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Lucas Cranach the Elder Photo

Lucas Cranach the Elder

German Painter and Printmaker

Born: c. 1472 - Kronach, Upper Franconia
Died: October 16, 1553 - Weimar
Movements and Styles:
Northern Renaissance

Summary of Lucas Cranach the Elder

One of Germany's most eminent sixteenth century artists, Cranach's career tends to be divided into three phases. He made his early reputation as a painter of romanticized devotional pieces set in the rugged landscapes of the Alpine foothills. These brought him acclaim as a pioneer amongst a group of Viennese landscapists who became the Danube School. It is his middle phase, however, that his greatest fame rests. As the most important artist of the Protestant Reformation his court portraiture and woodcuts helped Protestantism become the major movement within Christianity in sixteenth century Europe. By the time he reached his mature years, his earlier individualism had plateaued, and his later works are, by most historians' accounts, notable chiefly for the remarkable speed of their execution and the finery of their finish.

Accomplishments

  • Cranach confirmed his place in history through his close friendship with Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. He painted many altarpieces and court portraits of the key Protestant thinkers and made woodcuts for the Lutheran bible. Indeed, Cranach was the "pictorial propagandist" for the Protestant cause leaving behind a body of work that has provided a visual record of the key figures who shaped this most tumultuous period in German and western Christian history.
  • Cranach's early Viennese works are considered his most individualistic and have earned him renown as a key influence on the painterly landscapes that became the trademark of the Danube School. Speaking of his most famous Viennese works, Crucifixion (c. 1500) and St. Jerome in Penitence (1502), the historian Friedrich Thöne suggested that these early works showed Cranach to be "an avant-garde artist of considerable emotional force".
  • Cranach ran a workshop that producing over 100 woodcuts and engravings during its lifetime. Indeed, with his famous compatriot, Albrecht Dürer, he established the woodcut as a defining feature of sixteenth-century German art (which was fully revived by the Expressionists in the early twentieth century). A comparison between the two men shows Cranach to be a master of the ornate and idyllic, whereas Dürer pieces are much more about restraint and clarity.
  • Although not well traveled, Cranach spent a short, but highly productive, spell in the Netherlands where he absorbed Italo-Netherlandish treatments of the monumental nude. Back in Saxony, Cranach painted female subjects in all their rarefied elegance; typically bedecked in fashionable dress and jewelry. In his mythical works, meanwhile, he converted the Renaissance model of Giorgione's Venus into a sensual language that was expressed through the stylized elongation the female form.

The Life of Lucas Cranach the Elder

A portrait of Lucas the Elder painted by his son Lucas the Younger in 1550.

Cranach was described on his tombstone as Pictor celerrimus ("swiftest of painters"). But as art historian Friedrich Thöne noted, "his strength lay not in reflection, composition, and construction but in an impulsive creativity that was nourished by his imagination". This, Thöne concluded, made his art "especially popular [with those who] yearned for beauty in man and in nature and for a peaceful refuge from the world's turmoil".

Important Art by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Progression of Art
Johannes Cuspinian (c.1502)
c.1502

Johannes Cuspinian

The stout figure, dressed in a deep fur robe with a red hat, holds a heavy book while looking outside the picture frame. His expression suggests a thinking man and/or scholar. Indeed, the subject, Johannes Cuspinian (1473-1529), was an Austrian polymath, diplomat and political commentator who was studying and teaching in Vienna in 1500 (the time Cranach was resident there). This portrait (part of a pair of portraits with Cuspinian's wife, Anna) is in fact a tribute, from an aspirational artist who would soon become a court painter in Saxony, to a figure who was already established in his profession(s) and whose star was still in the ascendency. The 30-year-old Cuspinian was already Rector at the university in Vienna, while Cranach (a year older than his subject) likely saw in him a role model.

Cuspinian, looking away from us with an upward tilt of his head, turns away from the inconsequentialities of the day-to-day world. In the far distance to his left, people who are painted as ghostly and insubstantial - especially in comparison to the solid presence of the scholar - carry water, rest, swim and make their way home after a day of work as twilight settles over the landscape. Across the land most things seem drowsy (ready for sleep), except for Cuspinian, and the owl with its kill, that turns to look at us. Due to its proverbial wisdom and its active life in darkness, the owl symbolizes a heightened, even supernatural, perception and, as it is flying over Cuspinian's head, Cranach lauds the intellect of his sitter.

