The Prime of Lucas Cranach

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Prime of Lucas Cranach

Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review

A small exhibition of major importance is taking place from 21 June to 23 September at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, London: Temptation in Eden. It is not a comprehensive assemblage of Cranach's works, such as that of 1974, when Dieter Koepplin brought together in Basel everything accessible by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) and his School. At its centre is an intensive examination of Cranach's Adam and Eve of 1526, already in the Courtauld Gallery and widely known. It does not survey the terrain but instead scrutinises a group of five related paintings, with their antecedent drawings and engravings by Cranach and his circle. Three of the paintings are among the best from 1525-1540, Cranach's period of greatest achievement.

The supremacy of that period does not discredit his earlier works, which are always accomplished and often masterly. His enchanted and enchanting Rest on the Flight of 1501 (Berlin Gemaldegalerie) is equal to anything he painted after 1525, although unmatched till then.

Cranach was already 53 years old in 1525, which is an encouragement and an incentive to those daunted by the passage of time. He could say, with Browning's Rabbi ben Ezra: 'Grow old along with me!/ The best is yet to be'. Although one would not wish to be determinist about it, Cranach's autumnal splendour may have been prompted by a number of events. Strangely, the most beneficent of these was the death of his kind and scholarly patron, Frederick the Wise, Electoral Duke of Saxony. Frederick's pastimes were collecting relics and commemorating them with devout pictures, and hunting. Affairs of state he left largely to his more worldly brother, Duke John the Steadfast. This gave him more spare time to guide the activities of Cranach, his court painter. Among other tasks, Cranach was assigned the tedious work of engraving copies of Frederick's acquisitions in his catalogue, The Wittenberg Relic Book. On succeeding as Elector, John the Steadfast, who had little interest in the arts, spent the seven years of his rule on the administration of Saxony, the intemperate suppression of the Peasants' Revolt, the promotion of the Evangelical League, and the support of Martin Luther with the solicitous loyalty that his brother Frederick had also shown. Meanwhile, the presence of Luther and his ally, the theologian and classicist Philipp Melanchthon, attracted numerous scholars to Wittenberg, the governmental headquarters of the little state.

That Lucas Cranach was a well-educated man, particularly in the classical and biblical studies so important in his time, is evident from his pictures, in spite of minor mistakes in his Latin inscriptions. He was at no loss in his conversations with the humanists of Vienna, which he visited from 1501 to 1503. There he made the acquaintance, and painted the portraits, of the Rector of the University and the internationally well-known Professor of History, Johannes Cuspinian. Cranach was also welcome among the scholars of Wittenberg. Melanchthon, Professor of Greek at Wittenberg University, devised programmes for his mythological paintings. He was witness to Luther's wedding and godfather to Luther's daughter Anna, of whom he later painted one of his most charming portraits. Luther's letter describing his interrogation by the Emperor Charles V was addressed to 'Dear Neighbour Cranach'. From Cranach Germany's national poet and supreme polymath, Goethe, was directly descended.

Cranach was born near the Saxon border in the Bavarian town of Kronach. The Bishop of Bamberg resided in the castle which rises above its quiet streets. By the standards of the fifteenth century Cranach's father Hans, also a painter, was something of a scholar. He could draw up, in an Italianate hand and the correct form, legal depositions; in one of them quoting from the original Latin of the Vulgate Bible. His name was simply Hans Maler (Hans the Painter). In that period of ad hoc surnames, Lucas Cranach probably derived his name from Chranach, the deaconry of which Kronach ('Crowswater') was part; just as Philipp Schwarzerd (black earth) translated his name into Greek as Melanchthon, and Johannes Speissheimer from Schweinfurt called himself Cuspinian. …

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