Lucas Cranach the Elder (ca. 1472–1553) was born in Kronach in Upper Franconia, where he was presumably trained as an artist by his father. During his journeyman years from 1501 to 1504, he lived in Vienna and came into contact there with the master painters of the Danube school, including Albrecht Altdorfer and Wolf Huber; he also had contact with the circle of learned men around the arch-humanist Conrad Celtis. Among the paintings he made during this period was the marriage portrait of Johannes Cuspinian, which already shows evidence of his Christian-humanist handling of this theme. In 1504 he was appointed by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, to the post of court painter in Wittenberg, where he lived and worked until 1550.

Cranach, Lucas

Allegory of Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach (1529). Cranach’s intensive occupation with Luther’s theology is central in this painting.

Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany/Bridgeman Images

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Cranach set up a large workshop in Wittenberg in the period after 1510; he painted portraits, received commissions to decorate castles and houses, and was also producing printed graphic work. In addition, he operated an apothecary from 1520, which had a special monopoly in the city of Wittenberg. He was furthermore active in the paper trade, and, until at least 1526, he was part owner of a printing shop that published works of the Reformation.

From 1512 Cranach was the owner of a house at Schlossstrasse 1. In 1522, at the urging of Martin Luther, Melchior Lotter the Elder set up a printing shop there, which was operated by his son Melchior Lotter the Younger. Lucas Cranach and the goldsmith Christian Döring were initially involved in the company as publishers but ended their involvement with Lotter in 1523, publishing on their own from then on, probably with the assistance of the printer Joseph Klug. Together they published an estimated 40 Protestant writings, all unsigned (listed in VD16). The consortium ended in 1528. In early 1533 Döring sold the first complete Bible translation by Martin Luther to the booksellers Bartholomäus Vogel, Christoph Schramm, and Moritz Goltz, which then appeared in 1534.

Cranach was a member of the City Council from 1519 to 1549, periodically holding the offices of chamberlain and mayor (Burgomaster). He is mentioned in 1528 as the largest private landowner. In 1550 he turned the workshop over to his son, Lucas the Younger, and accompanied Johann Frederick, Elector of Saxony, into exile, first to Augsburg and Innsbruck and then in 1522 to the new residence in Weimar, where Cranach died on 16 October 1553.

Cranach and Luther.

Luther met Lucas Cranach in Wittenberg, where he resided from 1511 onward, and came to value him highly. Friendly ties existed between their families. Cranach and his wife, Barbara, were witnesses at Luther’s wedding to Katharina von Bora in 1525, and Lucas became the godfather of Luther’s oldest son, Johannes (1526–1575). Magdalena Schurff, the second wife of Lucas Cranach the Younger, was the niece of Philipp Melanchthon, and thus family relations also existed with the leading Protestant Reformers. Cranach followed Luther’s career with interest. In early 1522 he made the Portrait of Luther as Junker Jörg following Luther’s secret stay in Wittenberg. In September 1522 he illustrated Martin Luther’s first German translation of the New Testament, the so-called September Testament, independently augmenting and reworking Dürer’s pictorial series for the Apocalypse (see below). In the next five years he published important Protestant writings and partial editions of Luther’s Bible translation, some of them with his own illustrations, with title woodcuts and historiated (decorated) initials. In 1525 Cranach painted the official marriage portraits of Martin and Katharina Luther, and in 1527 he also painted the portraits of Luther’s parents.

Evidence of the close contact that existed between the artist and the theologian occurs in the “Tischgespräche Luthers” (Luther’s Table Talk). In the spring of 1533 Cranach is said to have asked Luther which Old Testament depiction referred typologically to the scene in the Passion story with Christ on Mt. Olive (Luther, Tischgespräche 1533; in WA Tr 1, Nr. 533a).

Cranach and His Workshop as Bible Illustrators.

At a very early stage Cranach had already painted scenes from the Old Testament and the Passion and life of Christ from the New Testament, including the Crucifixion of Christ (1501 and 1503), The Holy Family (1504), Madonna under the Fir Tree (1510), Salome (1510), Adam and Eve (1513/15), Christ and Mary (1515), The Ten Commandments panel (1516), the motif of Christ and the Adulteress (ca. 1520), and many more. Cranach’s intensive occupation with Luther’s theology is evident first and foremost in his Bible illustrations and is central in his painting Allegory of Law and Grace (1529), a pedagogical painting of dogmatic content based on Luther’s doctrine of justification of sinful man who is redeemed solely through divine grace—his main theme in the Protestant interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, especially Romans 10:4 (Christ as the end of the Law) and Romans 13:8–10 (love as the fulfillment of the Law).