Cranach and Cuspinian are the embodiment of the Renaissance spirit of independent and humanist inquiry; a spirit in the process of freeing itself from the Medieval dogma of the Church. Cranach's landscape is dense with humanist symbolism, demonstrating the progressive thinking of both artist and sitter. But looking beyond the painting's individual symbols (the owl for instance), the whole landscape (which also features in the portrait of Cuspinian's wife, Anna) reflects what was then the new cult of human sensitivity and naturalism: the radical idea of nature as a "pleasure-park". There seems, too, to be a divergence of human attitudes and the uses of time in the painting. The word "twilight" in German indicates "second light" and Cranach chooses the twilight moment to separate Cuspinian from the fatalistic resignation to the darkness of the night. The day is ending, the toil of the day is over when brain and brawn settle but the restless spirit of the inquiring mind remains vigilant.

Oil on wood - Private Collection

St. Jerome in Penitence (1502)
1502

St. Jerome in Penitence

There is a similar compositional scheme at play in this St. Jerome picture to the Cuspinian artwork painted around the same time. To the left of both works, there is a domination by towering trees which seclude each scene. In the case of the Cuspinian painting, this seclusion suggests a rarity of personality and intellect. But in his Jerome picture, this remoteness from the surrounding landscape refers to the hermit lifestyle chosen by Jerome in the service of God. The saint kneels in the left foreground, his left hand rending his beard in contrition. He has cast off the red robes of his position in the Church as cardinal and doctor and trains his eyes on a vision of the crucifixion in the background. Cranach paints a vigorous muscularity on Jerome's torso that strongly contrasts with the slender body of Christ on the cross.

Cranach places Jerome in a rugged Alpine landscape that was typical of Cranach's early career and which, indeed, helped him make his name as an artist. As historian E. H. Gombrich says of Cranach, "it seems his brief stay in the Danube region had been sufficient to open the eyes of the people who lived in the Alpine districts to the beauty of their [natural] surroundings". In the right background, meanwhile, stands a church under a steep hillside that is surmounted by a castle. This suggests the relative peaceful relation of religious and political power prior to the eruption of the Reformation (which occurred in Cranach's town, Wittenberg, in 1517). Yet we can see here elements of the ethics of what would become Lutheranism: Jerome has cast aside his Church privileges and status and seeks a more direct communion with the object of his faith.

Again (as in the portrait of Cuspinian) an owl is painted by the artist, but this time settled at the top left in its tree. The bird of wisdom looks out to us, perhaps to invoke the faith of the viewer who would, through Cranach's transplantation of the scene to his contemporary Germany, be inspired even more. The apple in Jerome's right hand refers to the "fall of man" and the expulsion from paradise. It is held out at such an angle by the saint as to form a line almost to the head of Christ. The consequence of Adam and Eve's sin is embodied in the Christ dying to atone for it and is the impetus for Jerome's wonder, his repentance, and his forsaking of the material world. The lion resting at his master's feet symbolizes loyalty.

Oil on panel - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Adam and Eve in Paradise (1509)
1509

Adam and Eve in Paradise

From 1505, Cranach ran a workshop that employed an estimated ten artists, producing over its lifespan more than 100 woodcuts and engravings. When the workshop opened, the woodcuts of fellow German, Albrecht Dürer, were gaining recognition across Europe and many German artists were inspired to turn to the medium. These two men developed different styles and would in fact become friendly rivals, with Cranach assuming his undisputed position as the preeminent German woodcutter and engraver only after Dürer's death in 1528. Dürer had in fact already created a woodcut of the story of Adam and Eve in 1504 and Cranach would have very likely been aware of its existence.

Dürer's Adam and Eve is the epitome of restraint and clarity, with judicious lines that gently define forms in a deceptively rich composition. His shading is subtle and perhaps is of superior importance to his lines which are, even so, exquisitely delicate. The Adam and Eve in Paradise of Cranach is, by way of contrast, an unapologetically crowded composition, with Adam and Eve beneath the Tree of Knowledge in the company of deer, roebucks, horses, and a lion. A seated Adam holds an apple from the tree and is about to eat it. Eve reaches for another apple under the lurking tempter-serpent that is coiled around a branch. In the Dürer, both Adam and Eve are standing, perhaps to imply a shared guilt. But Cranach depicts Adam slumped in resignation at the tree trunk while Eve in active pose reassures him with an embracing arm just as the serpent has reassured her. We are left by Cranach to surmise that the primary guilt rest with her.

