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The relation of Lucas Cranach and Martin Luther in the mirror of the starting reformation


The relation of Lucas Cranach and Martin Luther in the mirror of the starting reformation

To portray the relationship between a painter and a humanist reformer an examination of the overall milieu of these two great figures is required. This involves a study of art history in the light of specific historical factors, which are crucial to the theological perspective.

Reference must be made to key biographical data to gain an insight into these two lives. For the painter, this can be linked to some of his own self-portraits, marking certain phases of his development. A striking feature here is that very little is known about the young Cranach before he reached the age of 30. What knowledge there is, comes mainly from the role played by the commissioners of his work. For the reformer, it is necessary to illuminate his theological career on the basis of his educational path and pivotal events. A formative element in this respect is his contact with patrons and companions.

Since the contact between Luther and Cranach is for the most part documented in the private sphere, as in the case of other companions their nevertheless tangible working relationship is less apparent from an exchange of letters than in their actual work output, such as pictures and pamphlets.

The lack of knowledge about Cranach’s early years is less significant here, since the painter was eleven years older than the reformer and arrived in the royal seat of Wittenberg several years earlier. Their acquaintance with each other was able to develop over a period of around ten years before their paths crossed.

We shall firstly examine the initial affiliation of the two men in Wittenberg.

When in 1553 the painter Lucas Cranach, known as Cranach the Elder, died in Weimar as court painter in Saxony, finally to Prince Johann Friedrich I, he had experienced one of the most exciting chapters of German intellectual history and made a major contribution to it. This could scarcely have been predicted in 1472 in Kronach, in the Prince-Bishopric of Bamberg. Cranach’s long life was an essential criterion for his extraordinary testimony of the events which took place. Following an initial period spent in Vienna from 1501 to 1503, dedicated to humanistic ideas, even his numerous pictorial inventions cannot serve as compensation for the absence of written documentation of his artistic intentions and objectives. Like his father, a wood curver, Cranach was regarded as a craftsman. At the time, there was no prevalent artistic self-conception in German provinces, and this was not heralded until Albrecht DQrer became the leading proponent of this with his pictures.

Martin Luther however was born in 1483 in Eisleben in the county of Mansfeld. He received an extensive school education, and was fluent in Latin by the time he reached the age of 18. In 1505 he completed a Master of Arts degree in the liberal arts at the university in Erfurt. He subsequently discontinued his legal studies to pursue his inner calling to become a monk in the same year, and he entered the Erfurt Monastery of the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine. In 1508 his father confessor von Staupitz transferred the young and eternally knowledge-hungry Luther to Wittenberg to study theology under his professorship, to enable him to explore natural human - as well as his own personal - doubts concerning the capacity for forgiveness. He was promoted to new positions of responsibility, which amongst other destinations involved travelling to Rome, and in 1512 he took over the professorship of his mentor at the University of Wittenberg. There he experienced Spalatin and other professors as his enthusiastic advocates, who were ultimately joined by the prince himself. During his lifetime Luther remained a teaching professor at Wittenberg University.

Whenever a meeting between the truth seeker and the Wittenberg court painter ever in fact took place, and when the oft-cited friendship eventually began, no dates can be given as there is no evidence to trace this. Nevertheless, from the time of publication of Luther’s Theses in 1517, mention can be made of successive meetings, initially culminating in the artistic collaboration in the form of the "September Testament”, illustrated with woodcuts: "Das Newe Testament Deutzsch” of 1522. The New Testament, which the reformer had probably translated from the Greek in only eleven weeks, with editing by Philipp Melanchthon amongst others, was thereafter distributed by Lucas Cranach.

Earlier, from 4 May 1521 onwards, after the Diet of Worms, the Catholic Prince Elector Frederick the Wise granted the reformer the protection of the Royal Court of Saxony, referred to as preventive detention. Luther reported on this imminent solution on 28.4.1521 from Frankfurt, in perhaps the only known letter to

Lucas Cranach. Frederick the Wise, well known as a pious Catholic, acted with diplomacy and Luther was removed from public view and taken to the Wartburg in Eisenach. Frederick presumed him innocent until there was proof to the contrary.

