LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER: The Old Master and the Reformers

A Stag Hunt with the Elector Friedrich the Wise, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529 - photo by Wikimedia Commons

Lucas Müller, aka Maler, was the son of Hans Maler zu Kronach (Painter of Kronach) (c. 1448 – c. 1528). Along with this depiction of his profession, Hans would also have adopted his place of birth, Kronach, in upper Franconia, Alemania (Germany), as part of his name, as was accepted in the times. Lucas’ mother was born Barbara Hübner (c. 1451 – c. 1491) from the same town.  

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Holy Kinship, c.1509/10, Detail, showing a self-portrait of the artist – photo by Cranach Digital Archive

Lucas’ exact date of birth is unrecorded, but he was probably born in 1472, also in Kronach, hence his Anglicised name Lucas Cranach. He was the eldest of nine children. He lived in the town of Wittenberg in Germany for forty-five years, where he was appointed court painter. It was here that he would have met his wife, Barbara Brengbier, although she had been born and raised in Gotha, some 200km distant. Her father, with whom she lived, also owned a house in Wittenberg, which Cranach is later recorded as owning. 

He became known as ‘the Elder’ on the birth of his younger son, who was his namesake. His elder son, Hans, aka Johann Lucas (1513 – 1537), and Lucas both became artists, the latter known as Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586). Three daughters were also born into the family. 

The Martyrdom of St. Catherine, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1504-1505 – photo by WikiArt

Whilst living in Wittenberg, where he occupied a house on the south-west corner of the marketplace, he developed a school of painting and a print shop. 

Cranach’s training began with his father, between 1495–1498. It is recorded that he was in Koburg, Bavaria, in 1501, but his known work only dates from when he was living in Vienna, Austria, which he did between 1501-1504. It was here that began calling himself Cranach, rather than his given name of Müller. He moved to Wittenberg in 1505 when Frederick III, Elector of Saxony (1463-1525), also known as ‘the Wise’, appointed him as court painter. His remuneration was two and half times that of his predecessor. 

Cranach was a good friend of Martin Luther (1483-1546), to the extent that they were godparents to each other’s children. Cranach was also Luther’s best man when he married Katharina von Bora in 1525. Cranach and German-born Luther met in Wittenberg, where the latter was ordained a priest in the Catholic Church; he was also a composer and Professor of Theology. He was instrumental in leading the Protestant Reformation, which began officially on 31 October 1517 when he posted on the door of a church his Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, which became known as the Ninety-five Theses. His abhorrence of the excesses of the Catholic Church, as he saw them, resulted in him being excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521. 

Portrait of Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533 – photo by Germanisches Nationalmuseum

Lucas created many paintings of his friend; one of these is Portrait of Martin Luther (1533, oil on beech, 20.5 x 14.5 cm) which is housed in the Germanisches National Museum (GNM) in Nuremberg. Another piece, Locket Portrait of Martin Luther (1525, mixed media on beech, 10cm diameter), is held in the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland. Yet another portrait of Luther, thought to have been created by Cranach’s assistants in his workshop, is dated c. 1532, oil on wood, 33.3 x 23.2 cm is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This work was gifted in 1955 to the museum by American art collector, philanthropist and head of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, Robert Lehman (1891-1969). 

As well as painting for the Saxon court, Cranach’s work also included altarpieces for Lutheran churches and portraits of Protestant reformers. These included a portrait of Henry IV (the Pious) (1473-1541), who proclaimed the Lutheran Church as the state religion of his Duchy of Saxony.  

Vision of the Seven Candlesticks, Lucas Cranach the Elder, woodcut – photo by University of Glasgow Library

Martin Luther commissioned Cranach to create woodcuts for his first translation from Hebrew and Greek texts for his German New Testament (Das Newe Testament Deutsch), published in September 1522. The work included twenty-one full-page scenes of the Revelation, depicting the differences between Christ’s simple, and the supposedly corrupt papal ways of life. 

