Lucas Cranach the Elder

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Lucas Cranach the Elder

Self-portrait at 77
Lucas Cranach, the Elder, original name Lucas Müller (born 1472, Cranach, bishopric of Bamberg [now Kronach, Germany]—died October 16, 1553, Weimar, Saxe-Weimar), leading painter of Saxony, and one of the most important and influential artists in 16th-century German art. Among his vast output of paintings and woodcuts, the most important are altarpieces, court portraits and portraits of the Protestant Reformers, and innumerable pictures of women—elongated female nudes and fashionably dressed ladies with titles from the Bible or mythology.

Life and career

Lucas Müller was born in a village approximately 55 miles (90 km) north of Nürnberg. Although only a year younger, he survived Albrecht Dürer, the great genius of German art, by 25 years and, in fact, outlived all the significant German artists of his time. Lucas’s teacher was his father, the painter Hans Müller, with whom he worked from 1495 to 1498. He is known to have been in Coburg in 1501, but the earliest of his works that have been preserved date from about 1502, when he was already 30 and living in Vienna. It was in that city that he dropped the surname of Müller, calling himself Cranach after his hometown, which is now spelled Kronach.

In Vienna Cranach made an important contribution to the painting and illustrations of the Danube school, the art of the Austrian Danubian region around Vienna and other towns. In Vienna he also came in contact with the humanists teaching at the university and did portraits of the scholars Johannes Stephan Reuss (1503) and Johannes Cuspinian (c. 1502–03).

Presumably while Cranach was still in Vienna, he received news of his appointment as court painter to the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony; he must already have been a famous artist, for he was given two and a half times the salary paid to his predecessor. In spring 1505 he arrived in Wittenberg, a university town on the Elbe River and seat of the electors, where he remained for 45 years, until 1550, as court painter. He became a prominent citizen, serving as a member of the town council in 1519–20 and as burgomaster three times in the years 1537–44. Through Cranach, who received important commissions from three successive electors and caused many young artists to come to Wittenberg, the town became an art centre.

The Protestant Reformation had begun in 1517 in Wittenberg with Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. Cranach was on friendly terms with Luther, who had been a teacher at the University of Wittenberg since 1508. Cranach painted portraits of Luther, his wife, Katherina von Bora, and his parents. Through these and other portraits, he helped form today’s image of Luther’s circle. Indeed, apart from his other duties as court artist, Cranach became the chief pictorial propagandist of the Protestant cause in Germany, multiplying the images of the Reformers and the Protestant princes in innumerable painted, engraved, and woodcut portraits. The scope of this activity is indicated by a single payment in the electoral accounts (1533) for “sixty pairs of small paintings of the late Electors.” Cranach also did altarpieces and paintings for Lutheran churches. His works were sought after by Protestant and Roman Catholic patrons alike, and hundreds of pictures now in museums and private collections testify to his exceptional productivity. Aside from his paintings, there are more than 100 separate woodcuts by him.

Cranach did not sign his works with his full name. The early ones, before 1504, were unsigned; from 1504 to 1506 his signature consisted of an entwined “LC”; from 1506 to 1509, it consisted of the separated initials “LC”; from 1509 to 1514, it consisted of these spaced initials and his coat of arms, the winged serpent, which became his sole signature in 1515. All works, even those that had issued from his large workshop or studio (in which he often employed 10 or more assistants), henceforth carried this device, which was also used by his son Lucas the Younger, until the latter’s death in 1586. This gave rise to many problems of attribution that still remain unsolved. The fact that so few works bear any date further complicates the establishment of a Cranach chronology.

It is certain, however, that Cranach’s style was fully formed and underwent little development after about 1515, and the highly finished, mass-produced paintings after that date suffer by comparison with the more individual works he painted in early adulthood. The paintings the 30-year-old artist did in Vienna were of a profoundly devotional kind set in the wild landscapes of the Alpine foothills, with ruins and windswept trees. These pictures show Cranach as an avant-garde artist of considerable emotional force, and one of the initiators of the Danube school. Notable among them are a Crucifixion (c. 1500) and St. Jerome in Penitence (1502).

