Cranach: Artist & Innovator
Video Tour, run time 17:45 mins
Hear the artists in conversation in this Colnaghi Foundation Lates Online Podcast, run time 27:00 mins
CRANACH: ARTIST AND INNOVATOR
The legacy of the Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder stretches across 500 years, and remains vibrantly alive today. Born around 1472 in Kronach, the small German town from which he took his name, Cranach was a loyal court painter and confidant to his rulers, the Electors of Saxony. Much more than a court artist, Cranach was also a printmaker and politician. Independent and highly entrepreneurial, he was close friends with the radical thinker Martin Luther (1483-1546) and played an active role in the seismic religious changes that took place in his home city, Wittenberg. Skilfully navigating turbulent times, Cranach survived into his 80s. He left behind a thriving workshop, which continued through his son and closest imitator, Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586).
ROOM 1: PAINTER TO THE ELECTORS
Cranach was the son of a painter, and was probably taught by his father. After spending several years in Vienna, and possibly visiting Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) in Nuremberg, Cranach was appointed court painter to Frederick the Wise, the elector (ruler) of Saxony, in 1505. This marked the beginning of a long and dutiful service: Cranach worked for the Saxon electors continuously for almost 50 years. As a court painter, Cranach received board, attire and lodgings in the palace in Wittenberg, as well as a high annual salary and money for materials. There was much to do, and palace accounts reveal that Cranach’s workshop included four ‘journeyman- painters’. The artists were responsible for recording hunting trips and tournaments; designing coins, medals and temporary decorations; and producing religious imagery and portraits of the electors and their families. In 1508 Elector Frederick the Wise awarded Cranach a distinctive coat of arms – a serpent with batwings and a ruby ring in its mouth. Functioning as a seal of approval on paintings produced by Cranach and his workshop, this appears on many works in the exhibition.
LUCAS CRANACH THE YOUNGER (1515-1586) Armorial Manuscript, German 2, c1565, Gouache on paper, iron gall ink
Heraldry was an important way for a family to demonstrate its lineage and status, making this manuscript indispensable in a painter’s workshop. Containing over 1,800 coats-of-arms of princes and noblemen, this book is based on an older armorial which belonged to Cranach the Elder, and was produced in the workshop of Cranach’s son, Lucas Cranach the Younger, at the request of Elector August of Saxony (1526-1586). This page shows the main arms of the Elector of Saxony, including the crossed swords of the electoral arms (centre) and the striped black and yellow arms of Saxony (top left). These arms are repeated throughout the exhibition.
This manuscript has been fully digitised: https://luna.manchester.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/jk3lqm
LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), Frederick III (‘Frederick the Wise’), Elector of Saxony (1463-1525), 1532, Oil on panel
Frederick III was known as ‘the Wise’ because of his diplomatic leadership. This portrait belongs to a series of 60 pairs of portraits of Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast, which were ordered from Cranach by John Frederick I when he became Elector in 1532. The verse glorifies Frederick’s achievements, which included founding the University of Wittenberg. Frederick’s pose, beret and fur collar are based on an earlier likeness, but his beard and moustache have been made grey, underlining his wisdom.
LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553) Portrait diptych with John ‘the Steadfast’ (1468-1532) and his six-year-old son John Frederick I ‘the Magnanimous’ (1503-1554), 1509, Oil on wood
A diptych (double portrait) was normally used to show a married couple, but here the boy occupies the place of his mother, Sophie of Mecklenburg, who had died in childbirth. On the left, John the Steadfast is dressed in black against a green background. The colour scheme is reversed in the image of his son, John Frederick. Both sitters were Electors of Saxony, and their status is shown by their outfits, which are richly decorated with fashionable multicoloured feathers, tiny seed pearls and gold thread.
For more on this work see: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/lucas-cranach-the-elder-portrait-of-johann-the-steadfast
LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553) AND WORKSHOP, Portrait of a Lady and her Son, c1510-40, Oil on panel
For many years this portrait of a mother and son was thought to be by a later imitator of Cranach, Franz Wolfgang Rohrich (1787-1834), who produced over 40 versions of the composition. However, recent technical analysis has revealed a highly skilled preparatory underdrawing and paint pigments which suggest that this is the prime version. The richly-dressed sitters may be John Frederick’s wife, Sibylle of Cleves (1512-54), and one of their four sons.