Hans Lufft (1495-1584) was the German publisher and printer responsible for printing the first edition of Luther’s Bible. One of Lufft’s employees is reported as saying “The honourable doctor [Luther] recommended some of the figures himself, how one should sketch or paint them, how one was supposed to paint according to the text and did not want any extra, unnecessary things that did not serve the text”. The book was printed in quarto format, i.e. a full page printed with four pages of text to a side which were folded and cut to generate eight book pages. Lufft printed more than 100 000 copies of the Bible, as well as most of the cleric’s other writings, for forty years. 

Gesetz und Gnade, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529 – photo by Wikimedia Commons

Another of their collaborative works was Gesetz und Gnade (Allegory of Law and Mercy) (1529, oil on wood, 82.2 x 118 cm). One version of the work is held in the Schlossmuseum Museum in Gotha, Germany. The painting is in two halves; on the left is death and the devil pursuing sinners into Hell, while Moses and the Prophets hold the Ten Commandments. On the right, John gestures to the risen Christ. The Tree of Life separates the two distinct paintings; on the left, the tree is dying, and on the right, it is in full leaf. Six biblical verses are inscribed at the bottom of the painting, three on each side.  

Another rendering of the work was painted c. 1535, oil on beech. It was sawn in half at some point, the pieces measuring (left) 72.7 x 60.2 cm and (right) 72 x 59.7 cm respectively. A label affixed to the reverse of the painting indicates that it was in the Collegiate Church Hall in Tirol, Austria, in the collection of a Count Rechberg. According to the register of deeds of 1817-1818, it was acquired for Louis Kraft Ernest, Prince of Oettingen-Wallerstein (1791-1870). He is recorded as having spent his fortune on art, but in 1862, he moved to Switzerland to avoid accountability to his creditors. 

Allegorie auf Gesetz und Gnade, Lucas Cranach the Elder, after 1529 – photo by Germanisches Nationalmuseum

In 1828, the painting changed hands yet again; King Ludwig I who ruled Bavaria from 1825-1848, and who had it displayed in the Chapel of St. Moritz (Maurice), Nuremberg. The Germanisches National Museum acquired the work in 1882, where it remains. 

When the painting was examined by the GNM, the following was discovered:  

“Support: – 1817/1818 cut vertically and separated into two parts – some of the joins are open – old woodworm damage – the panel has been trimmed slightly on all four sides; a considerable amount was removed along the top edge.  

Reverse: – the joins are covered with a coating containing lead white – the open joins have been reinforced with wooden blocks – a coating of brown shellac was applied at some stage to the reverse.   

Painted surface: – the paint layers exhibit a distinctive craquellée in the areas where there is an application of tow; in some areas, there are also losses – paint losses along the edge, small retouches over the entire surface – patchy remains of old varnish”. 

Maximilian’s prayer book, Angel in clouds and landscape, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1515 – photo by Hellenica World

Besides his work with Martin Luther, Cranach also created illustrations for a prayer book for Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519). Six copies are known to exist – ten copies were originally printed on parchment for the Knights of the Order of St. George. One copy of the book, which may have been the Emperor’s personal copy as it contains coloured drawings in the margins, was printed in Latin by Johann Schönsperger, Augsburg, Germany, between 1514-1515. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) whom Cranach met in 1524, created some illustrations, and Cranach created those for the Munich section of the book. This copy comprises 107 folios and is held in the Bavarian State Library. 

Cranach was commissioned to paint a diptych of Johann (1498-1537), Duke of Saxony, known as Johann the Steadfast, and his son Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous (1503-1554). The two paintings in a joint frame were created in 1509, oil on beech; the former measures 41.3 x 31 cm and the latter 42 x 31.2 cm, both excluding the joint frame. The inner edge of the frame has traces of paint, indicating that the portraits were painted after both support panels had been inserted. The paintings are held by the National Gallery, London. 

