Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) was one of the great painters of the German Renaissance. Heavily influenced by the Lutheran movement, he was a friend of Martin Luther and a witness at the apostate’s marriage to runaway nun, Katharina von Bora.
Little is recorded of his first thirty years, born in Kronach, a small town in northwest Bavaria. His father was also an artist who maintained the tradition of apprenticing his son. Around 1500 Cranach went to Vienna, the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, where the Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I had made the court the center of literary and artistic creativity. Lucas attracted many distinguished patrons, while specializing in the current religious theme of lurid images crammed almost to excess with energy, but his art evolved after meeting Luther.
Based in the Saxon court of Wittenberg for 40 years he developed his ‘serial painter’ style of long telling sequences, setting up a highly efficient picture factory at court from which more than a thousand panels survive. Cranach’s portrait formula allowed for workshop reproduction in great numbers.
Humanistic education was promoted by Frederick the Wise who founded the University of Wittenberg in 1502 to attract scholars to the Saxon court. By 1500, every major city had its own printing press and the spread of ideas, previously restricted to the movement of scholars between universities, now developed rapidly as texts became published in the vernacular language. The city of Wittenberg, described by a contemporary as lying ‘on the frontiers of civilization,’ was home to only 3,000 inhabitants and Cranach quickly rose to leading citizen as he was elected town counselor in 1519, becoming mayor in 1537 and twice more in the next six years. In 1520 he was granted the privilege of being an apothecary which gave him the monopoly on sales of not only medicine, but of spices, sugar, oil, and most importantly, wine. In 1522, a Leipzig printer, unable to work on Lutheran publications because of the catholic rules of the area, moved to Wittenberg to set up a business with Cranach to satisfy the enormous demand of the German New Testament printing. Cranach, of course, supplied the woodcut illustrations. By 1528, his tax returns show that he was the richest landowner in Wittenberg.
The gory apocalyptic horror that dominated German painting around 1500 is abandoned by Lucas; during his long career he created striking portraits and expressive devotional works, propaganda for the Protestant cause as well as his own brand of erotic female nude and inventive treatments of biblical, mythological and classical subjects. He removed the landscape element in favor of a neutral, flat background, uniformly lit and with little sense of light and shade. When sitters wore simple costumes, this lent a feeling of sober gravity. However, given the opportunity as evident with the Saxon prince and princess, Cranach can revel in the texture and pattern of elaborate costume.
“Once in Austria you painted grapes on a table in such a natural way that after you had left, a magpie flew by and was so annoyed at the deception that it hacked at the work with beak and claws; the stag that you painted at Coburg made dogs bark when they caught sight of it.”
German lawyer, Christoph Scheulr (1481-1542)
Titian and Cranach both painted Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in diametrically opposite ways, when summoned to Augsburg in 1547 to paint the most powerful man in Europe. Titian’s portrait emphasizes the Emperor’s masculine charisma. Cranach, on the other hand, cannot keep himself from recording the Hapsburg jaw that made it impossible for the monarch to close his mouth completely. Lucas also painted Titian; sadly that portrait does not survive.
In 1526 Lucas elevated Luther’s most relentless Catholic opponent, Cardinal Albrecht, to the role of Saint Jerome. At work in his quiet study, he is seen translating his rival Catholic version of the German Bible, published the following year. The menagerie of animals includes the familiar lion, a badger, squirrel and a deer.
Commonplace in Cranach’s art were latin verses, as shown in the Venus and Cupid nude:
“As little Cupid robbed the hive of honey
A bee transfixed his finger with a sting;
So, too, our search for fleeting, short-lived pleasure
Is mixed with wretched pain and does us ill.”
The many exhibitions of Lucas Cranach’s paintings has allowed audiences to appreciate an artist, not from the school of individual genius, but rather one who reflected the society of his period and responded with enormous skill to the demands made on him.
The Musee du Luxembourg has a current exhibition of Lucas Cranach, the Gallery Borghese has an online exhibition, and The National Gallery at the Google Art Project has a mega pixel image of the Portrait of a Woman that highlights the intense attention to detail.