Before Martin Luther became Germany's most famous reformer, Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), a self-made painter from a backwater Franconian town [Kronach, population: 2500] had served sixteen years (1504 -1520) as court painter to the Saxon dynasty seated in Wittenberg (population also: 2500), the home of the fabled ruler, Frederick III, the Wise. A bustling center of the German Renaissance, "this little town in the wilderness," as Luther called it, would now become the birthplace of religious pluralism and individual freedom of belief that we cherish today. In doing so, these two magnificent men were drawn together in the cause of reform, both cultural and religious, domestic and political.
Cranach settled into the city in 1505 just at the time the Saxon princes were expanding and refurbishing their great townhouses, country castles, hunting grounds, and churches. From the start his was "a new venture in the sociology of the modern artist." (Berthold Hinz). For his services to come, he would receive 100 gulden per annum, which was also Luther's wages. Waiting also for the new court painter in Castle Wittenberg were: a private apartment, a top of the line workshop, a seasoned team of expert assistants, food and clothing, instruments and supplies, and a horse equipped with all the equine perquisites. No other painter of the age and few thereafter enjoyed the freedom and privilege that was to be Cranach's. Neither Dürer in the sixteenth century, nor Picasso in the twentieth, created as many new, art genres with such variety and novelty as did the Cranach workshop over his lifetime.
A fast painter and born entrepreneur, Cranach's artworks catapulted him into the ranks of the German greats, with Albrecht Dürer his rival at the top. A genius in his own craft, Cranach did not believe in genius. Long before he knew Luther (1510-12) he had deconstructed the vaunted "Renaissance Man," stripping him of his godly pretensions and displaying him in his true self: stymied, ineffectual prey to sin, death, and the devil - an anticipation of Luther's bifurcated Christian: man as a sinner in himself this side of eternity, and a saint only by his faith in God.
"The old man in love" (Oil,
79 x 57.5 cm,
c.1517) by Lucas Cranach the Elder,
Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium
By the 1520s Cranach was one of Wittenberg's three wealthiest burghers and the city's largest property owner - and the sky was still his limit! Call it a `wonder,' or 'wretched excess,' in the 1510s he bought, rebuilt, and refurbished an aged and worn jewel of a mansion in the city center at 1 Castle Street. The finished property presented eighty-four rooms and sixteen kitchens, each with heating capacity.
After 1519, Cranach was and remained a prominent and tough member of the city's ruling council. During the 1530s and 40's he served three separate terms (three years each ) as Wittenberg's Bürgermeister, during which he sent a family of accused witches to the stake.
In 1520, a wise, rising Martin Luther strengthened his friendship with Cranach by standing godfather at the baptism of his fifth and youngest child, a daughter, Anna. Thereafter, to all intents and purposes, Cranach, after God, became Luther's `senior adviser' in the unfolding of the Protestant Reformation. While gathering his brain-trust and tightening the bond, Cranach stood as `best man' at Luther's marriage to the renegade nun, Katherine von Bora (1525). And with the passage of another year, he stood as godfather to the Luthers' first born child, a son, Hans.
"Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk" (Oil,
43.6 x 29.8 cm,
Lucas Cranach the Elder,
Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nuremberg, Germany
With Luther's rampant oratorical and literary criticism of the Holy Father in Rome reaching heretical proportions, Cranach placed his own lethal artworks in tandem with Luther's scathing sermons. With great aplomb, he `enlisted' disarming children and fetching women into the war with Rome. He bolstered Luther's attacks on their mutual enemies by presenting knock-down, sensuous nudes, whose bodies were covered only by the transparent veils of maternal honesty and sacrifice - altogether an eye-catching mark of godly women who had nothing to hide and everything to give to others. These women appear in commanding roles that embrace and empower families, states, cultures, and civilizations. As for the effectiveness of the duo's new tactics and iconography, the reader may be entertained, if not enlightened, by the `quip' of the German poet and critic, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856):
"The loins of Cranach's Venus were far more substantial `theses' than those
the German monk [Luther] placed on the door of the church in Wittenberg."
These irreverent comments make two pertinent points about the power of Cranach's art and the reformers' success in securing their domestic reforms with it. The first point is the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words. The second, which is Heine's main point, reminds the viewer of the commanding power of emotion over reason, and the human sex drive over culture. From the latter point of view, the visual and visceral impact of Cranach's altarpieces, portraitures, and broadsheets were every bit as powerful as Luther's sermons and pamphlets.
"Venus and Cupid" (Oil on wood, 167 x 62 cm, c.1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany
Looking back, in the absence of Cranach, Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528) might have been the court painter of the Reformation, so great was his talent and so fond of him was the Saxon Elector. Dürer painted Frederick's portrait early (1509) and received other royal commissions over the years. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the fire in Dürer's belly flickered. Marital stress, money (collection) problems, and bouts of plague and melancholy appear to have been the culprits. There were also eminent clients in higher places than Wittenberg not so far away, and always ready to welcome the famous Dürer to their court.
Of the gifted men who made and pursued the war against Rome, only Cranach received the divine blessing of longevity and health. A streaking, untiring artist, known to his peers as `Fast Brush,' Cranach lived to be eighty-one, while Dürer died at fifty-seven and Luther at sixty-three. In his last year of life, at the advanced age of eighty-one, Cranach produced sixteen paintings, not his best works, but by then, few were counting and buying.
The great gift the painters (Dürer and Cranach) brought to the reformers' table was familiarity. They made Luther's face the most seen and talked about in the sixteenth century Europe. On the eve of the Reformation, Cranach and company also intervened in the so-called Iconoclastic Controversy (1519-20) that rocked the city with intrigue. This was a misguided movement inspired by some of Luther's own wayward associates, who were determined to strip decorative art from the Wittenberg churches in a futile attempt to eradicate what was perceived to be `idol worship.'
In this matter, Cranach knew two things well and conveyed them to Luther emphatically. First, he knew that Luther had been tempted to join the iconoclasts. The fear was that Luther might be tempted again to oblige them. Were that to happen, Cranach would be putting himself and the Reformation on the wrong side of history and Frederick the Wise, a powerful ruler who treasured his religious artworks and relic collections (19,000 pieces), as few other things in his life. So should Luther rock the boat at this time, he would jeopardize the Reformation's progress along with the livelihood of the artists.
With the successful cleansing of biblical doctrine and church teaching on the religious front, the reformers turned their scrutiny and attack on the domestic front, there to recover such private rights as unencumbered courtship and open marriage for both the laity and the clergy. In both art and sermon Cranach and Luther put forth the reformers' issues of celibacy and marriage, gender and sexuality, and family and society before the Saxon court and the surrounding greater world.