The Dürer print is replete with a symbolism of disaster: a cat and a trapped mouse, and a goat about to plummet from a cliff. However, the Cranach is a more literal rendition of the story of the Fall. He is more concerned to pack the composition with a sensory abundance and rich foliage, with animals subject to the artist's taste for ornate flourishes (as evidenced, for instance, in the mane of the lion). These flourishes function to show the opulence of the idyllic Garden which will be lost forever. At the top left, Cranach includes the coat of arms of his patrons, the Electors of Saxony. This inclusion legitimizes the rule of the Electors over an idyll similar in conception to Eden and equates political sedition with the Fall of man.

Woodcut - British Museum

Madonna under the Fir Tree (1510)
1510

Madonna under the Fir Tree

The Virgin Mary, in her traditional blue robe that enfolds a red gown, cradles the Christ child who returns her gaze. They are placed by in a signature (alpine) Cranach landscape. The Archdiocesan Museum in Wrocław describes the work as "one of the most beautiful Madonnas ever painted". The child is either being lifted from, or being set down, on a dark tasselled cushion, the inner embroidered material of which is a red that rhymes with Mary's gown. The two figures, with the aid of a ledge painted by Cranach at the bottom, seem to advance into the world of the viewer. This grants us privileged access to the fabled and long-presaged hope for all humanity in the Christian tradition. The child is securely protected, on one side by the solicitude of his earthly mother, and on the other, by a slender curving tree that almost seems to genuflect. The twin poles of terrestrial existence - the human (albeit immaculate here) and the natural world form a unified bulwark for the protection and spread of the Word of God.

Two notes of prophetic intimations of the life of Christ can be identified. First, the child holds a bunch of grapes which remind the viewer of the miracle of the marriage of Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. The grapes, also a symbol of general prosperity, can be a promise of the rewards of heaven for a virtuous life. Cranach positions the grapes over the Madonna's womb, indicating not just fertility but the locale of the redemption of humankind. Second, we see the colour red in two places partially enclosed: in the robe of the Virgin and in the cushion. This can be read perhaps as an allusion to Christ's Passion and the bloodletting of his torture and crucifixion. Typical of Cranach, we see to the left a citadel perched high in the background. This introduces a political note, but in concert with the subject-matter, it functions as a compliment to the piety of his patrons (who presumably occupied the fortress).

The painting has in fact been subject to a mystery worthy of a modern crime novel. In 2012, many sources, including ABC News in America, reported on what it called "The Odyssey of the Stolen Cranach Painting". Cranach's masterpiece had hung in the cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Wroclaw for over 400 years until, during World War II, the church feared it might be damaged or destroyed in Allied air raids and donated it to the Diocesan Museum in Wroclaw for safekeeping. However, the painting was damaged in transit. The priest charged with restoring the Madonna took it upon himself to steal the original and replace it with a sophisticated fake (which he had painted). The forgery went unnoticed until the early 1960s when it was discovered that the devious priest had amassed a collection of stolen art (though the Cranach was still missing). Only after the death of a penitent Swiss art collector (to who the priest had presumably sold the original) was Cranach's masterpiece rediscovered and returned to its rightful owners.

Oil on panel - Archdiocesan Museum, Wroclaw

Duke Henry the Pious and Catherine Mecklenburg (1514)
1514

Duke Henry the Pious and Catherine Mecklenburg

This double portrait of the future Henry IV of Saxony and his wife Catherine of Mecklenburg was Cranach's career-defining portrait. It followed his recent excursion to the Netherlands where he had experimented with picture perspective and spatial relations. Here, however, he chose to eschew all modern concessions to space and volume in order to focus fully on his subjects' essential character. The two figures, set against a flat black background, are bedecked in their finest costumes and accessories, and fill the whole picture frame. It has been widely suggested that these might be the first "profane" full-body portraits in the history of art.

