by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Master of the German Renaissance

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 25 November 2010
Borghese Museum, Rome
Lucas Cranach's 'Venus and
Cupid the Honey Thief,' 1530



Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach were the two great painters and engravers of the German Renaissance. But while Dürer's fame and influence extended far beyond his native land even during his lifetime, Cranach's remained almost entirely confined to Central Europe.

Dürer journeyed twice to Italy, giving to Italian art as much, perhaps more, than he took away. But Cranach never set foot south of the Alps and, while Dürer's prints were widely circulated (and pirated) here, Cranach's works were all but unknown.

Cardinal Scipio Borghese was rare among the Italian collectors in acquiring a Cranach painting, 'Venus and Cupid the Honey Thief,' as early as the first years of the 17th century, when he was amassing the works that were to form the Galleria Borghese. The cardinal's intention was almost certainly to create a 'compare and contrast' exercise with an Italian painting of the same subject, Andrea del Brescianino's 'Venus,' which was of a similar size and format.

Both paintings are still in the collection and are joined by a further 60 works by Cranach and his studio, hung over the Galleria Borghese's two floors, arranged by themes and instructively juxtaposed with Italian works in the permanent collection. The exhibition, 'Cranach: A Different Renaissance,' curated by Bernard Aikema, is the first show of the German artist in Italy and offers a fascinating overview of the development of painting north and south of the Alps during the 16th century, when Europe's religious and political life was being shaken by the rise of Protestantism and the Counter-Reformation.

Whereas for Dürer we have a brilliant self-portrait sketch executed when he was a mere 13 or 14 years old, there are no known works by Cranach, who was born in 1472 (the year after Dürer), until his arrival in Vienna in 1501-02.

Both Cranach's religious pictures and portraiture in Vienna revealed him to be an artist of considerable originality and technical assurance. In 1504 he was invited by the Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise to become his court artist at Wittenberg and within four years he was knighted and awarded the coat of arms of a winged serpent that became his signature.

Cranach's duties at Wittenberg were multiple, involving portraiture, religious and mythological paintings, murals for castles and hunting lodges, temporary decorations for festive events, print making and designing clothes, furniture glass, medals, coins and ornaments. To meet these demands he rapidly established a large studio to which he brought talented artists, students and craftsmen with whom, and later also with his sons' assistance, he would go on to produce in an unprecedented, almost industrial fashion, thousands of paintings and prints.

To give an idea of the scale of this production, in 1532 the new Elector John Frederick the Magnanimous was able to place an order for 60 double portraits of his father John the Steadfast and his uncle and predecessor Frederick the Wise, and receive them within the following year.

Frederick the Wise had founded a new university in Wittenberg in 1502, which attracted some of the leading thinkers and scholars of the age. Martin Luther began teaching theology there in 1508 and continued to do so until his death. Much of the biblical, classical, mythological and literary inspiration of Cranach's works came from the scholars of the university, and the painter himself could read, write and speak Latin. The artist became a close friend of Luther and they were godfathers to each other's children.

When in October 1517 Luther nailed his '95 Theses' to the door of Wittenberg's All Saints' Church, which is also known as the Schlosskirche, thereby initiating the revolution that was to become the Reformation, Cranach found himself to be Luther's image-maker-in-chief. The artist's prints and paintings, made for duplication and distribution, were carefully calculated to project the reformer's changing image as Luther's campaign progressed. He was shown in an early etching as a gaunt, ascetic Augustinian monk, then in later portraits as a serious young university teacher, then in disguise, a wanted man.

In 1525 Luther married the lapsed nun Katharina von Bora, an event that at the time was shocking to many. This widely publicized occasion, at which Cranach was best man, was memorialized by the artist in double portraits of the couple. A characteristic pair in the exhibition, dated 1529 (from the Uffizi), shows Luther as a pleasant, well-fed-looking university professor and his wife as a homely, contented, haute-bourgeois hausfrau.

Surprisingly, Cranach's close association with Luther, and even the printing of his anathematized translation into German of the Bible in the artist's workshop, did not stem the flow of Cranach's commissions from loyal Catholics and churchmen. To take but one example: Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg commissioned Cranach between 1519-25 to design almost all the decoration of his residence church in Halle, including several altarpieces.

Luther's own view of religious imagery was moderate and undogmatic, but many of his followers adopted more extreme, iconoclastic positions. This inevitably affected the demand for virgins and saints from Cranach's studio and was a factor in his turning over more of his production to secular images of primitive humanity, pastoral fantasies, classical and Old Testament stories and satirical scenes, often illustrating the supposed wiles of women through the ages, represented here by pieces from a score of international collections.

There is a great deal of nudity in these images, with little or no attempt to hide their erotic intent, a frankness in anatomical detail and careless arrangement of limbs that would have been unthinkable in contemporary Catholic art. And it is out of this undraped world that Cranach's distinctive, streamlined nudes emerged to become his most enduring trademark.

Although Cranach never visited Italy, he was clearly aware through Dürer and others of the revived classical canons. His earliest nudes nod in the direction of conformity to the rules of ancient sculpture and current theories of harmony and mathematical proportion, but during the 1520s Cranach developed a new interpretation of the female form. The genesis of this figure type is complex and debated. Superficially it looks back to the Gothic. It certainly owes something to works of the great Flemish artists Van Eyck, Memling and Bosch, which Cranach saw for himself in 1508 in Flanders, but also to Botticelli.

Unlike the contemporary Italian nudes, amply represented at the Galleria Borghese, with their ideal, rounded, womanly forms, Cranach's beauties, with their slim hips, narrow shoulders, small breasts and impossibly long legs, look adolescent. They were unabashedly provocative, their perfunctory, gossamer-thin veils designed not modestly to conceal but to invite closer inspection of what lay underneath.

And yet, as is the case with Cranach's graceful, warmly human 'Eve,' also on loan from the Uffizi, the most refined versions of these nudes were timeless contributions to the genre and Cranach's ultimate achievement.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023