For more on this work see: https://www.rct.uk/collection/403373/portrait-of-a-lady-and-her-son
Left: LUCAS CRANACH THE YOUNGER (1515-1586), Study of the Head of a Peasant, 1540-50, Brush drawing on paper
In 1508 Cranach’s contemporary, Christoph Scheurl, described how the artist often attended hunts: ‘Whenever the princes take you out hunting, you bring along a board and use it mid-hunt…’ It has been suggested that the model for this study may have been a beater on a hunt. This work is now attributed to Cranach’s talented son, Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), and was probably copied from a similar, lively watercolour attributed to Cranach the Elder which is now in Basel.
British Museum, SL,5218.19. Bequeathed by Sir Hans Sloane, 1753
For more on this work see: https://research.britishmuseum.org/
Right: LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), The Stag Hunt, c1506, Woodcut
Hunting was a favourite activity of the electors, and this is one of the first works Cranach made following his appointment as court painter. This spectacular woodcut is an example of Cranach’s artistic ambition and innovation – it is so large that it had to be made from two blocks. Events unfold concurrently: at the upper left, dogs are released, before a castle that probably represents Lochau, Frederick the Wise’s hunting lodge. The dogs chase the stags through a winding river, and the hunt is brought to a dramatic conclusion in the left foreground.
The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Bequeathed by Francis Douce, 1834
ROOM 2: CITIZEN OF WITTENBERG
In around 1512 Cranach married and moved into the heart of the bustling city of Wittenberg (modern day East Germany). Here he remained until 1550, supervising a flourishing workshop of over 10 assistants, which was renowned for its rapid production. In addition to the painting workshop, Cranach developed other lucrative business interests, including property, control of the electoral apothecaries, a license to sell wine, and the establishment of a publishing business with Christian Döring (c. 1480-1533). Cranach became one of Wittenberg’s most respected citizens, serving three times as its mayor, and a tax return of 1528 states he was one of the two richest men in the city.
Cranach moved in intellectual circles and formed a close friendship with the university theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), with each acting as godfathers to the other’s children. Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, which was reputedly nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, represented a call to action. Condemning the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. The Cranach- Döring press played a pivotal role, with Cranach printing many of Luther’s texts and adding vibrant woodcut illustrations which enriched their meaning and their prestige. Despite the radical nature of Cranach’s publications, he continued to work for prominent Catholic patrons, including Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545), proving himself to be politically skilled and economically astute.
LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), The Joust in the Market Place, 1506, Reproduction of a woodcut print (original size 26.8 x 37.5cm)
This is a reproduction of one of Cranach’s earliest woodcuts, which depicts a jousting tournament taking place in Wittenberg’s main square. Tournaments such as these were organised by the electors for entertainment. We view the scene from above, like the noble ladies in the balcony opposite, while the townsfolk gather on foot around the edge of the square. The woodcut was probably meant to be hand coloured, which would have made it easier to read.
Left: LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), Portrait of a Man (Johann Feige?), Possibly early 1530s Oil on limewood
This man has been identified by the coats of arms at the top of the painting as Johann Feige, a diplomat and the first Chancellor of Marburg University. Feige moved in Protestant circles, supported Martin Luther, and is likely to have known Cranach personally. Cranach’s winged serpent signature appears beneath the arms at the top left. Wearing a white high-necked shirt beneath a sober black patterned coat, the position of the man’s hands draws attention to the metal-framed purse hanging from his belt.
The National Gallery, London. Presented by John P. Heseltine, 1903
For more on this work see: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/lucas-cranach-the-elder-portrait-of-johannes-feige
Centre: LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), Portrait of a Woman, c. 1525-7, Oil on beech
Cranach’s typically plain, dark background serves to highlight this woman’s sumptuous outfit. Her red velvet dress has a pleated skirt and slashed and puffed sleeves. Her white gloves are also slashed at the knuckles, revealing that her hands are impossibly ornamented, with rings worn both under and over the gloves. Although this woman hasn’t been identified, and her facial features are generic, a clue to her identity may be the letter ‘M’, repeated on her diamond-patterned bodice.