The first decade of Cranach’s stay at Wittenberg was marked by a series of experiments in which he adapted his style to suit the demands of the Saxon court. The right wing of the St. Catherine Altarpiece (1506) already shows a radical break with his earlier style; there is exquisite detail in the realistic portrait heads, but courtly decorum has purged the scene of all emotion and given it a decorative bias, with strong emphasis on the patterns of dress. Following his visit to the Netherlands in 1508, Cranach experimented with Italo-Netherlandish ideas of spatial construction and with monumental nudes, but his true talent lay elsewhere, as is shown by the splendid full-length portraits of Duke Henry the Pious and Duchess Katharina von Mecklenburg (1514), which mark the establishment of his official portrait style. Here, space and volume are annihilated; magnificent clothes, set off by a featureless backdrop, are topped by faces reduced to their essential, typical features. Cranach was a pioneer of the frigid state portraiture of the 16th century, but he fell short of the icy reserve of his successors—Hans Holbein the Younger and Bronzino—because his abiding Gothic taste invariably led him to exaggerate a feature or elaborate a beard or dress for the sake of linear rhythms or calligraphic effects. With male sitters his method sometimes yields an image of startling power—e.g., the Portrait of Dr. J. Scheyring (1529). His female portraits are uniformly vapid, however.

The resurgence of Gothic linear rhythms is fundamental for the whole of Cranach’s later work, in which the borderline between sacred and mundane art is blurred. He represented female saints as beautiful and elegant ladies in fashionable dress and covered with jewelry. His Reclining River Nymph at the Fountain (1518) shows with what assurance he translated a Renaissance model—Giorgione’s Venus—into his personal language of linear arabesque. This work inaugurated a long series of paintings of Venus, Lucretia, the Graces, the judgment of Paris, and other subjects that serve as pretexts for the sensuous female nude, in which Cranach appears as a kind of 16th-century François Boucher. The naive elegance of these ladies, whose slender, sinuous bodies defy basic principles of anatomy, were clearly to the taste of the German courts and have an enduring charm. But in conception and style they look back to the International Gothic style of a century before. Thus from a historical viewpoint Cranach’s work was a backwater in European art of the 16th century. And though he was the dominant figure in the painting of northeastern Germany during his lifetime, his influence was confined to his immediate circle.

Cranach is called Pictor celerrimus (“swiftest of painters”) on his tombstone, and his contemporaries never ceased to marvel at the speed with which he worked. But this very speed also suggested the limitations of his art, for his strength lay not in reflection, composition, and construction but in an impulsive creativity that was nourished by his imagination and fancy, particularly in unheroic and idyllic scenes. His art was especially popular in that period of great political upheavals, perhaps because his contemporaries, who in public life were the protagonists of embattled ideologies, yearned for beauty in man and in nature and for a peaceful refuge from the world’s turmoil.

Both of Cranach’s sons were members of his studio. The elder, Hans Cranach, who died in 1537, left a few signed works that are indistinguishable in style from those of his father. Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–86), whose part in the joint production of the studio became important from about 1545, continued to work in the family style long after his father’s death in 1553.

Friedrich Thöne
Donald King

Encyclopædia Britannica
Dr. Cuspinian and his Wife


Portrait of Dr. Johannes Cuspinian; Portrait of Anna Cuspinian
c. 1502
Oil on wood, 59 x 45 cm
Oscar Reinhardt Collection, Winterthur



Portrait of Dr. Johannes Cuspinian (detail)

