Lucas Cranach the Elder  

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Fountain of Youth (1546) by Lucas Cranach the Elder
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Fountain of Youth (1546) by Lucas Cranach the Elder

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Northern Renaissance, 16th century art, Lucas Cranach the Younger

Lucas Cranach the Elder (Lucas Cranach der Ältere, 1472October 16, 1553) was a German painter and printmaker of the school now known as Northern Renaissance. His influence is readily displayed in the work of 21st century American artist John Currin. He is known for his several Venuses. His five versions of the rape and suicide of Lucretia and interpretations of the Judith and Holofernes and Salome and the beheading of St. John the Baptist show his interest in morbidity.

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Cranach's Art

The oldest extant picture by Cranach, the "Rest of the Virgin during the Flight into Egypt," marked with the initials L.C., and the date of 1504, is by far the most graceful creation of his pencil. The scene is laid on the margin of a forest of pines, and discloses the habits of a painter familiar with the mountain scenery of Thuringia. There is more of gloom in landscapes of a later time.

Cranach's art in its prime was doubtless influenced by causes which but slightly affected the art of the Italians, but weighed with potent consequence on that of the Netherlands and Germany. The business of booksellers who sold woodcuts and engravings at fairs and markets in Germany naturally satisfied a craving which arose out of the paucity of wall paintings in churches and secular edifices. Drawing for woodcuts and engraving of copperplates became the occupation of artists of note, and the talents devoted in Italy to productions of the brush were here monopolized for designs on wood or on copper.

We have thus to account for the comparative unproductiveness as painters of Dürer and Holbein, and at the same time to explain the shallowness apparent in many of the later works of Cranach; but we attribute to the same cause also the tendency in Cranach to neglect effective colour and light and shade for strong contrasts of flat tint.

Constant attention to contour and to black and white appears to have affected his sight, and caused those curious transitions of pallid light into inky grey which often characterize his studies of flesh; whilst outlining of form in black became a natural substitute for modelling and chiaroscuro. There are, no doubt, some few pictures by Cranach in which the flesh-tints display brightness and enamelled surface, but they are quite exceptional.

As a composer Cranach was not greatly gifted. His ideal of the human shape was low; but he showed some freshness in the delineation of incident, though he not unfrequently bordered on coarseness. His copper-plates and woodcuts are certainly the best outcome of his art; and the earlier they are in date the more conspicuous is their power. Striking evidence of this is the "St Christopher" of 1506, or the plate of "Elector Frederick praying before the Madonna" (1509).

It is curious to watch the changes which mark the development of his instincts as an artist during the struggles of the Reformation. At first we find him painting Madonnas. His first woodcut (1505) represents the Virgin and three saints in prayer before a crucifix. Later on he composes the marriage of St Catherine, a series of martyrdoms, and scenes from the Passion.

After 1517 he illustrates occasionally the old Gospel themes, but he also gives expression to some of the thoughts of the Reformers. In a picture of 1518 at Leipzig, where a dying man offers "his soul to God, his body to earth, and his worldly goods to his relations," the soul rises to meet the Trinity in heaven, and salvation is clearly shown to depend on faith and not on good works.

Again sin and grace become a familiar subject of pictorial delineation. Adam is observed sitting between John the Baptist and a prophet at the foot of a tree. To the left God produces the tables of the law, Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit, the brazen serpent is reared aloft, and punishment supervenes in the shape of death and the realm of Satan. To the right, the Conception, Crucifixion and Resurrection symbolize redemption, and this is duly impressed on Adam by John the Baptist, who points to the sacrifice of the crucified Saviour. There are two examples of this composition in the galleries of Gotha and Prague, both of them dated 1529.

One of the latest pictures with which the name of Cranach is connected is the altarpiece which Cranach's son completed in 1555, and which is now (1911) in the Stadtkirche (city church) at Weimar. It represents Christ in two forms, to the left trampling on Death and Satan, to the right crucified, with blood flowing from the lance wound. John the Baptist points to the suffering Christ, whilst the blood-stream falls on the head of Cranach, and Luther reads from his book the words, "The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin."

Cranach sometimes composed Gospel subjects with feeling and dignity. "The Woman taken in Adultery" at Munich is a favourable specimen of his skill, and various repetitions of Christ receiving little children show the kindliness of his disposition.

But he was not exclusively a religious painter. He was equally successful, and often comically naïve, in mythological paintings, as where Cupid, who has stolen a honeycomb (Venus and the Honey Thief), complains to Venus that he has been stung by a bee (Weimar, 1530; Berlin, 1534), Hercules und Omphale, where Hercules sits at the spinning-wheel mocked by Omphale and her maids.

Humour and pathos are combined at times with strong effect in pictures such as the "Jealousy" (Augsburg, 1527; Vienna, 1530), where women and children are huddled into telling groups as they watch the strife of men wildly fighting around them.

Very realistic must have been a lost canvas of 1545, in which hares were catching and roasting sportsmen. In 1546, possibly under Italian influence, Cranach composed the "Fons Juventutis" ("Fountain of Youth") of the Berlin Gallery, executed by his son, a picture in which hags are seen entering a Renaissance fountain, and are received as they issue from it with all the charms of youth by knights and pages.