The portraits were painted three years before Martin Luther published his famous Ninety-Five Theses at Wittenberg; an event that would be crucial to Henry's two-year reign from 1539-41, and during which time he would establish Lutheranism as the official state religion. Henry is portrayed as a martial presence, his hands drawing his golden-hilted sword and his stern gaze fixed upon the viewer (as if willing us to declare ourselves friend or foe). His face is flushed with a manly vigor and he has an expression of calm, but glowering, inquiry. A large hunting dog sniffs around his master's feet. In contrast to this apogee of masculinity, Catherine cuts a decidedly passive figure. She has a pallid complexion and bears an expression of restrained good humor. Her pet dog sits obediently at her feet and seems to complement Cranach's rendering of her demure character. Whereas Henry's portrait is characterized by the movement of his arms and his energetic dog, the portrait of Catherine is marked by a serene stillness.

To the left in the portrait of Catherine, Cranach inscribes his signature snake (holding a ring). This is the Kleinod awarded to him for his services to the Electors of Saxony in 1508. The mark of the artist here competes with the clothing designs of the two sitters' families, as befitting not only Cranach's artistic reputation, but also his own social standing. As well as relating to us the likenesses of his sitters, Cranach revels in the design and colours of the clothing and their accoutrements and this flair is typical of his concern with the decorative at this point in his career. As has been remarked by historian John Oliver Hand, these portraits "achieve an almost mannerist decorative grandeur".

Oil on canvas - Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Allegory of Law and Grace (c.1529)
c.1529

Allegory of Law and Grace

The art historian Dr. Bonnie Noble argues that "The Law and the Gospel is the single most influential image of the Lutheran Reformation [and] represents Cranach's pictorial translation of Luther's unique understanding of salvation". It is thought that Martin Luther, a long-time friend of Cranach, directed the artist in terms of the painting's didactic content. The panel is divided in two by a tree that itself is divided between a wintry fruitlessness (on the left) and leafy richness (on the right) thus revealing two alternate modes of living. The left side of the panel ("law") signals that observing God's law is not enough for the salvation of the soul. On the right side ("grace") we are given the conditions for Lutheran grace. For this, not only is divine law to be obeyed, but the gospel must be absorbed into the human soul.

Luther made a differentiation between law, as the Old Testament Word of God, and the "lovely, living Word", of the New Testament gospel. In the left panel we can see the disputations on law by Medieval-style scholastic theologians and clerics while a man is driven by a demon and a death-skeleton into the pit of hell on the far left. The man's expression can be read as a mixture of horror and outrage, as he has followed law and is yet condemned. In the background of the left we see the Fall of man: Adam and Eve partaking of the apples of the Tree of Knowledge. This is distinguished from the foreground perdition of the man in that the breaking of God's law is a general catastrophe but also the mere adherence to that law without engagement with scripture is damnable. The figure of Christ in the left panel hovers over the scene at a distance, signalling the detachment from God of all in the left side.

We are shown on the right side two episodes from the New Testament. These are the crucifixion, the motor of God's grace and man's salvation, and the Lamb trampling the forces of hell, the skeleton, and the demon, underfoot. Both God's forgiveness and his wrath are on display. Overhead to the right appears Christ as the Redeemer blessing the devoted man's soul as he makes tribute to the crucified son of God. In all, the evaluation of Noble seems prescient. She writes that we are faced in this work with the "dynamics of law and gospel (Lutheran theology) on the one hand, and law on its own (Catholicism or Judaism) on the other".

Oil on panel - Herzogliches Museum, Gotha

Phyllis and Aristotle (1530)
1530

Phyllis and Aristotle

This theme, drawn from a well-known thirteenth century German poem, is a cautionary tale from the Medieval Power of Woman tradition. Phyllis gains revenge over the ancient Greek philosopher, and paragon of reason and intellect, Aristotle, for denying her lover a meeting with her. She uses her seductive wiles to persuade Aristotle to let her ride him like a horse while she whips him. "Phyllis riding Aristotle" was in fact a popular cartoon and could be found on church misericords, as marginalia on manuscripts, on caskets, on tapestries, and on prints. It was, however, never treated as a suitable subject for "fine art" until Cranach's intervention.