Luther’s translation of the Old Testament, with the its apocryphal writings, extended over a period up until 1534, taking into account the design and printing. In the meantime, Cranach had parts of the overall project printed and also published independent texts by Luther.

During this period there is also particular evidence of the close private exchange of correspondence between the two men. It was in 1520 when Cranach’s daughter Anna was born, that Martin Luther was named as godfather, manifestly at a time when Luther was ostracized by many people. The private exchange of correspondence intensified as a result, also Cranach became a godfather to Luther’s first born in 1526.

How did Cranach respond at a time when in private and in his convictions he clearly felt a very close affinity to the reformer Martin Luther, but in no way intended to give up his position as court painter to a prince-elector who remained a Catholic? We can recognize a moderate personality receptive to modern changes, an attitude which his successors in Wittenberg would also adopt from 1525 onwards. The objective of the royal family, which was certainly driven by a desire for image cultivation, to act as patrons in a manner befitting their social status. However, there was a residual Catholic branch within the family dynasty, which had links to the house of Saxony on the maternal side. Here there were two brothers, Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg and the older prince-elector, Joachim von Brandenburg in Berlin, that is to say the second cousins of the Wittenberg princely brothers. It could be argued that despite the competition they pursued against one another, the split within the church had not yet manifested itself as widely as, for example, during the period following the Council of Trent of 1563. Frederick the Wise, as well as his successors, continued to award commissions within the dynastic relationship to their highly esteemed court painters.

The knowledge we have today about Martin Luther’s appearance is based entirely upon the portraits by Lucas Cranach. How is this form of portrait connected to its time of creation? Cranach’s engravings of Luther shaped the general picture of Luther throughout the world. They served as models for other artists, as well as a pattern within his own workshop for many years. 1525 marked the year of Luther’s marriage, requiring a completely new kind of portrait which was then brought onto the market. In its earliest form, around 1525-26, there were round plaques of 10 cm in diameter, which as a commemorative image made public in serial form the essentially private moment of the marriage between a former monk now preaching the truth and a former nun. At the same time, this bore witness to the correct translation of the First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy. Thus all subsequent, clearly private panel paintings of Luther and his wife represented a postulate for a new privacy of the church, which found its expression in the personal relationship to god.

The flood of serial portraits therefore goes back to a firmly established basic type, which unlike the private devotional image of the Old Believers was not intended to serve any contemplatio and meditation, or even worship. This would be a misuse of the image. Luther did not value the image in itself, but the use of the image: "Non est disputatio de substantia, sed usu et abusu rerum”. In 1999 Weimer very specifically explained Luther’s understanding of images, and discussed the misuse of the images as well as the multiple benefits which images create. Thus Luther likewise talked about the intrinsic image, which "on Sund sey” - without sin.

The Gotha panels of the Banquet of Holofernes, created in 1531, include the figure of Cranach and have a Protestant theme, which sought to implement the theological arguments in a much more political way, standing up against the Emperor.

In 1547, a year after Luther’s death, Cranach’s activity as court painter came to a premature end when prince-elector Johann Friedrich I, following an imperial ban and the ensuing Schmalkadic War, was deposed and captured at the Battle of MQhlberg by Emperor Charles V. This performed in a certain way the consequences of the history of these famous Gotha panels. In 1550 Cranach hesitantly followed his master into exile in Augsburg and Innsbruck.

Cranach the Elder died there on 16 October 1553. The winged altar of 1555 in the Weimar City Church of St. Peter and Paul represents the pinnacle of Reformation altars from the Cranach workshop. The younger Cranach completed it two years after the death of his father in the Thuringian royal capital. On the right of the cross the middle panel shows the praying Lucas Cranach next to Martin Luther, who points into his bible and thereby consistently reinforces the political claim of the princes of Saxony as Protestant ruling house.


Petra Kraus





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