Cranach painted this double portrait on the occasion of the marriage of the Viennese humanist Johannes Cuspinian and his wife Anna, daughter of an official of the Emperor. Cuspinian's (1472-1529) real name was Spiepheimer, and he was originally from Schwemfurt. He studied at Leipzig where he earned his laurels as a poet, advancing, at the age of twenty-seven, to the position of rector at the University of Vienna. He went on to hold various other positions - Imperial Superintendent of the University from 1501, and Dean of the Medical Faculty from 1501/02-eventually becoming personal adviser and official historian at the court of Emperor Maximilian I. In 1508, he edited Rufus' "Descriptio orbis "; he was editor of Otto von Freising's "World Chronicle" (1515ff.), and author of the "History of Roman Consuls up to Justinian" the so-called "Consules" (almost completed by 1512), and of a renowned book on Roman emperors ("De Caesaribus atque Imperatoribus Romanis", Strasburg 1540). Like Conrad Peutinger, Conrad Celtis and others, Cuspinian was undoubtedly one of the most versatile humanists of his age. Initially, Cuspinian showed great sympathy for the theological and political aims of the Reformation. Like many other humanists, however, he distanced himself from the revolutionary movement after the Peasants' War and reaffirmed his allegiance to the Catholic Church.

Portrait of Dr. Johannes Cuspinian (detail)

Portrait of Anna Cuspinian (detail)

Portrait of Anna Cuspinian (detail)

Lucas Cranach, Cuspinian's equal in years, had entered his father's workshop and travelled through south Germany before meeting with success in Vienna, where his work was particularly well received in humanist circles. The humanists provided him with access to the court, thus paving his way to the position of court painter (in 1504 he went to Wittenberg to take up this office under Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony).
Cranach composed these portraits as a pair. This is apparent in the continuity of the landscape behind the elegantly dressed couple. The trees at the edges of the painting, on the left and right of the figures, are placed so that their branches form an arch, imparting an air of grandeur to the sitters. The background was evidently composed
with a distinct purpose in mind: nothing here is arbitrary. The landscape is full of erudite symbolism, probably devised by Cuspinian himself. In a well-informed study on this double portrait, Dieter Koepplin has suggested that Cuspiman's frame of reference was Pico della Mirandola's "Poetica Theologica", and Marsilio Ficmo's doctrine of divine mysteries. He concludes that the various images disguise hieroglyphic allusions to the cabbala. An example of this is the artist's secretive mimmalisation of symbols, turning them into "occult" figures. At the left of the picture, for example, behind the tree, there is a minuscule figure with long, flowing hair, whom Koepplin has convincingly identified as Phoebus, or Apollo, since the figure is given a lyre and bow, the attributes of this antique god. However, Apollo does not appear here as the god of light, but rather as the opposite: as a "chtonian-mantic" god (Koepplin), almost a demon. The writhing snake on the ground is a reference to Asclepius, the god of medicine, who was a son of Apollo (cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses 2, 602-620). The detail alludes to Cuspinian's medical profession, as does the red beret on his head: "Medicus rubras fert corpore vestes" (A doctor wears red clothing).
Another figure, one so tiny as to be almost invisible, stands on a pinnacle of rock on the castle-topped mountain behind Cuspmian. Shown in an antique gesture of adoration, the figure prays to a star which Cranach has painted in real gold. The star is evidently supposed to represent the Epiphany in the teachings of the early Christian hymnic poet Clemens Prudentius. whose work demonstrably had a profound effect on Cuspmian. Koepplin interprets the figure as Orpheus, relating his position on the mountain to the Platonic notion of "furor poeticus", and to the mountain-cult which often accompanied the veneration of stars.
The nine women washing, bathing and carrying water in the middle distance between Cuspmian and his wife, may be connected to Apollo, too. They appear to be the nine Muses, who were answerable, according to Greek myth, to their leader ("Musagetes") Apollo. Their element is water, and a balance is evidently intended here to the fire behind Anna Cuspinian. Perhaps this polarity symbolises the distinction between the genders: according to Plutarch, fire was male and water female, a notion adopted by Ficino. This theme seems appropriate enough for a wedding painting. It is possible, however, that the fire alludes to the burning bush (Exodus 3, 2), which was used as a symbol for the Immaculate Conception during the late Middle Ages because it "burned with fire" but "was not consumed", just as Mary had remained a virgin during motherhood. The chastity of the Virgin remained an ethical precept for married women for many centuries. The motif of the parrot on the tree, given to Anna Cuspinian as an attribute, is consistent with this precept. The call of the bird was thought to be "Ave", the Angelic Salutation; since the Middle Ages it had therefore been considered as a Marian symbol, a sign of the innocence and purity associated with Mary.
What then is the significance of the other birds shown against the darkening sky? Behind Cuspinian there is an owl with prey in its talons being mobbed by a flock of birds; behind his wife on the right, an eagle and a swan (on its back) are locked in combat. As a humanist emblem, the owl was highly ambivalent, sometimes referring to the goddess Athena's (or Minerva's) wisdom, sometimes to its recalcitrant opposite: blind stupidity.
The motif of the struggle between swan and eagle can be elucidated more clearly. It appears that Cuspinian and Cranach consulted Pliny (X, 203) here. Pliny had been impressed by the swan's courage, since it did not fear to do battle with an attacking eagle, and often emerged victorious from the fight. It is not unlikely that Cuspinian was using the motif of the flying bird - a signifcant cipher in the "divinatory", or mantic, arts, in which the humanists liked to dabble after the example of the Classics - to denote the principles which he wished to govern his conduct: courage and wisdom, for example.
It would be quite unsatisfactory merely to decipher the landscape background symbol by symbol without seeing its significance as a whole. Beyond a system of occult signs, the landscape allows a generous framework for the couple's understanding of themselves, providing a medium for the new cult of sensitivity and awareness of nature which some humanists, notably Conrad Celtis, Joachim Camerarius and others, were propagating in literary form through the Classical topos of the pleasance, or pleasure-park.
Landscape acts as an echo-chamber for mental states, and, as such, represents a macrocosm in which the individual, or microcosm, finds his or her emotional world reflected. Perhaps this explains the posture of Cuspinian's head. Of course, his pose may be intended to show the humanist still pondering over a book, which he now holds closed in front of him, his left hand - exposing two ringed fingers - resting on its cover. However, his slightly raised head may indicate that he is listening. The listening motif may refer to a piece of Neoplatonic writing by Marsilio Ficino which was especially popular in humanist circles: "It is through our ears that melodious harmonies and rhythms enter our souls, admonishing and inspiring us to lift our spirits forthwith, and, in the very depths of our being, to ponder on such divine music."