The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1857
For more on this work see: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/lucas-cranach-the-elder-portrait-of-a-woman
Right: LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), Portrait of Sigmund Kingsfelt, c1530, Oil on panel
The range of red and pink flesh tones used in this man’s face make this portrait particularly vibrant and lifelike. The gold inscription at the top of the painting tells us that his name is Sigmund Kingsfelt, while the word ‘RITER’ translates as ‘knight’. This is perhaps an honorary title, however, as the sitter’s simple clothing, heavy chain, and lack of a hat suggests that he is a lower-ranking nobleman or civic administrator.
Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park
For more on this work see: https://www.comptonverney.org.uk/cv_collections/portrait-of-sigmund-kingsfelt/
PHILIP MELANCHTHON (1497-1560) AND JOHANN SCHWERTFEGER (1488-1524), Passional Christi und Antichristi, 1521 Woodcut illustrations by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Conceived by Luther and created in 1521 using text by Philip Melanchthon and images by Cranach, this small pamphlet was one of the most successful works of visual propaganda of the Reformation. Cranach’s simple woodcut illustrations were designed to be read as 13 pairs, with each presenting a powerful visual comparison between what reformers perceived to be the simple, virtuous life of Christ and the privileged, pompous excesses of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. The double page here depicts Christ washing the feet of his disciples, while the Pope presents his foot for princes and kings to kiss.
This pamphlet has been fully digitised: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/luthers-anti-papist-pamphlet-passional-christi-und-antichristi-1521
ROOM 3: THE HUMAN FORM
Mythological subjects became increasingly popular with wealthy patrons throughout the 1520s and 1530s. For Cranach, who was already praised for his skill at rendering the natural world, such scenes offered an opportunity to picture humans in harmony with nature, within a wild landscape setting. Once a successful theme or composition had been established it was often repeated many times within Cranach’s workshop – today there are at least 27 paintings picturing Venus and Cupid.
Rejecting the classical proportions adopted by other Renaissance artists, Cranach developed a distinctive way of rendering the human form, which was consistently replicated within his workshop. Cranach’s nudes all have slim, almost boneless bodies, pale skin, and long, curling hair. Their bodies are frequently positioned against dark backgrounds, and standing on stony grounds they appear sculptural. Often, Cranach’s paintings engage with the sixteenth-century tradition of Weibermacht (‘power of women’) narratives. Focusing on attractive, seductive figures such as Eve and Venus, these works warn their mostly male viewers of the dangers of beautiful, cunning women. Because of this, Cranach’s treatment of the female form is deliberately erotic: his female figures gaze knowingly at the viewer through almond- shaped eyes and their nudity is ornamented by the addition of fashionable jewellery, hats or hairnets and sheer veils.
LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), Venus and Cupid, c1525, Oil on beech panel
Gazing directly out at us, Venus, the goddess of love, is uncompromisingly erotic. The black background throws Venus’s lithe figure and pale skin into relief, while her nudity is further highlighted by her translucent veil and Cupid’s pointing arrow. Venus was originally shown wearing a red hat, but this was covered up in the nineteenth century by a dark green curtain. The painting’s small scale suggests that it was made for private viewing. Its successful formula was used many times in Cranach’s workshop – a variation can be seen in the National Gallery painting hung nearby.
LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), Apollo and Diana, c1526, Oil on beech panel
When it was bought by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria, this was thought to be a painting of Adam and Eve. In fact, it shows the mythological figures of Apollo and Diana – siblings who were regarded as being physically and morally perfect. The beautiful, wooded landscape in which they are placed vies for our attention, with the trees echoing the shapes of their bodies and swans reflected on the lake. Produced around the same time as Cupid Complaining to Venus, these works may have formed part of the same decorative scheme, perhaps marking the marriage of John Frederick to Sibylle of Cleves.
For more on this work see: https://www.rct.uk/collection/407294/apollo-and-diana
LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), Cupid Complaining to Venus, c1526 – 7, Oil on wood, transferred to Masonite
In this masterful painting Cupid, Venus’s son, has stolen a honeycomb and is being attacked by bees. At the top right, the Latin inscription warns that: ‘the brief and passing pleasure that we seek is mixed with sorrow and pain and does us harm.’ This wisdom is tested by the nude and alluring figure of Venus, who reaches up to an apple tree. Posing coyly, she would have further reminded Cranach’s original viewers that temptation is everywhere, and that the choice between good and evil is personal.