In Cranach's version Phyllis clasps Aristotle's beard with her left hand like a reign as he turns rearward in pain and anger. Both figures are dressed in contemporary aristocratic fashion, and the disjuncture between Aristotle's luxurious clothing and his abject fate alerts us to the upending of conventional male-female relationships at the time. Even the castle of the left background seems uncertain in its situation, given the teetering lean of the cliff face. The bastion of male dominance is also threatened, therefore, by a seemingly unnatural reverse in nature.

Yet in the figure of Phyllis, who looks out to us, there is wisdom. While Aristotle rears up in rancor, she knowingly looks out at us as if delivering a moral of her own: perhaps about the knowledge of woman, her refusal to be scorned with impunity, as well as exemplifying the womanly skill of manipulation which, it seems here, trumps cold sense. Indeed, art critic Amelia Soth calls this work "a send-up of chivalric romances and the ideals of courtly love". Cranach is indeed here introducing a stern realist irony that recurs throughout his career, even in the smiles of his goddesses.

Oil on panel - Private Collection

Weimar Herderkirche Altarpiece (1555)
1555

Weimar Herderkirche Altarpiece

Although Cranach's son, Lucas the Younger, completed this altarpiece in 1555 (two years after his father's death) it is worth considering this a work of Cranach the Elder for it was he who was awarded the original commission and was working on it until his death. The drawing of the figures of Christ are typical of Cranach, with his slender dimensions as if straddling the worlds of the physical and immaterial. The presence and pose of John the Baptist in animal hide are also reminiscent of his Law and Grace (1529). We see, too, a typical Cranach landscape of a rocky, vertiginous hillside with trees and a background encampment.

Luther, Cranach, and John the Baptist are positioned on the right of the frame. John points to crucifixion of Christ, Luther is pointing to his place in the scripture which tells of the cleansing power of the blood of Christ, while the bearded Cranach prays as a jet of blood from the pierced side of Christ lands on his forehead (this feature of the painting has been attributed to Lucas the Younger). The blood signifies the Protestant personal connection with God and grace (rather than the Catholic dogma of devout congregations who can only connect with God through the intermediary of the Pope and Church). There is a division of the attentions of the group. This perhaps shows a hierarchy in the order of grace. John as a prophet experiences the "living Word" as Luther describes it. Luther seems next in grace as he studies the New Testament Word and looks upward as if in personal communion with God. Cranach is set by himself at a lower order. He requires the intercession of John the Baptist but receives the blood of Christ.

To the left, a martial Christ slays the beast of hell and reassures the viewer with his gaze that he will dispose the ills of the world and the human soul if a Lutheran faith and repentance is maintained. Below the cross, in the peaceable pose while holding its weapon is the Lamb of God, drawing attention to the Rapture and the final evaluation of human souls. The animal's attitude, looking up to the group on the right, alerts us to the sanctified states of the souls of John, Cranach, and Luther. To the right background there is the story of the Brazen Serpent or the Nehushtan ('Great Serpent') in which God told Moses, who prayed for forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites to erect a fiery serpent to worship. As God sent serpents to attack the Israelites for a slight against him, the story is an example of both his wrath and beneficence to the faithful. Still further in the background appears to be an Archangel's apparition to three humble men who hail the angel and one of whom sinks to his knees in admiration.

Biography of Lucas Cranach the Elder

Childhood

Lucas Müller, was born in the town of Kronach (the town from which he would later take his name) in central Germany around 1472 to Hans Müller, and a Miss Hübner (she is known to have died in 1491). It is thought that he worked with his artist father with whom he studied between 1495-98. Little else is known of Cranach's early years.

Early Training

Given the range and technical quality of his painting, it seems likely that Cranach trained for at least a short period with local masters. The art historian E. H. Gombrich wrote, "Cranach began as a most promising painter. In his youth he spent several years in southern Germany and Austria. At the time when Giorgione, who came from the southern foothills of the Alps, discovered the beauty of mountain scenery, this young painter was fascinated by the northern foothills with their old forests and romantic vistas". Indeed, around the turn of the fifteenth/sixteenth century, he travelled, via the Bavarian town of Coburg, to Vienna, where he influenced the D anube School through his spontaneous and poetic treatment of the landscape. The Danube School is considered the first to devote all its energies to landscape painting and was notable for an expressive painterly style that rebuffed the high finish associated with Northern Renaissance painting.

