around fifteen journeymen, as well as his sons Hans and Lucas the Younger. Working on the principle of a guild, Cranach began to create what was in a limited sense mass-produced art. The workshop created templates with panels prepared to standard dimensions and basic, stylised formats (portraits, landscapes and religious scenes) prepared by Cranach’s apprentices, which were then given an individual finish by Cranach himself.
Although this process limited Cranach's own singular creativity and sometimes affected quality – as we can see in many of the works attributed to Cranach from the 1520s onwards – it allowed him to expand his business rapidly. He bought more property and land and even opened Wittenberg's first pharmacy in 1520 – not such a surprising diversification for a craftsman dealing in the raw materials of painting such as dyes and oils. By 1528, he was the richest citizen in Wittenberg, and with that came growing civic status. From 1519, he was elected onto the city council and subsequently acted as both its treasurer and mayor as the city enthusiastically embraced the new religious teachings of his friend Martin Luther.
Like Cranach, Luther benefited from the patronage of Frederick the Wise. Although Frederick remained ambivalent about Luther’s radical theology, he regarded the founding of Wittenberg University in 1502 as his greatest achievement and was keen to shelter his professor of theology from charges of heresy. Cranach was also keen to assist his friend, both out of loyalty and an awareness of the financial opportunities which the spread of Luther's new ideas represented. He portrayed the young Luther in a stark, penetrating copperplate engraving, dated 1520, that captures the focused, almost zealous asceticism of the reformer. Subsequently he painted a series of portraits of Luther in various guises, from religious renegade to academic professor and happily married family man.
In 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, in a potentially scandalous union. However, Cranach responded by painting a series of double portraits of the couple in a conventional style, deliberately intended to be circulated among the Lutheran faithful to show that there was nothing unusual about taking religious as well as married vows. As ever, Cranach adopted a fitting pictorial design and execution for the commission: where his earlier portraits depicted Luther as a driven, almost fanatical figure, Cranach’s double portrait of Luther with his wife shows him as an average, placid, happy German burgher. Luther’s supporters boasted that the image was reproduced and circulated in hundreds of copies to the Lutheran faithful.
In 1519, Cranach helped design and publish the first Lutheran 'flyer', a pamphlet attacking the Roman Church, and then collaborated with Luther’s followers, Philipp Melanchthon and Johann Schwertfeger, on their woodcut Passional Christi und Antichristi, 1521. On the left we see Christ being mocked in his crown of thorns, which is cleverly contrasted with the image on the right showing the Pope being crowned with the papal tiara. The message is clear: meditate on Christ’s suffering for each one of us as individuals, rather than the worldly power of the papacy.
Where exactly Cranach stood on this was unclear, but like his other commissions, this flyer was an opportunity to fashion a particular idea through a simple but effective medium, the woodcut, which could then be circulated to a whole new audience (it is estimated that the cheapness and ease of reproducing the pamphlet gave it a circulation of up to 20,000).
Cranach went even further, establishing a printing press in one of his many properties to design and distribute Luther's revolutionary German translation of the New Testament. Published in 1522, it sold over 3,000 copies (unprecedented for its time) and went through sixteen subsequent editions.
As well as seizing on Luther's ideas to reach a wider public, Cranach developed a new stylistic and compositional language to represent Lutheran theology. During the 1530s, he began to represent in paint Luther's belief that an individual's religious faith required an internal and ongoing understanding of man's sinfulness, and the need for grace and charity. The painting Charity from 1534 shows virtue emanating outwards from the figure of the young mother selflessly displaying her goodness and, in the process, unselfconsciously passing down these virtues to the young girl who holds her doll in anticipation of her future role of nurturing, charitable woman. Children appear in Cranach's works from as early as The Holy Kinship from 1509. But in his later paintings, Cranach drew on the Lutheran belief in mankind's childish state in the face of sin and God’s grace, drawing explicitly on Christ's insistence as recorded in the Gospels that, ‘Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.’ It probably helped that Cranach’s workshop was noted for painting children.
Alongside these exemplary Protestant images, Cranach continued to produce startlingly erotic paintings of naked Venuses for a different clientele, fewer in number than Luther’s
followers. These wealthy princes, burghers and humanist scholars were interested in classical mythology, as well as having a prurient but discreet predilection for naked female flesh. Cranach’s Italian counterpart, Titian, was producing similar boudoir-style portrayals for his Habsburg patrons but Cranach broke new ground with his sinuous women, who both hide and display their nudity with a hitherto unparalleled explicitness and sensuality.
Cranach’s workshop was also happy to accept commissions to design altarpieces of the lives of the saints from Luther's theological opponent, Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, aimed at a direct rebuttal of Luther’s reformed religious ideas. This wasn’t as contradictory or hypocritical as we might think today. We need to remember that throughout the 1520s and 1530s, nobody knew where Luther's reformed religious ideas would lead. Luther never preached a split with Rome, just a reformation of its values.
Cranach, along with his fellow artist Dürer, took up the challenge of creating a new visual language to represent the changing face of religious faith, and of ensuring that painting retained a place in religion in the face of the iconoclasm perpetrated by some of Luther’s followers. With this in mind, we might wish to celebrate Cranach as an artist who both resisted and harnessed a range of different political, religious and intellectual currents that threatened to claim his art for their own particular ends.
Read more about this exhibition
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