Issue Number: 98
The religious theme of Cranach’s masterpiece is typical of its time, yet the picture tells another story. Frank Whitford unravels its political narrative
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Triptych with the Holy Kinship, 1509. Oil and tempera on limewood, centre panel: 121.1 x 100.4 cm, side panels each: 120.6 x 45.3 cm Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Paintings of the extended Holy Family, the subject of this triptych from 1509, had been popular in northern European painting since the Middle Ages. Various close relatives of the Virgin Mary (most of them absent from the New Testament) are shown together in a seemingly happy scene. This is why one title of the work is The Holy Kinship. The work's other title, the Torgau Altarpiece, derives from the false assumption that it was made for a church in the town of Torgau. No one knows which location the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, who commissioned it with his brother, had in mind for the painting. It may even have been intended as a gift for the Holy Roman Emperor. It is clear that one of the purposes of the painting was political. At this time, the relationship between Frederick the Wise – a Protestant and protector of Martin Luther – and Maximilian, the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, was in crisis. Their presence together in this painting as members of the Holy Family was meant to suggest the possibility of reconciliation.
The men on the balcony in the central panel
According to legend, St Anne, the Virgin’s mother, had three husbands and bore a daughter to each of them. On the left is her first husband, father of the Virgin Mary. In the centre is her second husband, and on the right is her third. But the faces were based on real people. The man in the centre is the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, recognisable from his chain of office, and to his left is one of his advisers. Cranach was flattering the Emperor by making him a member of the Holy Family and placing him above the Virgin. However, the coats of arms on the balcony itself proclaim it to be Saxon territory. The Holy Roman Emperor is thus enjoying Frederick's hospitality and owes him loyalty.
The women in the central panel
In the centre, offering her infant son (the ‘new Adam’) an apple to remind us of the Fall and Christ’s salvation of mankind, is the Virgin Mary, dressed in her characteristic blue. She wears nothing on her head, indicating her virginity. All the other women in the painting wear nunlike head coverings, signifying their married status. On the right, holding the child, is the Virgin’s mother, St Anne. On the left, asleep, is St Joseph, the earthly father of Christ.
The two children in the central panel
The two boys are Christ’s disciples – Jude Thaddeus (the other Judas, not Iscariot), apostle and martyr, who, it is said, preached the Gospel in countries neighbouring Judea after Christ’s Crucifixion, and Simon the Zealot, who accompanied him. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, known as such because early Christians, not understanding the difference between his name and Judas’s, never prayed for Jude’s help, and devotion to him became a lost cause. Only the haloes tell us of the boys’ later sainthood. The boy pulling a cart places an apple, symbolic of the Fall, into the other boy’s basket of grapes, symbolic of the true vine of Christ, thus foretelling His redemption of mankind.
People holding books appear on all three parts of the altarpiece. On the left panel is the young Barnabas, in the centre the Virgin Mary has a book on her lap, while on the right St Anne’s son-in-law Zebedee (left) is perusing a large volume. Such richly bound books – luxury items in Cranach’s time – stress the importance and education of the people holding them.
Dogs were a symbol of faithfulness and therefore often accompanied married women in art. Though this dachshund symbolises the faithfulness of all the women present, it sits at the feet of St Anne, who was faithful to no fewer than three husbands.
Cranach announced his authorship of the altarpiece by giving his name and the date on the framed panel hanging on the right-hand pillar on the central panel. But his name is incorrect: it appears here as ‘Lucas Chronus’. Chronus was the Greek god of time. Cranach was probably alluding to the way he was known throughout northern Europe – as 'the fast painter'.
The left panel
Mary Cleophas, who was St Anne's daughter from a later marriage and a stepsister of the Virgin Mary, is depicted in the left panel nursing her baby. Her husband has the features of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise.
The right panel
This panel depicts Mary Salome (not the Salome who asked for the head of St John the Baptist), St Anne’s daughter from her last marriage and a stepsister of the Virgin Mary. She is combing nits from her son’s hair with a golden comb (in medieval times there was a permanent plague of nits). Her husband has the features of Frederick the Wise’s brother, Duke John the Steadfast. His presence here, together with that of his brother, signifies the allegiance of the two Saxon rulers to the Holy Roman Emperor.