While in Vienna, and by this time having dropped his father's surname (Müller), Cranach encountered progressive ideas and, indeed, painted notable portraits of two leading humanist scholars, Johannes Stephan Reuss (1503), and Johannes Cuspinian (c.1502-03). Art historian Friedrich Thöne remarks that, "Presumably while Cranach was still in Vienna, he received news of his appointment as court painter to the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony", and that, Cranach must have already "been a famous artist, for he was given two and a half times the salary paid to his predecessor".

Mature Period

Cranach arrived in Saxony in 1504 where Duke Frederick III employed him as Pictor ducalis ("Duke's painter"). Historian John Oliver Hand writes, "The Venetian, Jacopo de' Barbari, was also at court from 1503 to 1505 and his art had a continuing influence upon Cranach. During this time Cranach [also] supplied paintings, murals, and decorations for the various ducal residences at Wittenberg, Veste Coburg, Torgau, and elsewhere". Hand adds that while the murals "no longer survive [...] the altarpiece of The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine monogrammed and dated 1506 contains views of the castle of Coburg and was most likely a ducal commission". Thöne observes further that "The right wing of the altarpiece already shows a radical break with his earlier style [that] there is exquisite detail in the realistic portrait heads, but courtly decorum has purged the scene of all emotion and given it a decorative bias, with strong emphasis on the patterns of dress".

By this time Cranach's reputation was such, his work was being discussed in favorable comparisons to that of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Burgkmaïr (and following their deaths in 1528 and 1531 respectively, Cranach assumed the mantle of Germany's pre-eminent living artist).

The Kleinod was awarded to Cranach in 1508. However, all works issued from his workshop carried this emblem. This has given rise to some problems of attribution. Additionally, the fact that few of the artist's works are dated has caused further difficulties with forming accurate chronologies.

In 1508, indeed, Cranach was awarded a Kleinod signature - effectively his own "coat of arms" - by the Elector. It was a winged snake holding a ruby ring in its mouth and it appeared on his works from that date forward. Hand writes that "The winged serpent probably had humanistic or hieroglyphic significance and could stand for Kronos, the Greek god of time, a pun on the artist's name in Latin as well as German". (Hand adds that Cranach used this device to sign his paintings from 1508 onward but, after 1534, "the serpent's wings are those of a bird and shown folded. The new form is prevalent from 1537 onward and has been connected with the death of the artist's son Hans in 1537. The presence of the serpent with folded wings on paintings dated 1535 and 1536 undermines this somewhat romantic notion but has been seen as an attempt by Cranach to distinguish the work of his sons".)

Also in 1508, Cranach spent a short spell in Antwerp, Netherlands where, according to Thöne, he "experimented with Italo-Netherlandish ideas of spatial construction and with monumental nudes". Hand notes that "in his Holy Kindred altarpiece, dated 1509, the women's kerchiefs are clearly Netherlandish and critics have seen the compositional and stylistic influence of [founder of the Antwerp School] Quentin Massys and [Romanist painter] Jan Gossaert". Cranach secured his national reputation soon after with two iconic full-length portraits of Duke Henry the Pious and Duchess Katharina von Mecklenburg (1514). These have become emblematic of Cranach's portrait style and, according to Thöne, "caused many young artists to come to Wittenberg [and that] the town became an art centre".

Thöne notes that following his Antwerp excursion, Cranach tended to represent "female saints as beautiful and elegant ladies in fashionable dress and covered with jewelry" and that his Reclining River Nymph at the Fountain (1518) "shows with what assurance he translated a Renaissance model - Giorgione's Venus - into his personal language of linear arabesque. This work inaugurated a long series of paintings of Venus, Lucretia, the Graces, the judgment of Paris, and other subjects that serve as pretexts for the sensuous female nude, in which Cranach appears as a kind of 16th-century François Boucher".

<i>Diptych with the Portraits of Luther and his Wife</i> (1529). Cranach produced many portraits of Luther and other key players in the Protestant cause. They offer us a pictorial record of one of the most significant periods in the development of German history and in western Christianity.

