Lucas Cranach the Younger: Virtual Exhibition Marks 500th Birthday

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Market Square Lutherstadt Wittenberg

The Cranach family lived in Wittenberg for many years. The image shows the square as it is today. Wittenberg Market Square. Image by Cethegus.

The year 2015 marks the 500th birthday of German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515 – 1586).

How would you commemorate this important anniversary?

In the opinion of Decoded Arts, there should be an exhibition devoted entirely to this one artist. Before I decide which of his works to include in my virtual exhibition I think it’s important to set Lucas’ life in context.

Lucas Cranach the Younger in Context

Born in Lutherstadt, Wittenberg, on 4th October 1515, Lucas Cranach the Younger was the youngest son of renowned Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). For the purpose of clarity this article refers to the father as ‘Cranach,’ and the son, as ‘Lucas.’

We know little about Lucas’s early life and artistic training. According to Bodo Brinkmann, writing in Cranach, he probably served an apprenticeship with his father in the family workshop in Kronach. This was a time when families started to take surnames, and Cranach took the name of his home town.

Cranach Becomes Court Painter and Moves to Wittenberg

According to Brinkmann, in 1505, Cranach succeeded Jacopo de’ Barbari (c.1440-1515/16) as court painter to Friedrich the Wise, Elector of Saxony. Cranach moved to Wittenberg where he set up a highly successful workshop and studio, a printing and book-selling business, and a pharmacy.

His commissions included paintings of sacred and profane subjects as well as engravings and woodcuts. He illustrated Bibles and designed arms, medals, costumes, festive settings, furniture and carriages. He was entirely responsible for the decoration of the Saxony castles, but as Bodo Brinkmann points out: ‘At the same time the Cranach workshop never thought it beneath its dignity to take on routine tasks such as painting houses, sledges and fences.’

In 1508, Friedrich awarded Cranach a coat of arms in recognition of his work. The arms show a crowned serpent with batwings and a ruby ring in its mouth. Viewers can clearly see the mark on Cranach’s Portrait of Martin Luther (1546).

Martin Luther

The Cranach family, both father and son, had a long friendship with Martin Luther.
Martin Luther. Painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image courtesy of Web Gallery of Art

Cranach was a close friend of the reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) and many of his woodcuts promoted the Protestant cause, although he produced work for both Catholic and Protestant clients. Cranach is sometimes described as a Reformation artist because of his close association with Martin Luther, and his position at court.

Cranach developed a sound reputation for fine portraits, mythological scenes occupied by slender and erotic goddesses or classical heroines. He also painted beautiful female saints, bejewelled and dressed in luxurious fabrics.

It was against this background that Lucas joined his father and older brother Hans (d. 1537) in the family-owned workshop, quite probably whilst he was still a young child.

It is almost impossible to separate Lucas’s work from that of his father. According to Bodo Brinkmann in Cranach, ″he clearly made no attempt to create his own artistic identity, seeing it as his duty to perpetuate the collective workshop style.″

Even with modern research techniques many art historians find it hard to establish exactly which works the father painted, and which the son painted. It’s a complicated story – they often worked together on commissions.

Furthermore, according to Brinkmann, the father started some works before his death in 1553, and Lucas later completed these, as he continued to produce work in his father’s style.

Highlights of the Exhibition

Martin Luther Wittenberg Reformers

Much of Lucas Cranach the Younger’s work furthered the Protestant cause. This painting shows Martin Luther with key reformers of the time.
Martin Luther and the Wittenberg Reformers attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger. Image courtesy of 0QHHtVN3_Q5aYw at Google Cultural Institute.

The Protestant faith was rapidly spreading cross Europe, helped along by the invention of the printing press, and both father and son had close ties with reformer Martin Luther.

In 1517, just two year’s after Lucas’s birth, Luther published his 95 Theses, formally entitled ‘Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.’ So it seems only fitting that the first painting selected for this exhibition is Lucas’s portrait of Martin Luther and the Wittenberg Reformers (circa 1543).

The scene shows Martin Luther, on the far left, looking over the shoulder of John Frederick the Magnanimous, Elector of Saxony. To his right Philipp Melanchthon holds a scroll. The man behind Luther is usually identified as George Spalatin, and the man behind Joachim’s left shoulder is usually identified as the Saxon Chancellor Gregor Brück.

Imitation – the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Martin Luther Wittenberg Reformers

Lucas Cranach the Younger had many admirers who copied his works. This painting shows
Martin Luther and the Wittenberg Reformers created by an unknown artist in the 17th century. Image courtesy of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

Lucas’s work was much copied, often by pupils and members of his workshop looking to learn from him, as well as the other artists he inspired.

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery also has a painting entitled Martin Luther and the Wittenberg Reformers.

This painting from an unknown artist dates from the 17th century. The subject matter is the same, except that the copyist omitted the baby in the left-hand foreground. The painterly technique is very different. The Reformers are clearly recognisable but the rest of the painting is somewhat vaguely painted.

Lucas’s Memorial Portrait of His Father

Lucas Cranach the Elder

This portrait by Lucas Cranach the Younger shows his meticulous attention to the smallest details such as hair and beard.
Lucas Cranach the Elder. Painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger. Image courtesy of The Yorck Project

One of Lucas’s finest paintings is this intimate portrait of his father. It is one of the very rare portraits of a member of the Cranach workshop. The Cranach insignia is visible above the sitter’s left shoulder.

According to Bodo Brinkmann in Cranach, it was originally thought that this is a self-portrait. However, later research by Dr Heinrich Zimmerman indicates it is most probably by Lucas. The cool colours and grey tone of the background together with the intense detailing of the hair and beard match the style developed by Lucas.

The reason for the portrait may have been Cranach’s departure from Wittenberg in 1550 when he followed the Elector John Frederick into exile. He was already an elderly gent and no one could be sure he would return to his family, so perhaps this is a memorial picture.

In Cranach, Bodo Brinkmann describes the painting. He says Cranach ‘looks like a dignified councillor who has achieved a certain position in life and does not require to show the tools of his trade; one might say that he is posing for posterity.’

The Legacy of Lucas Cranach the Younger

In my imaginary exhibition viewers will learn about Lucas’s life and times through the portraits he painted. His meticulous attention to the smaller details, especially of clothing, as we see in Luther and the Wittenberg Reformers, tells us about the people, style and fashions in sixteenth-century Germany.

Five hundred years on, and Lucas Cranach the Younger’s work, his powerful painting style, with its slightly muted colours and attention to detail, continues to captivate art lovers around the world.

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