Portraits of Johann the Steadfast and Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous, Two Electors of Saxony, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1509 – photo by The National Gallery, London

The diptych was originally named Two portraits of the prince-electors from Saxony in one piece in an inventory of George Frederick, the Margrave (military commander) of Baden-Durlach, Karlsburg. The artwork was transferred to the Markgräfler Hof, Basel, in 1688, where they remained in storage until they were sold in 1808. Peter Vischer, an artist, merchant & councillor bought the paintings along with dozens of other works. They remained in his family until his line died out in 1990, and they were auctioned in July 1990. The National Gallery acquired the works in 1991. 

In 1529, Cranach was commissioned by Johann the Steadfast to paint another work, A Stag Hunt with the Elector Friedrich the Wise (oil on lime, 80.2 x 114.1 cm). It is held in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The painting features Elector Friedrich the Wise, Emperor Maximilian I and Elector Johann the Steadfast. However, the first two men had died before the work was created, but all had been present at a hunt in 1497 at Maximilian I’s Viennese court. 

Venus and Cupid, Lucas Cranach the Elder, About 1525 – photo by Compton Verney

Cranach had painted Maximilian when he was in the Netherlands in 1509. Until the previous year, the artist had signed his work with his initials, but the emperor granted him a Kleinod, or emblem, of a winged snake with a ruby ring, which Cranach used to signify all his future work. 

Cranach’s portfolio included female nudes, as in his Venus and Cupid (c. 1525, oil on beechwood panel, 39 x 26cm) held in the Compton Verney Art Gallery Northern European permanent collection. The gallery describes the work: “Examination by infra-red has shown that Venus was originally painted wearing a large crimson hat, now covered by the brown curtain behind her head”. 

Other works by Lucas Cranach in the Compton Verney collection include: 

  • Portrait of Sigmund Kingsfelt (c. 1530, oil on wood panel, 37.5 x 25.6 cm) 
  • Hercules and Antaeus (c. 1530, oil on panel, 26.5 x 17.5 cm) 
  • Lot and His Daughters (c. 1530, oil on panel, 55.9 x 39 cm) 
Apollo and Diana, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526 – photo by Cranach Digital Archiv | Wikimedia Commons

Another of his female nudes is depicted in Apollo and Diana (c. 1526, oil on beech panel, 84.6 x 57.2 cm), held in the Royal Collection Trust, Britain. The painting was also known as Adam and Eve, as the couple is similarly depicted in the garden of Eden, which Cranach painted a number of times. Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert (1819-1861), purchased the piece in June 1844 for £105. 

Cranach’s earliest known work bearing his signature is The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1504, oil on limewood, 69 x 51 cm). It is held in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin. 

Lucas Cranach also owned an apothecary, and he had been granted exclusive sale rights on medicines in Wittenberg. The business continued to flourish until 1871, when it was destroyed in a fire. 

He had bought two neighbouring properties on Markt4 in Wittenberg in 1512. He lived there with his wife and children until he sold the property in about 1517, and subsequently bought another. In 1522, he re-purchased the original house where he then established his printing business. A renovation of the houses was begun in 1990; the first half of the project was completed in June 1998 and the remainder in January 2007. 

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1504 – photo by Web Gallery of Art

In his lifetime, he is recorded as having created 13 586 paintings, of which 2145 were in oils; he also created 14 008 woodcuts. He is commemorated as the most successful German artist of his time. His son, known as Lucas Cranach the Younger, along with his workshop employees, recreated versions of the master’s work for many years after his death.  

Lucas Cranach the Elder died at Weimar twelve days after his 81st birthday, on 16 October 1553. He is buried in the Jacobsfriedhof Cemetery in Weimar. 

He is remembered by the Lutheran Church when he is celebrated in their liturgical calendar along with fellow artists Matthias Grünewald and Hans Burgkmair on 6 April. Cranach is further celebrated in the Episcopal Church in the United States together with Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald on 5 August.