From 1517, Saxony became the centre of the newly emerging Protestant faith and, as its principal artist, Cranach would paint portraits of the theologian Martin Luther (with whom Cranach had been friends since the preacher's days as a teacher in Wittenberg University in 1508). In addition to his many altarpieces and paintings for Lutheran churches, Cranach made numerous woodcuts for his German bible.

The Cranach Digital Archive states that the artist "soon became a man of status in the city of Wittenberg and began to prosper, a situation, which was not achieved by artistic activity alone, but also by his talent as a businessman. By the 1520s he had a licence to sell wine, had been repeatedly elected as a member of the Wittenberg town council, and was owner of numerous properties, a publishing press (together with Christian Döring) and an apothecary. In 1523 he hosted King Christian II of Denmark as a guest in his home and a year later he accompanied the elector to the Reichstag in Nuremberg where he again met his friend and rival Albrecht Dürer". He was also a witness to the betrothal of Luther and Katharina von Bora (on June 13, 1525).

Cranach was by now the most important "pictorial propagandist" of the Protestant cause, producing (from around 1520) the painted, woodcut and engraved portraits of the Luther coterie that have become the pictorial record of the personalities that shaped this most tumultuous period in German history. Hand notes, however, that while Cranach remains the artist most closely associated with the Protestant Reformation "It should be remembered that [he] also worked for Luther's adversary, Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg and in 1525 and 1527 depicted the Cardinal as Saint Jerome in indoor and outdoor settings".

The marketplace in Weimar, the site of Cranach's last home.

The Elector (between 1532-47) John Frederick I gave Cranach the monopoly of medicine sales in Wittenberg and a printer's copyright patent for bibles. Cranach was also accorded the honorable political office of burgomaster (mayor) of Wittenberg twice, in 1537 and 1540. The Digital Cranach Archive states that he "lost his position as court painter after the defeat of [...] Friedrich I at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547 [and in] 1550 he followed his master, who had been imprisoned by the Emperor Charles V in Augsburg and Innsbruck, into captivity. It was here that he met the Italian artist Titian, an encounter which was too late in his career to influence his work [...] Friedrich was liberated in 1552 and reinstated as duke of Thuringia. He returned north to settle in Weimar, with Cranach at his side".

Cranach died, aged 81 on October 16, 1553 in Weimar, where his house still stands in the marketplace. His gravestone, which has now been installed in the chancel of the church of Saints Peter and Paul in Weimar describes him as "pictor celerrimus" ("fastest painter"). In the Lutheran Church calendar, he shares April 6th with Dürer as his day of honour. He had two sons (both artists) Hans and Lucas the Younger, and a daughter, Barbara. Both Hans and Lucas worked in their father's studio. Hans died in 1537 leaving several works that are close in style to those of his father. Lucas (the Younger), became an important artist in his own right from about 1545.

The Legacy of Lucas Cranach the Elder

Cranach created a highly developed visual language that, influenced by Renaissance masters such as Giorgione, and his compatriot Dürer, evolved toward a unique vision of the world. His slim women, trenchant men, landscapes with hilltop castles, and a Renaissance narrative impulse that at times overshadowed the devotional qualities of even his most religious works, set him apart as a new kind of artist. Nevertheless, Cranach maintained an integrity in his art that earned him the reputation of one of the most important Northern Renaissance masters. As Thöne writes, "His works were sought after by Protestant and Roman Catholic patrons alike, and hundreds of pictures now in museums and private collections testify to his exceptional productivity". He is a cited influence on twentieth century artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Michael Landy, and Wolfe Lenkiewicz.

Cranach's was the first and most concerted effort by a visual artist to engage with and concoct an aesthetic compatible with new Lutheran values and for that alone he is historically and culturally important. His portraits of many of the leaders of the Reformation, in particular his friend Martin Luther, has furnished us with a clear insight into their personalities. His willingness to borrow from existing traditions while still forging a new aesthetic set Cranach up in the popular imagination as a Northern Renaissance polymath.

Influences and Connections

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Lucas Cranach the Elder
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    Jacopo de' Barbari
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    Martin Luther
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    Philip Melancthon
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    Jacopo de' Barbari
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    Martin Luther
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    Philip Melancthon
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Content compiled and written by Shane Lewis

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Lucas Cranach the Elder Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Shane Lewis
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Available from:
First published on 22 Feb 2022. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]