For more on this work see: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/lucas-cranach-the-elder-cupid-complaining-to-venus
LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), Hercules and Antaeus, c.1530, Oil on panel
The giant Antaeus challenged all to a fight to the death, confident that he would win so long as he remained in contact with the earth, the source of his eternal strength. Understanding the giant’s secret, the Roman god Hercules lifted Antaeus off the ground and crushed him to death – indicated here by his blueish hue and anguished expression. The stony ground is common to Cranach’s paintings, but the dramatic position of the figures may be based on an Italian bronze plaquette (displayed nearby).
ROOM 4: AFTER CRANACH
Ever the innovator, Cranach devised a highly stylised visual language of verdant landscapes populated by languid, sinuous figures. His nudes remain distinctive and contentious today, and perhaps more than any other Renaissance painter, he continues to exert an influence on modern and contemporary artists. A most modern Old Master, Cranach’s aesthetic permeates our popular culture and can be traced in a wide range of art works.
The works on display here chart a range of responses to Cranach by contemporary artists, and correspond with the increased availability of Cranach’s work in books and postcards from the nineteenth century onwards. As variations on a theme, they demonstrate how artists have taken the formal structure of a work by Cranach as a point of departure for a creation of their own. Some artists are drawn to Cranach’s narratives, while other respond to his rendering of figures, costumes or landscape. Works show both rupture and continuity with Cranach’s distinctive aesthetic, as new artists overlay and update these familiar icons with their personal stories and perspectives.
PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973), Portrait of a Woman after Cranach the Younger, 1958 Linocut on paper
‘A head,’ said Picasso, ‘is a matter of eyes, nose and mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like.’ This work was inspired by a postcard of Cranach the Younger’s Portrait of a Woman (1564, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna). The postcard was sent to Picasso by his German dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who recalled how: ‘one of Picasso’s notable characteristics was the need to transform existing works of art.’ Kahnweiler’s postcard stimulated Picasso’s most ambitious colour linocut, printed using five different linoleum blocks (sepia, yellow, red, blue and black).
For more on this image see: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/picasso-portrait-of-a-woman-after-cranach-the-younger-p11368
JOHN CURRIN, B 1962, Honeymoon Nude, 1998, Oil on canvas
American artist John Currin has stated: ‘What first interested me about Cranach’s nudes is that they’re made-up bodies, constructed out of shape requirements that fill the space in the most beautiful way.’ In a similar manner, Currin’s female nudes reject natural proportions and blend Old Master traditions with magazine imagery. Just as Cranach’s nude goddesses are types, rather than real people, so Currin has remarked that: ‘the people I paint don’t really exist. The only thing that is real is the painting.’
For more on this work see: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/currin-honeymoon-nude-t07519
MICHAEL LANDY, B 1963, Saint Apollonia, 2013, Fibreglass sculpture
Michael Landy was intrigued by the contrast between Saint Apollonia’s brutal fate and Cranach’s serene depiction of her in an altarpiece in the National Gallery, London. In this kinetic sculpture Landy sought to reanimate the violent narrative of how the saint was tortured by having her teeth pulled out: with a push on the pedal, Saint Apollonia destroys her own face with the pliers. This work was produced as part of the Saints Alive exhibition, the culmination of Landy’s two year Associate Artist residency at the National Gallery.
LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472-1553), Lot and his Daughters, c.1530, Oil on panel
The biblical story of Lot and his Daughters was a popular subject for artists and one that Cranach painted at least four times. After fleeing from the burning city of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s daughters fear that their father is the last surviving man, and decide to make him drunk so that they can seduce him and bear his children. Recent technical analysis has revealed that Cranach painted the dark background of this work first, carefully reserving space for the foreground figures.
RAQIB SHAW, B 1974, Reflections on a journey without a compass after Cranach, 2019-2020, Acrylic liner and enamel on birch wood
Born in Calcutta and raised in Kashmir and New Delhi, Shaw first encountered Cranach’s work in the National Gallery, London, as a student. He describes the encounter as ‘a formative experience’, and has continued to reference Cranach throughout his career, producing detailed works in enamel paint, manipulated with a porcupine quill. In this new response to Compton Verney’s Lot and his Daughters, Shaw casts himself as Lot, with his temptations represented by the hybrid male figures. Addressing current global crises, the citizens fleeing Sodom are shown as refugees, and Cranach’s wooded landscape is being deforested.