In the New Testament, German (the so-called September Testament of September 1522), published by Melchior Lotter the Younger in Wittenberg, it is not only the fundamentally new German translation, oriented on the meaning of the scripture, that should be emphasized, but also Martin Luther’s introductory didactic prefaces and his marginalia that enrich the text—also making the scripture accessible to the laity—by explaining facts, words, and content; equally significant are Luther’s allegorical interpretations, which confer a spiritual meaning on the literal sense of the Holy scripture. On a few occasions the glosses also contain a pointed criticism of the “Old Church,” whose followers were neither willing nor able to fulfill the Law (the prescribed rituals in the Pentateuch); he also adds the reproach that the “Papistenhauff nur an äusserlichen Dingen und guten Werken orientierte” (“The Papist rabble oriented itself solely on outwardly things and good works”).

As Luther, after some initial skepticism, came to decide that graphic representations of the events of the Old and New Testaments were permissible, he adhered to the tradition of the previous 18 printed Bible editions in German, which had evolved their own iconic tradition; first and foremost he had the Old Testament and, above all, the Apocalypse illustrated. The crucial difference from previous Bible illustrations was that the image was accorded solely an ancillary role and was subordinated to the word of the Holy scripture.

In the September Testament of 1522, only the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) was illustrated in order to make its enigmatic metaphorical language vivid. Lucas Cranach and his workshop based the illustrations on the 14 large woodcuts that Dürer had published starting in 1498. Cranach in part simplified the depiction, adhering, however, more closely to the text of the scripture: thus, John falls to his feet at the sight of the Son of Man with the seven golden candlesticks (Rev 1:17) instead of kneeling before him as in Dürer’s realization. In the ninth chapter, where Dürer had depicted the serpents naturalistically, Cranach gives them the heads of lions and tails of serpents (Rev 9:14–21). In Cranach’s depiction of the Whore of Babylon (Rev 17:1–18), which is also based on Dürer, the figure wears the papal tiara, as does the Beast from the Abyss in the broadside Measuring the Temple (Rev 11:1–7), which is not based on Dürer. However, such strongly anti-papal propaganda led to the protest of George the Bearded, the Catholic Duke of Saxony. In the subsequent December Testament of 1522, the papal crowns were cut out (but are clearly visible in the impressions of the woodcut). About 3,000 to 5,000 copies of the edition were printed, selling very quickly.

The individual parts of the Old Testament appeared thereafter in separate editions, taking into account the progress made in translating the Bible; this had an advantageous effect on the selling price, which was cheaper because of the reduced thickness of the volumes. The first part of the Old Testament appeared in 1523, the second in 1524, published now by Lucas Cranach and Christian Döring.

In the Old Testament, German of 1523, in which the five books of Moses are illustrated, Cranach and his workshop followed the pictorial tradition of the 18 pre-Lutheran German Bibles, but clearly following the Bible text to the letter and to a stronger degree; thus, Luther’s translation of Noah’s “Kasten” (ark) is really depicted as a floating box. Ritual implements are also depicted in the form of a biblical-sacral archaeology, among others the “seven-branched candelabrum,” the “Ark of the Covenant,” and the “interior carpet of the Tabernacle.”

An early “trademark” is found for the first time in the 1524 edition of the Old Testament books of Joshua to Esther published by Döring and Cranach: a coat of arms with the lamb bearing a banner emblazoned with the cross, beside it a medallion with the Luther rose and the notice: “Dies Zeichen sei Zeuge, dass solche Bücher durch meine Hand [ge]gangen sind, denn des falschen Druckens und Bücherverderbens fleissigen sich jetzt viel” (“This symbol is witness that such books have been through my hand, as many now engage in false printing and the spoiling of books”).

Details of the title-page design were carefully agreed on between Luther and the Cranach workshop as well. The title page of the New deudsch Psalter (The New German Psalter), printed in Wittenberg in 1528, corresponds exactly to the explanatory notes in Martin Luther’s preface, according to which God the Father is the one to whom the best saints speak. The Holy Spirit, appearing in the upper part of the leaf, is the author of the booklet himself.

The Illustration of Luther’s Complete Works of 1534.

After a decade of partial editions the time was ripe for a complete Bible edition, which had been requested time and again. Christian Döring was the designated publisher, but he died in 1533, and Cranach had left the consortium around 1526. Döring had sold the printing privilege for the edition—which he had been granted by Johann Frederick, Elector of Saxony—to the three Wittenberg booksellers and publishers Moritz Goltz, Christoph Schramm, and Bartholomäus Vogel. Published in 1534, their complete edition lacked a unified editorial revision. While several texts had been revised, others (such as the remainder of the Apocalypse) had been translated especially for this edition. The unfinished impression is evident through six parts, each of which is paginated separately.

