The Nymph of the Spring, after 1537

Godfather of the Reformation

Cranach’s impact on the Reformation would have been impossible without his earlier success as a secular artist

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On 7 June 1526, Lucas Cranach stood beside Martin Luther and a crying baby in Wittenberg City Church. The child, Luther’s first son — known as “Little Hans” — had been born earlier that day and Cranach had been asked to be the godfather. Cranach was a natural choice. Then well into his fifties, he was one of the family’s dearest friends. He had even introduced Luther to his wife. 

Lucas Cranach: From German Myth to Reformation, Jennifer Nelson (Reaktion, £17.95)

But Luther’s request also had a deeper symbolism. More than any other artist, Cranach had shaped the Reformation’s “look”. His panel paintings and printed images had forged the visual imagination of the new movement and crafted its identity. If Luther was the Reformation’s father, then — in a very real sense — Cranach was its godfather. 

So how did he do it? Why did he, rather than, say, Albrecht Dürer, become the quintessential Reformation artist? In this thrilling new biography, Jennifer Nelson argues that the answer may lie where we least expect it. Deftly tracing his artistic development through a series of key themes, she argues that Cranach’s impact on the Reformation would have been impossible without his earlier success as a secular — even “erotic” — artist. 

There was nothing in Cranach’s youth to suggest he was marked for greatness. In fact, reading Nelson’s account, one is struck by how little we know about it. Other than the fact that he was born in Kronach (from which he took his name) some time in 1472, his formative years and artistic training are lost to obscurity. 

Cranach’s portrait of Martin Luther, 1529.

Not until 1502, when Cranach was pushing 30, does he come into focus. Then living in Vienna, he joined a circle of humanist intellectuals and initially set himself up as a woodcut designer. He soon turned to portraiture, however. His earliest works were elaborate affairs, laced with delicate allusions to classical literature — impressive, perhaps, but remarkable more for their collaborative nature than anything else. 

Yet when he was offered a post at the court of the Saxon electors a few years later, his style changed radically. He simplified his compositions, stripped back the symbolism and began using stark graphic contrasts. Take his portraits of Heinrich the Pious and Katharina von Mecklenberg (1514). Standing on a barren “moonscape and set against featureless backgrounds, the figures are eerily isolated. Their faces are vivid, whilst their clothes seem almost flat by comparison. But the effect is strangely to make them “all the more lifelike and alive”. 

At the same time, Cranach also began building a “brand”. In 1508, Friedrich the Wise granted him the use of an emblem — a “winged snake with a ring in its nose”. The meaning of this is debated. Some think it may have been an obscure pun on Cranach’s name. Whatever it meant, it served to authenticate Cranach’s works — like a trademark. 

Heinrich the Pious and Katharina von Mecklenberg (1514)

Less well known — but equally significant — was Cranach’s preoccupation with naked women. Some 182 female nudes have been attributed to him and his workshop, more than any other artist of the period. As a rule, these were intended to caution against female sexuality. But what made them unusual was the extent to which Cranach accentuated the eroticism and tied the moral message to German folk identity by situating his scenes in a “primeval” Teutonic forest.

All these elements contributed to his emergence as the Reformation artist par excellence. They allowed him not only to create powerful portraits of Luther and his fellow reformers, but also to give visual expression to the ideals of the new faith. Complex themes such as “Law and Grace” — which presented the choice between being condemned to Hell according to Christian law and attaining grace through Christ’s sacrifice — were approached in opposition to Catholic traditions.

Cranach’s emblem, seen here on a DDR 20 mark coin issued in 1972

Rather than welding everything into a single composition, Cranach divided the space into isolated regions, bounded by German woodland and united by Scripture alone. He then used his brand to authorise the innovation — and by reproducing his images incessantly, succeeded in establishing them as the new Lutheran tradition. And that wasn’t all. Since his images were displayed in homes throughout the German-speaking world, they arguably helped to foster a sense of common identity amongst believers, securing the fledging faith for the future. 

It is difficult to overstate Cranach’s importance. As Nelson notes, however, nothing captures it better than the Weimar Altarpiece (1555). Though originally designed by Cranach, this imposing triptych was completed after his death by his son. In the central panel, Cranach is shown standing between Luther and John the Baptist at the foot of the cross. From the wound in Christ’s side, a stream of blood spurts out onto Cranach’s head, a clear sign of grace — or perhaps inspiration. And all the whilst, he stares out at us, as if daring us to look at the brave new world he had helped to create. 

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