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Reformation Year 2017

The Year of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (continued)

The Good News in Pictures – Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach the Elder was born in Kronach, about 90 km north of Nürnberg in upper Franconia, Germany. The date of his birth is not entirely clear. It was probably in 1472.

Cranach, who took the name of his birth town as his last name, showed great talent very early on, and it is likely that Lucas apprenticed under his father Hans Maler (which means ‘painter’).

In 1504 Lucas received an invitation to come to Wittenberg and join the court of Frederick, the Wise as his personal artist. For the rest of his life Cranach remained under the patronage of three successive electoral Saxony princes as their court painter.

In 1510 Cranach married Barbara Brengbier. They had five children: Hans (1513-1537), Lucas the Younger (1515-1586), Ursula (1517-?), Barbara (?-1601), and Anna (1520-1577)

In the early years in Wittenberg, Cranach’s work was mainly comprised of paintings commissioned by Frederick the Wise. But by 1507, he opened his own studio with at least one student working under him. A year later, he was presented with a coat of arms featuring a winged serpent with a golden ring. So far, his works had been either unsigned, or signed simply with his initials. But the serpent became Cranach’s sole signature for the rest of his career. You can see it on many of his paintings and his printed works.

Cranach had a great influence on the Reformation - not through his ideas, his books, or his ecclesiastical service, but his art. In fact, he was the most important purveyor of the Reformation. His paintings introduced the leaders of the reform movement to the people. Even more so, they functioned as visual conduits for Luther’s theology.

Cranach had a major affect on the spread of the Reformation itself as well. The woodcuts that embellish many of the treatises published by the Wittenberg reformers gained great popularity due to the fast-growing influence of the printing press. And his woodcuts in the Luther Bible took on a crucial catechetical function, for they represent biblical passages.

In general, many of Cranach’s paintings depict the foundational themes of the Protestant Reformation such as Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, and Solus Christus (Scripture alone, faith alone, Christ alone). And the theme of Law and Gospel is prevalent in his work. The most famous work Allegory of Law and Grace was produced as both a woodcut and a panel painting. It shows the crucifixion on the one side as a blessing to the faithful. On the other side it features the torment of those under the old law. (It is one of my favorite Cranach paintings.)

Even though Cranach was very committed to the Wittenberg reformers he also worked for some of Luther’s opponents. He produced numerous altar pieces for churches that remained aligned with Rome. Beyond that, he served other Saxon nobility with paintings that often bordered on the sensual if not scandalous, including Greek deities and nudes.

Throughout his life Cranach wore many hats. He was one of the most highly respected and richest citizens of Wittenberg. As such he was a member of Wittenberg's town council for numerous years and also held the office of mayor a number of times.

Many artists worked under him in his thriving studio, including his two sons, Hans and Lucas, who worked alongside him. While Cranach sketched the works, they would paint them. That increased his productivity immensely, and Cranach's workshop developed into an extremely versatile artistic manufacturing business. Several thousand painting, engravings, and prints were produced here.

Cranach also owned a apothecary or pharmacy, a wine store, a bookstore, and a printer’s shop in Wittenberg.

On a personal level Cranach and Luther became close friends. Cranach was Luther’s best man, and Lucas and Barbara Cranach were the witnesses to Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora’s wedding. Katharina had found refuge in the Cranach household after she had fled her Benedictine convent. And here is where she and Luther met. Cranach also drafted the wedding portrait of the Luthers. Lucas and Martin became godparents to one of each of their children.

Cranach has painted the most famous portraits of the reformer, as well as portraits of both Luther’s parents.

The death of his highly gifted son Hans in 1537 in Bologna hit Cranach hard. Four years later his wife Barbara also died in 1541.

In 1547 Cranach asked Emperor Charles V to have mercy on his employer Elector John Friedrich who was imprisoned, and followed the pardoned Elector to Weimar in 1552, where he died on October 16, 1553 at the age of approximately 81. The inscription of his tomb stone reads “pictor celerimus”—the swiftest painter.

Based on articles in

-Der Spiegel, Geschichte – Die Reformation, Aufstand gegen Kaiser und Papst, magazine;



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