L’univers de Lucas Cranach (1472-1553)

The Universe of Lucas Cranach (1472-1553)

Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, from 20 October 2010 to 23 January 2011
Paris, Musée du Luxembourg, from 9 February to 23 May 2011

1. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Venus and Cupid Robbing Honey, 1531
Oil on panel on canvas - 176 x 80 cm
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts

There is absolutely no coincidence in the fact that the posters for the last three exhibitions highlighting Cranach offered passers-by a look at three willowy women in the artist’s signature rendition of nudity : the Royal Academy of Arts in London had opted for the Venus (1532) from the Städel Museum in Frankfurts [1] for its show in the spring of 2008 ; the Galleria Borghese in Rome displayed its own Venus, wearing a beret shaped hat tilted to one side which is so characteristic of Cranach (Venus and Cupid Robbing Honey, c. 1531) in the fall of 2010 [2], while Brussels chose an Allegory of Justice (1537, private collection) to attract museum goers. There is in fact a canon of beauty for Cranach’s nudes, progressively refined with time, whereby he distanced himself from his early models (especially Dürer) as well as from the antique, and which functions as a “standard” of his style, “a trade mark [3]” according to Guido Messling, the curator of the exhibition. “A trade mark” not only of Lucas Maler, born in the village of Kronach in Franconia – adopted as his pseudonym -, but of the entire workshop, a large one, which was run like a veritable company. We can thus understand how there can be two simultaneous exhibitions, in Rome and Brussels, both presenting many practically identical works – Eves, Venuses (ill. 1), Judiths, Salomes, Lucretias, Melancholies, Deer Hunting scenes, etc. – which even a specialist’s trained eye can sometimes be hard put to determine whether they are by Cranach himself or assistants in his workshop [4]. Still, the exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, with an understated but warm elegance in the design (carpeting, dark wood railings which form coffers housing the works under a shaded light), and highly instructive thanks to the many welcome explanations, will be sure to seduce visitors by the quality of the works (paintings, engravings, drawings) on display.

2. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Self-portrait, 1531
Oil on panel - 45.4 x 35.6 cm
Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pflatz -
Direktion Burgen, Schlösser, Altertümer
Photo : Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts

We do have one reservation to express however : the subtitle of the show – “A painter at the time of Dürer, Titian and Metsys” – implies an almost systematic juxtaposition of Cranach’s work with that of his three contemporaries (though the expression “at the time of…” can be interpreted in many ways). Visitors should know this is only relatively true : while Dürer is well represented with about a dozen engravings (including the Adam and Eve of 1504 and Melancholy of 1514), the same cannot be said for Metsys who appears here in only three oak panels (that is, less than Lucas de Leyde with two engravings and two engraved wooden panels). As for Titian, we would do well in forgetting about him – as does the curator ! – since there are no works by the Italian master on display here. These comparisons therefore, can only be “seen” in the catalogue… thanks to a very enlightening text by Berthold Hinz [5].
This drawback in no way prevents us from deeply enjoying a superb exhibition which opens with a short introduction about the “man”, Cranach as seen in a Self-portrait of 1531 (ill. 2) discovered in the early 1970’s in a château not far from Coblence : a determined face looks out at the viewer in a sideward glance against a dark background where the beard and unruly hair subtly blend in. We would have liked to see the portrait Dürer drew of him (1524, Bayonne, Musée Bonnat) as well as the one painted by his son in 1550 – often considered a self-portrait by Cranach the Elder (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi) – with a wider angle but which retains, despite the white beard and the graying hair, both impeccably groomed, the same determination of a now well-established man. Since there are no other self-portraits per se, visitors can nevertheless discover Cranach in other works amid hunting or battle scenes, as if he himself were a spectator of the panel or engraving he was producing. The visit continues with four sections – “The early years”, “The Saxon Court, the Netherlands and Italy”, “The nude” and “The Reformation” – all of which are important in understanding the progressive changes in Cranach’s work.

3. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
The Scottish Crucifixion, c. 1500
Oil on panel - 58.5 x 45 cm
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Photo : Kunsthistorisches Museum

The first painting to have come down to us is known as The Scottish Crucifixion (ill. 3), painted around 1500 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), which recalls an engraved wood panel by Dürer (c. 1498, Brussels, Bibliothèque royale) but which could just as easily refer back to an earlier wash by the Master of the Herpin Berlin manuscript (Erlangen, Universitätsbibliothek) : in the first, the composition focuses only on Christ in a scene of traditional pathos ; in the second, the triangle formed by the three crosses provides a perspective much like Cranach’s, which is however more innovative in the expression of Christ’s intense suffering, by the way in which he places the figures and the newly found violence of the colours, not to mention the “natural” Cross from the Franconian tradition (masterfully used by Grünewald in his monumental Issenheim Altarpiece – between 1510 and 1516, Colmar, Musée d’Unterlinden).
Though little is known about Cranach’s early years – he probably visited Vienna and was part of a circle led by Conrad Celtis, a poet and illustrious figure of German Humanism – documents tell us more about his career after 1505. He settled in Wittenberg at this date after being appointed by the powerful Elector of Saxony, Frederick III, the Wise as official painter to the court. He first lived in the prince’s château then, a few years later, moved to the city where he installed his workshop, the site of all his subsequent artistic production. Cranach also found time to take on administrative responsibilities in the City council (he was even bourgmestre of Wittenberg three times), and obtained apothecary privileges in 1520 (making him a powerful businessman while providing him with easy access to the pigments and dyes needed to make his colours), then associated himself with Melchior Lotter, a printer in Leipzig who opened a branch in Cranach’s workshop, thus enabling his engravings to become widely known. Thanks to Lotter, Cranach met Martin Luther who was to become a close friend (the Reformer was the godfather of his youngest daughter and Lucas a witness at his wedding). When in 1508, Frederick III honoured him with a coat of arms, he adopted the heraldic animal – a serpent with open wings – to sign his paintings (after the death of his oldest son in 1537, the closed wings conveyed his mourning [6].

4. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Deer Hunt, c. 1530
Oil on panel - 56.5 x 80.5 cm
Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst
Photo : Didier Rykner

5. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, c. 1508-1509
Oil on panel - 112 x 95 cm
Budapest, reformed church, Raday collections
Photo : Didier Rykner

The production of the new official painter was centered around three themes : he was naturally in charge of official portraits, the first being those of his protector as a donor (Portrait of the Elderly Frederick the Wise, 1525, Schloss Gottorf), often reproduced, and widely known through engravings (Frederick the Wise Venerating Saint Bartholomew, c. 1508-1509, Brussels, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique ; The Elector Frederick the Wise Adoring the Virgin, c. 1512-1515, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) as well as those of important figures (a superb colour study for a portrait of Philip von Solms-Lich, c. 1520, Bautzen, Stadtmuseum and Portrait of Marguerite of Austria in the manner of portraits then in style in the Netherlands [c. 1518, Brussels, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts]). At the same time, Cranach illustrated different moments of life at the court : tournaments and jousts (see the wooden engravings from Brussels, Amsterdam and Munich dated 1509 whose minute details bring these busy scenes to life), hunts (Deer Hunt ; ill. 4). But the richest of the fields explored by the exhibition here in Brussels is his religious production : Cranach deployed all of his talents as a painter and engraver and covered every subject taken from the Gospels (engraving of The Rest during the Flight into Egypt, 1509, London, The British Museum), the paintings of Catholic tradition depicting the Virgin with Child (The Virigin Nursing the Child, Budapest, Szépmüvészeti Museum ; the Virgin with Grapes, c. 1520-1525, Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen), including the martyrs (The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine ; ill. 5) and the countless representations of saints made popular through engravings, particularly Saint George, Saint Christopher and Saint Anthony). Although he reemployed the traditional topics, he was innovative in the way he treated them. For example, in an early wooden engraving dated 1505 (Brussels, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique), he composes a daring representation of the Trinity on a coat of arms : Christ is depicted on the Cross in the center of an imposing heart – that of God – while to the left, the heraldic part shows the flames of the Holy Spirit descending over the world where the Virgin and Saint John are praying. In the same way, although this juxtaposition was not in fact necessary, the comparison between a diptych by Quentin Metsys (c. 1505, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten) and two studies of heads of the Virgin and Christ by Cranach (c. 1512-1514, Gotha) reveals all of the work of humanizing the figures, now stripped of their traditional luminous halo but imbued with eyes which turned toward the viewer, reflect a deep psychological insight.

6. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Venus and Cupid, c. 1508-1509
Wooden engraving - 28 x 20 cm
Berlin, Staatliche Museum, Kupferstichtkabinett
Photo : Didier Rykner

7. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Nymph at the Fountain, after 1537
Oil on panel - 48.4 x 72.8 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : National Gallery of Art

The end of this section closes with works evoking Lucretia – thus transitioning into the next one highlighting “Nudes”, but it is difficult to understand why they were not included in the latter theme of even that of the “Reformation”. We are also hard put to accept Guido Messling’s suggestion of comparing Cranach’s Lucretia – her eyes turned toward us, one of several significant differences – to that of the Italian artist, Francesco Francia, which is perfectly Christian in its rendition…
While Lucretia revealed only her breasts, Cranach’s nudes unveil everything freely. Now a part of our collective unconscious, it seems that they contributed greatly to the master’s reputation and fortune during his lifetime. In fact, wasn’t Cranach the first painter north of the Alps to offer, in 1508-1509, a nude, life size Venus which today resides at the Hermitage museum (unfortunately, it is not in the exhibition but the wooden engraving from Berlin provides a fine replica – ill. 6) ? Between this date and his death, Cranach and his workshop would produce over forty paintings of Venus [7] which are documented (so we can imagine there were many more). This explains the pertinence and audacity of the theory presented by Berthold Hinz in the catalogue article on “Cranach’s Nudes” : “Given what we know about Cranach, the businessman’s, various activities, related or not to art, we might ask if the business man did not lead the way for the artist and if many of his aesthetic characteristics were not based on a business logic”. This is thus a canon which Cranach elaborated over the years to better reproduce it (with the variations imposed naturally by the particular subject) : from a woman with a classical figure (which he may have borrowed from Dürer), he achieves a very long-limbed feminine figure, with androgynous features, with legs close together or crossed over so as to reduce the pubis to a geometric line. This is how he presents his Venuses but also his different versions of Adam and Eve (about thirty known ones after 1510), of the Judgement of Paris (about twelve are listed since the first version of 1512) – where the first attempts reveal an unmistakable clumsiness in the rendition of one of the goddesses from the back – of the Nymph at the Fountain, of Italian inspiration of which there are more than fifteen known versions (ill. 7)… Cranach was the official court painter but he also made a successful business of his art, the exact opposite of the image of the starving and unknown artist… In any case, these “nudes” continue to fascinate us with their enigmatic look and their body (slightly eroticized by the addition of a diaphanous veil) which appear to be seducing the viewer, as if the painter wished to create figures which offered themselves freely to masculine desire even before it was ever expressed.