The entirely new illustration of this first complete edition, which Döring had entrusted to the monogrammist MS working in Cranach’s workshop in 1532 (as yet no convincing results have come from attempts to identify the initials), was of great importance. Luther himself took an active interest in the illustrations, which is recorded in the account of Christoph Walther (ca. 1515–1574), a corrector in Franz Lufft’s composing room: “Luther hat die Figuren in der Wittenbergischen Biblia zum Teil selber angegeben, wie man sie hat sollen reissen oder malen, und hat befohlen, dass man aufs einfältigst den Inhalt des Textes sollt abmalen und reissen, und wollt nicht leiden, dass man überlei [überflüssige] und unnütz Ding, das zum Text nicht dienet, sollt dazu schmieren” (“Luther had in part given instructions on the figures in the Wittenberg Biblia himself, how they were to be cut or painted, and had ordered that the content of the text should be painted or cut in the most simple way, and wouldn’t tolerate adding anything that was unnecessary or idle”; WA, Bibel, Vol. 6, p. 87). The literally daily realization of Luther’s translation shows itself in a motif such as the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in which the split tongues of fire are shown.

For stylistic reasons, Master MS is thought to come from southern Germany. The woodcuts bear the years 1532–1534, and all of them have a unified format of 10.8 × 14.7 cm, thus projecting about one centimeter beyond the type area. It is possible that in 1532, when the commission was given, it was assumed that a larger type area would be used. A characteristic of Master MS is the lively agility of the figures, which gives all of the illustrations a certain dynamic. Also typical of the woodcuts is the purposeful use of fine hash marks, which, with their shaded gray tones, lend the pictures depth and a certain plasticity. The technique surrounding woodcut illustration had reached such a level of perfection since the beginning of the fifteenth century that it was no longer necessary to color the books as had been done in the incunabula period. Thus, the mass-produced printed book became a unique and artistically shaped object of value. In the distinctively vivid illustrations of the Apocalypse, it is striking that, once again, the Whore of Babylon is depicted with the papal tiara.

Cranach in the Process of Confessionalization.

As part of the Catholic reaction to Luther’s Bible translation, it should be mentioned that Hieronymus Emser (1478–1527), the learned secretary of Duke George of Saxony, wrote a comprehensive critique of Luther’s Bible translation on behalf of the duke and published it at his own cost in Dresden in 1524: “Annotationes Hieronymi Emser vber Luthers naw Testament gebessert vnd emendiert” (“Hieronymus Emser’s annotations of Luther’s New Testament improved and amended”). In 1527 he published—with the printing privilege of Duke George of Saxony—his own translation of the New Testament in the printing shop of Wolfgang Stöckel in Dresden, which also featured prefaces, glosses, and illustrations and was also in the same format as Luther’s New Testament Bible. The outward imitation went so far that he bought the woodblocks of the December Testament from Lucas Cranach the Elder for the illustration of his Bible and integrated the pictures into the text, however indiscriminately, as, for example, the woodcut of the fall of Babylon was used for the fall of Rome. Although Emser translated the passage “of the eagle’s cries of woe” correctly according to the Vulgate (Rev 8:12 f.), a wailing angel is depicted in the illustration next to the passage, true to Luther’s translation (according to the Greek edition of the New Testament by Erasmus of Rotterdam). Apparently Emser or his publisher viewed the pictures as mere book decoration, recognizing neither their didactic function nor their close relationship to the text.

One must take into consideration the typical phenomenon of the transitional period in which Cranach lived when regarding the illustration of the Bible, but also when looking at other considerable commissions of paintings, altars, etc. that Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop carried out. Cranach, alongside the Protestant repertoire of pictures, continued to treat themes of the “Old Church,” such as the veneration of the saints or holy relics, in his works, and also accepted large commissions from Luther’s theological adversaries, among them Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490–1545), for whom he furnished the collegiate church in Halle with 142 paintings up to 1525, and for Joachim II, Prince Elector of Brandenburg (1505–1571), for whom he made 117 paintings for an altar cycle in Berlin during the period 1535–1538. Nevertheless, he painted an altar retable in the Protestant spirit for the church of St. Wolfgang in Schneeberg in the Ore Mountains in 1539. It is important first to analyze the context of the commissions, the traditional subjects of painting, and narrative cycles, respectively, before going on to consider the realization and artistic interpretation of the individual theological programs. The examples cited above are cases of commissioned art and not, in every instance, examples of religious confessional art, as has been repeatedly maintained in the German art historical tradition since the nineteenth century.



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Stephan Füssel