Portrait of Anna Cuspinian (detail)
c. 1502
Oil on wood
Oscar Reinhardt Collection, Winterthur


Der buhende Hl. Hieronymus

The Crucifixion
Wood, 58,5 x 45 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Pine panel, 138 x 99 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Wood, 69 x 51 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The Martyrdom of St Catherine
Wood, 112 x 95 cm
Collection of the Reformed Church, Budapest

Katharinenaltar, Gesamtansicht
linker Flugel: Die Heiligen Dorothea, Agnes und Kunigunde
Mitteltafel: Martyrium der Hl. Katharina
rechter Flügel: Die Heiligen Barbara, Ursula und Margaretha

The Martyrdom of St Catherine
Lime-tree, 126 x 139,5 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

linker Flügel, Szene: Die Heiligen Dorothea, Agnes und Kunigunde

Stigmatisation des Hl. Franziskus


Housealtar of Count William II of Hessen
c. 1508
Staatliche Museen, Kassel

Altarpiece of the Holy Family
Oil on panel, 120 x 99 cm (central panel), 120 x 43,5 cm (each wing)
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

Altarpiece of the Holy Family (The Holy Family)
Stadelaches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

Kunsthalle, Bremen

The Trinity
Oil on wood
Museum der Bildenden Kunste, Leipzig

The Martyrdom of St. Barbara
oil on wood
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York