8. Albrecht Dürer
The Melancholy, 1514
Copper engraving - 23.7 x 18.7 cm
Colmar, Musée d’Unterlinden
Photo : Musée d’Unterlinden

9. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
the Melancholy, 1532
Oil on panel - 76.5 x 56 cm
Colmar, Musée d’Unterlinden
Photo : Musée d’Unterlinden

Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the palace church in Wittenberg in October 1517, condemning the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. This was the official beginning of the Protestant Reformation ! Besides producing portraits of the monk, either painted or engraved, Cranach would also work on illustrating his translation of the New Testament (1522) which soon became very popular. But, as a consummate businessman, his support to the Lutherans never stopped him from supplying art works to Catholic dignitaries. Should we thus consider, as suggested by Veronique Bücken in the catalogue [8], that his seductive heroines who also contributed extensively to his glory as an artist, were allegorical figures of the Protestant movement ? Salome, Judith, Delilah, Bathsheba…, all dressed in red velvet, all alike, models of a virtuous or a provocative, seduction ? This interpretation is a bit too ideological, and is not totally convincing. A more reliable analysis can be found in the comparison of two representations of Melancholy lent by the Museum in Colmar : Dürer’s engraving (ill. 8) and Cranach’s painted panel. While referring to Luther’s condemnation of the melancholy temperament, Cranach, still retaining some of the elements from Dürer’s décor, reverses the significance with a feminine angel and the attending cherubs manifesting the joy rather than the pain of creation. An even more convincing parallel is the study of the three painted panels, hanging next to each other, which are a better argument than is any formal discourse of the gradual standardization of Cranach’s models : a simple portrait of a young anonymous woman becomes Salome by adding a tray bearing a man’s head, without even changing the robe she is wearing ; then the same one is transformed into Judith by placing a sword in her hand. No wonder that Lucas Cranach the Elder wrote on his tomb “pictor celerrimus”. His work was not just the product of two hands, but many more. Parisians will discover it at the Musée du Luxembourg with the title “Cranach and his Time”, in a reduced version – due to lack of space ! – offering some different works but still in the very same elegant presentation.

Curator : Guido Messling

Collective work, L’univers de Lucas Cranach, Bozar Books, 2010, 272 p., 55€. ISBN (French edition) : 9789020991918. Appears also in English and German. Will be published in France by Flammarion (ISBN : 9782081248540).
Very beautiful catalogue with precise and remarkable texts and commentaries (but, given its high price, we regret the lack of an index and some errors in the cross references).

Visitor information : Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 10 rue Royale. Tél : +00 32 2 507 82 00. Every day except Mondays, from 10am to 6pm (Thursdays until 9pm). Tickets : 10€ (seniors and juniors [under 26] : 8€).

Daniel Couty, dimanche 19 décembre 2010


[1] We should recall that at that time, the London Underground had refused to display the posters based on regulations prohibiting any advertising “showing men, women or children in a sexual way, or showing bodies either halfway or totally nude in an openly sexual context”. Thanks to intervention from members of Parliament and various protests in reaction to this excessive and ridiculous prudishness, the Venus was finally allowed to announce the exhibition as planned.

[2] Exhibition “Cranach. L’Altro Rinascimento”. From 15 October 2010 to 13 February 2011.

[3] See in the catalogue : “Regards sur Cranach” by Guido Messling, p. 17.

[4] “We have spent much time in deliberating which works were more or less by the master, which were workshop productions and produced by students, but if we were to be honest, this observer would say that all of this reflection has yielded only that there are different levels of quality, so that in the case of the best productions, they are attributed to the master, and in those of lesser quality, we can suppose they are by other hands” (Curt Glaser as quoted by Guido Messling, p. 18).

[5] See in the catalogue “Les Nus de Cranach. A new market » by Berthold Hinz (pp. 42-53).

[6] Cranach does not appear to have signed his works until 1504. At this time, he began by intertwining an L and a C, then as of 1506, separated his two initials. When he received his coat of arms, the winged serpent replacesd the monogram. Turned either left or right, the serpent was used as a signature by both Cranach and his workshop and there is really no way of determining how to make an attribution (see the examples quoted in the catalogue by Gunnar Heydenreich, p. 75).)

[7] See Berthold Hinz, article quoted above, pp. 42-53.

[8] Véronique Bücken, “Heroïnes et séductrices dans l’oeuvre de Lucas Cranach”, pp. 54-65.

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