Cranach's chief occupation was that of portrait painting, and we are indebted to him chiefly for the preservation of the features of all the German Reformers and their princely adherents. He painted not only Martin Luther himself but also Luther's wife, mother and father (see gallery below). But he sometimes condescended to depict such noted followers of the papacy as Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop elector of Mainz, Anthony Granvelle and the Duke of Alva.

A dozen likenesses of Frederick III and his brother John are found to bear the date of 1532. It is characteristic of Cranach's readiness, and a proof that he possessed ample material for mechanical reproduction, that he received payment at Wittenberg in 1533 for "sixty pairs of portraits of the elector and his brother" in one day. Amongst existing likenesses we should notice as the best that of Albert, elector of Mainz, in the Berlin Museum, and that of John, elector of Saxony, at Dresden.

Cranach died at Weimar and had three sons, all artists: John Lucas Cranach, who died at Bologna in 1536; Hans Cranach, whose life is obscure; and Lucas, born in 1515, who died in 1586. He also had a daughter, Barbara Cranach, who died in 1569, married to Christian Brück (Pontanus), ancestors of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Female body shape

Cranach was equally successful in somewhat naive mythological scenes, in which at least one slim female figure, naked except for a transparent drape, and perhaps for a large hat, nearly always features. These are mostly in narrow upright formats; examples are several of Venus, alone or with Cupid, who has sometimes stolen a honeycomb, and complains to Venus that he has been stung by a bee (Venus and the Honey Thief, Weimar, 1530; Berlin, 1534). Diana with Apollo, shooting a bow, and Hercules sitting at the spinning-wheel mocked by Omphale and her maids (Hercules und Omphale) are other such subjects. A similar approach was taken with the biblical subjects of Salome and Adam and Eve. These subjects were produced early in his career, when they show Italian influences including that of Jacopo de' Barberi, who was at the court of Saxony for a period up to 1505. They then become rare until after the death of Frederick the Wise. The later nudes are in a distinctive style which abandons Italian influence for a revival of Late Gothic style, with small heads, narrow shoulders, high breasts and waists; what Kenneth Clark has termed the Alternative convention. The poses become more frankly seductive and even exhibitionist.

Biography and career

The first evidence of Cranach's skill as an artist comes in a picture dated 1504. Early in his career he was active in several branches of his profession: sometimes a decorative painter, more frequently producing portraits and altarpieces, woodcuts, engravings, and designing the coins for the electorate.

Early in the days of his official employment he startled his master's courtiers by the realism with which he painted still life, game and antlers on the walls of the country palaces at Coburg and Locha; his pictures of deer and wild boar were considered striking, and the duke fostered his passion for this form of art by taking him out to the hunting field, where he sketched "his grace" running the stag, or Duke John sticking a boar.

Before 1508 he had painted several altar-pieces for the Castle Church at Wittenberg in competition with Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgkmair and others; the duke and his brother John were portrayed in various attitudes and a number of his best woodcuts and copper-plates were published.

In 1509 Cranach went to the Netherlands, and painted the Emperor Maximilian and the boy who afterwards became Emperor Charles V. Until 1508 Cranach signed his works with his initials. In that year the elector gave him the winged snake as a emblem, or Kleinod, which superseded the initials on all his pictures after that date.

Somewhat later the duke conferred on him the monopoly of the sale of medicines at Wittenberg, and a printer's patent with exclusive privileges as to copyright in Bibles. Cranach's presses were used by Martin Luther. His apothecary shop was open for centuries, and was only lost by fire in 1871.

Cranach, like his patron, was friendly with the Protestant Reformers at a very early stage; yet it is difficult to fix the time of his first meeting with Martin Luther. The oldest reference to Cranach in Luther's correspondence dates from 1520. In a letter written from Worms in 1521, Luther calls him his "gossip", warmly alluding to his "Gevatterin", the artist's wife. Cranach first made an engraving of Luther in 1520, when Luther was an Augustinian friar; five years later, Luther renounced his religious vows, and Cranach was present as a witness at the betrothal festival of Luther and Katharina von Bora. He was also godfather to their first child, Johannes "Hans" Luther, born 1526.

The death in 1525 of the Elector Frederick the Wise and Elector John's in 1532 brought no change in Cranach's position; he remained a favourite with John Frederick I, under whom he twice (1531 and 1540) filled the office of burgomaster of Wittenberg.

In 1547, John Frederick was taken prisoner at the Battle of Mühlberg, and Wittenberg was besieged. As Cranach wrote from his house to the grand-master Albert of Brandenburg at Königsberg to tell him of John Frederick's capture, he showed his attachment by saying,
I cannot conceal from your Grace that we have been robbed of our dear prince, who from his youth upwards has been a true prince to us, but God will help him out of prison, for the Kaiser is bold enough to revive the Papacy, which God will certainly not allow.

During the siege Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, remembered Cranach from his childhood and summoned him to his camp at Pistritz. Cranach came, and begged on his knees for kind treatment to Elector John Frederick.

Three years afterward, when all the dignitaries of the Empire met at Augsburg to receive commands from the emperor, and Titian came at Charles's bidding to paint King Philip II of Spain, John Frederick asked Cranach to visit the city; and here for a few months he stayed in the household of the captive elector, whom he afterward accompanied home in 1552.

He died on October 16 1553, at Weimar, where the house in which he lived still stands in the marketplace. He is commemorated as a saint by the Lutheran Church on April 6, along with Durer and Burgkmair.

See also




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