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Lucas Cranach the Elder


 

 

 

 
 
Lucas Cranach the Elder


born 1472, Cranach, bishopric of Bamberg [now Kronach, Ger.]
died Oct. 16, 1553, Weimar, Saxe-Weimar


original name Lucas Muller 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.


Venus
1532

 

 
Life and career


Lucas Muller was born in a village approximately 55 miles (90 km) north of Nurnberg. Although only a year younger, he survived Albrecht Durer, 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 Muller, 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 Muller, 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 humaniststeaching 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 theProtestant princes in innumerable painted, engraved, and woodcut portraits. The scope of this activity is indicated by asingle 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.


Paintings

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; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

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; Gemaldegalerie, Dresden) 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; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), 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; Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels). 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; Museum of Fine Art, Leipzig) 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 Francois 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 figurein 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 apeaceful 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 Thone, Donald King

Encyclopaedia Britannica
 

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Lucas Cranach the Elder


Dr. Cuspinian and his Wife

1502-1503

   
N. Schneider

 

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

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

                      
          

       

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Wittenberg Castle Church: Martin Luther reputedly nailed his "Ninety-Five Theses" to the portal


A Hotbed of Crime and Fornication


Martin Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses" and schism

 


Portrait of Martin Luther

1543
Panel
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg
 

 
Whatever happens on pilgrimages other than whores and knaves from all over the place get together for their fun? And does the Pope do anything other than defile and prostitute himself? We want neither to go on pilgrimages nor to heed the words of the Pope, but only to seek God in our hearts.
Martin Luther, "Table Talk", 1537
 


Lucas Cranach the Elder
Martin Luther Preaching
(detail of the altar predella)
1539


 

Trouble was brewing in Europe: abuse of authority, ostentation, debauchery and bribery. Or so some Christians viewed the state of affairs around 1500. They considered the Pope the devil incarnate and his Church a bastion of lust, stupidity, greed and corruption. The sermons of the Dominican Johann Tetzel were water on the critics' mill. In 1517 Tetzel proclaimed that the Pope had granted him such authority that he could grant absolution even to someone who confessed he had fathered the child of the Virgin Mary — that is, if the sinner was to pay.
For some time now pulpits had been resounding with sermons offering remission of sins for money and a direct path to Heaven without a detour through Purgatory. The sermons preached by Johann Tetzel, however, were the ones that provoked Martin Luther, an Augustine monk and professor of theology at Wittenberg. In mounting a challenge, Luther said it was utter nonsense to think God could be bought. He held that the only thing one could do for one's salvation was to believe in God and live accordingly. Luther was in a rage when he wrote out his "Ninety-Five Theses". He is said to have nailed them to the portal of Wittenberg Castle Church on 31 October 1517. All that has been conclusively proved by historians, however, is that he sent his "Theses" to his bishop on the Saturday that marks the beginning of the Reformation.
Luther's goal was a theological debate; the authorities would have none of it. But thousands of copies of the "Theses" had been made and distributed, thanks to the new technology of printing, and a popular movement coalesced around them. It was too late for the ancient Church: the Reformation became a revolution, scourging pilgrimages and liturgical practises as "senseless foolery". Led by Luther's rhetoric which was sometimes eloquent and religious, sometimes violent and vulgar, the Reformers went quickly from demanding the abolition of priestly celibacy to a thorough re-casting of the Church. And the movement assumed a political and social dimension, propagated under the slogan: "freedom of Christian people". Together with the Humanist movement, the Reformation effected cultural change on a hitherto unprecedented scale.
Luther had a broad following: he was joined by merchants, peasants, craftsmen and princes. Supported by the princes, Luther was able to stand up to the Pope and the Emperor. Among his followers was the Northern Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. At the Wittenberg Court, Cranach became a personal friend of the Reformer. Cranach executed several portraits of Luther, among them one for St Mary's Church, Wittenberg. It portrays Luther in his office as preacher there. In much of northern Europe, the ancient Church was no match for Luther's movement. After the Schism with Rome had taken place, Protestantism was ready to grow into a world-wide movement.
           


General view of the altar predella in St Mary's Church, Wittenberg

   

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Venus Standing in a Landscape

1529
Oil on wood, 380 x 255 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris

The seductive nudes


of Cranach



Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), born one year after Durer, is as self-determined as Durer but without his spiritual concentration. From an early stage in his career, Cranach was able to obtain copies of Duurer's woodcut prints, and his familiarity with these was to have lasting influence on his painting, with its sharp definition and brilliant color.
Cranach was almost two painters in one - artistically schizophrenic, as it were. His most popular works are the decidedly seductive nudes with which he delighted his aristocratic patrons. These coy creatures have the rare distinction of fitting in with modern tastes, being slender, free-spirited, and even kinky. They have a sort of refined sexuality, but it is also cold and teasing: we are tempted to think that Cranach did not really care for women and may even have feared them. His Nymph of the Spring has hung up her hunting arrows, but the presence of a pair of partridges (birds of Venus) suggests that it is the human heart that she hunts. A distinctly diaphanous wisp of silk draws attention to her loins by "covering" them, she wears her jewelry provocatively, and she is clearly only pretending to be asleep, propped up on the thick, sensual velvet of her dress. She sprawls before us, part of the landscape and in a sense its essence. A Latin inscription on the upper left reminds us that this is a nymph of a sacred fountain. She is not a secular image, despite her alluring nakedness. We are warned not to break, not to shatter her holy slumbers. Love, Cranach is telling us, is something we have to approach with delicate reverence. A meaningful landscape surrounds her. Close by is the mysterious, symbolic cave in the rock - again, an image of sacred sexual symbolism, the female hollow. Beyond that there is the world of commerce and battle, church and family, in which the sacred realities of sex are played out in actual life.

Sister Wendy



Venus wears only an elaborately jewelled hairnet and necklaces. She is coyly holding a diaphanous veil and looks out seductively at the viewer. Her body is idealized, perhaps because artists at this time rarely used live female models. Nude women were not often shown unless they appeared in a narrative scene or as mythical goddesses. Cranach seems to have ignored the Classical spirit of the dav, and for this reason his nudes sometimes seem almost primitive. The choice of a mythological rather than a religious subject for this picture may have been because the patron was Protestant. We know little about Cranach other than that his influence in Protestant Germany was widespread. He seemed to appear suddenly, and produced his best work early in his long career, thereafter leading the easy life of a Court painter. He is called Lucas the Elder because he was the first in a dvnastv of artists who carried on his traditions and style.

 

   


Nymph of the Spring

 


Nymph of the Spring

 


The Nymph of the Fountain
1534
Panel
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

 


Reclining River Nymph at the Fountain
1518
Oil on wood, 59 x 92 cm
Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig

                        
 

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