WOLFE VON LENKIEWICZ, B 1966, Adam and Eve, 2019, Oil on canvas
Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer were peers and rivals in their own time. This legacy is reanimated by Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, who combines Compton Verney’s Venus and Cupid with the figure of Adam from Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1507, Prado, Madrid). Posed against a dark background, the human forms dissolve into flowers after the Dutch still-life painter Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573-1621), which have been clipped into new shapes. Typical of von Lenkiewicz’s work, the finished painting is a ‘tissue of quotations’: both representational and abstract, familiar and estranged.
Left: ISHBEL MYERSCOUGH, B 1968, Untitled (Woman), 1994, Oil on canvas
Beguiled by Cranach’s nudes, Myerscough has returned to his aesthetic throughout her career. She describes how Cranach’s paintings present: ‘an idealised, almost uninformed view of the reality of womanhood’, which was considered attractive at that point in history. This differs from Myerscough’s own penetrating observations of female bodies. The model for this painting was in her 20s and had been through dramatic weight gain and loss. Recording the reality of the sitter’s body over a period of 10 weeks, Myerscough was struck by her proud defiance of prevailing attitudes towards beauty, ‘when in reality beauty is so much more varied’. Myerscough won the BP Portrait Award the year after this was painted
Courtesy of Ishbel Myerscough and Flowers Gallery, London, New York
Right: ISHBEL MYERSCOUGH, B 1968, Miss Shelley Thakral, 1992, Oil on canvas
Myerscough met Shelley Thakral when they were both students in Glasgow. Thakral was in her 20s and extremely beautiful, and Myerscough turned to Cranach for inspiration as she sought to record ‘the ‘goddess-ness’ of her… the reality of being young and what a desired youthful body really looks like.’ The intimacy of creating the painting, in the bedroom of Myerscough’s flat share, bonded the women forever and they remain lifelong friends.
Courtesy of Ishbel Myerscough and Flowers Gallery, London, New York
ANDREW MCINTOSH, What No-one Else Had, 2019, Oil on linen
Asking the question: “Do you want what no-one else had?”, the title of this painting is a reference to Cranach’s mischievous honey-thief in Cupid Complaining to Venus (National Gallery, London). Typically of McIntosh’s work, an eerily empty structure has become a reliquary for an iconic work of art, which can be seen displayed within the building. McIntosh has described how he was first drawn to the architecture of an isolated block of flats and a tree in South East London, which suggested to him a comparison with the position of Venus, standing beside a tree, in Cranach’s composition.
ISABELLE HAYMAN, B. 1969, The Three Graces, 2017, oil paint on canvas
With connections to both France and Africa, Isabelle Hayman’s work focuses on women’s identity and decoration as an extension of the female form across cultures. Having originally trained as a textile designer, Hayman is interested in Cranach’s use of accessories in his portraits of prominent female figures. These paintings are directly inspired by paintings in which the sitters wear elaborate headgear and heavy jewellery, including: Sibylle of Cleves (about 1525, Private Collection), Duchess Katharina of Mecklenburg (1514, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden), and The Three Graces (1531, Louvre).
CLAIRE PARTINGTON, Venus and Cupid, 2020, Earthenware, enamel, lustre, mixed media
Claire Partington’s ceramic figures draw on the history of art to explore themes of feminism and power, with traditional female figures reborn through references to contemporary society.
This work references Compton Verney’s Venus and Cupid, but the tone of the image has changed – Venus’s original red hat has been updated to a sun visor and she is accompanied by an assertive boxer dog. Cranach is thought to have collaborated with the Renaissance sculptor Conrad Meit (1480s–1550/1), and the positioning of his nude figures, isolated against their dark backgrounds, suggests strong parallels with sculpture.
CLAIRE PARTINGTON, Judith with the Head of the Artist, 2020, Earthenware, enamel, lustre, mixed media
This sculpture challenges the concept of the ‘male gaze’, a term coined in the 1970s by John Berger, who described how: ‘The female nude in Western painting was there to feed an appetite of male sexual desire. She existed to be looked at, posed in such a way that her body was displayed to the eye of the viewer.’ While a male perspective dominates in Cranach’s art, here Partington redresses the balance of power. Referencing biblical stories in which the underdog wins, including Judith beheading Holofernes and David defeating Goliath, Judith is shown posing triumphantly, with her foot on Cranach’s head.