Lucas Cranach, the Elder, was a German printmaker and painter from the High Renaissance. He became known as one of the most significant German painters of all time. He was highly regarded during his career, achieving the position of court painter for the state of the Holy Empire, known as the Electors of Saxony. The German painter is mostly known for his captivating portraits, but he also had a passion for religious painting. Initially a Catholic, Cranach embraced the Protestant Reformation. He even became a close friend of Martin Luther, executing portraits of the priest and illustrations for his German translation of the Bible.
Lucas Cranach, the Elder, was born as Lucas Maler circa 1472, in the city of Kronach, Germany.
Most details of Cranach's early life are quite unclear, such as his training. He most probably studied under local masters, such as Matthias Grunewald. Some scholars also suggest that the artist spent some time in Vienna circa 1500. Soon, Cranach's artistic prowesses were recognized by Duke Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, also known as Frederick the Wise. The Duke soon took the artist under his patronage, a position he retained for his entire life. While under his patronage, Cranach was permitted to undertake other commissions.
The earliest register of Cranach's artistic abilities is in a picture dated from 1504. During the beginning of his career, the artist was proficient in many branches of his craft. He often produced altarpieces, portraits, decorative paintings, engravings, woodcuts, and also designed coins for the German electorate.
During the first days of his official employment under the Duke, Cranach impressed the court members for his realistic representations of his still-lifes and especially hunting games. The Duke nurtured his fondness for such an art form by taking the artist out hunting with him. Cranach would also travel extensively because of his distinguished position in the court.
By 1508, Cranach had already created several altarpieces at the Wittenberg's Castle Church, competing with distinguished artists such as Hans Burgkmair. In 1509, the artist went to the Netherlands, where he painted a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and of a child, Charles V, who would later become Emperor.
Cranach became a court painter in the region of Wittenberg, located at the heart of the emerging Protestantism. Thus, many of his patrons were fervorous Martin Luther supporters. Cranach production was used as a symbol of the new faith. The artist created several portraits of Martin Luther, whose most known portrayals are arguably by Cranach. The artist also created woodcut illustrations for Martin Luther's German Bible translation. The priest also used Cranach's presses on his publishings.
Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation in the year 1517 as a response to Pope Leo X, who promised to wipe out the sins of whoever was to donate money for the then under construction, Saint Peter's Basilica. Luther published his thesis in which he was strictly against indulgences within the church, leading to a new branch of Christianity, the Protestant faith.
It is unknown when Cranach and the Protestant leader met, but records show interactions between the two as early as 1520. During this same year, the artist concluded his first portrait of Luther as an engraving. Cranach was devoted to the Rule of Saint Augustine for five years, also known as an Augustinian.
Lucas Cranach became close friends with Luther after going to Wittenberg. The German Renaissance painter portrayed him multiple times, as well as his wife, Katharina de Bora, and other Protestant leaders. By the XVI and XVII century, many of these paintings ended up in the collection of the influential Medici family. The Renaissance painter was so close to the Luther family that he became Johannes' godfather, Martin, and Katharina's firstborn.
The visual arts were highly celebrated during the Reformation, as Lutherans believed that art was a gift from God, especially music. Even so, many Protestant churches rejected any form of visual representation of faith, as it was seen as a blasphemous act to paint or draw a sacred image. This led Martin Luther to speak up on giving the visual arts its rightful value, leading to an elevation of visual art as a blessing.
The German painter's style within his production of religious work changed as the Reformation progressed, as opposed to his earlier works. For example, Luther wished to take focus away from the representation of the crucifix, as he believed that the power of Christ's words was far more significant than his crucifixion. This led Lucas Cranach to change his approach to his art, as he also began to focus on other elements of the mercy of Christ - although he didn't abandon the representation of the cross.
An example of how the artist reframed the idea of crucifixion paintings was in Christ of the Cross. In this masterpiece, he depicted himself being bathed in the blood of Christ while standing at the foot of the cross. By joining his present-day with what happened in the time of Christ's crucifixion, Cranach isn't only representing the religious event, but also making a statement about how Christ doesn't only serve humankind on the cross, but also in their everyday life. This was one of his final works, and after the artist's death, this piece was finished by his son, Lucas the Younger.
Cranach's art intended to show the viewer that Christ continues to serve humankind in the present, not only in the past. The visual arts became an essential tool for teaching in the Lutheran churches, and the German painter was very aware of this, making his paintings very didactical. He was able to capture whole biblical narratives in a detailed manner, which helped people that couldn't read or had no access to the holy scriptures.
Lucas Cranach also concluded many mythological paintings, in which he focused on the figure of a slim and nude Venus. This style of representation of the female figure can be seen in some biblical works as well. He painted Adam and Eve in 1526, a theme he tackled on many occasions from the book of Genesis and elaborated on by many other artists before him. Here, the artist chose to show the couple moments after Adam takes a bite of the forbidden fruit. This elegant masterpiece was concluded nine years after Luther's Reformation, and the painter's evolvement was made quite clear in this work.
Cranach wished to make the characters relatable to his contemporary audience, representing Adam and Eve with northern European traits, like pale skin and light hair. This masterpiece is a beautiful example of how the German artist changed his approach to religious paintings. He focused on the naturalism of the scene, and there are no supernatural elements, like cherubs.
Adam and Eve was painted with extreme detail, as Cranach gave attention to all of the natural elements of the piece. Although the artist wished to distance himself from the pre-existing Catholic iconography seen in religious art, he chose to elaborate on a highly symbolic work. For example, instead of depicting a fig leaf to hide the figure's genitals, he used a grapevine as a reference to wine and Christ's blood.
Some historians interpret this piece as a message of troubled times ahead - as Adam and Eve were banished from paradise after eating the apple - but at the same time reassuring that Christ was still to come. The animals were also chosen with symbolic meanings.
Following the Battle of Muhlberg, the elector John Frederick I was captured by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who Cranach portrayed as a young boy. Remembering Cranach, the Emperor invited the artist for a visit, which he used to beg for humane treatment for John Frederick I.
By the end of Cranach's life, he concluded a series of altarpieces for Lutheran churches with religious narratives, like the last supper. He was also engaged in Anti-Catholic propaganda, creating many prints for his cause. In these sometimes violent artworks, Cranach criticized the Papacy and their indulgence with money.
Lucas Cranach had a total of five children. His two sons followed in his footsteps and became painters as well. Hans, also known as Johann Lucas, was his eldest son born circa 1513 and passed away in his early twenties. Lucas, the Younger, was born in 1515 and became a successful painter. He worked extensively with his father and even finished some of his paintings after his death.
Lucas Cranach, the Elder, died at the age of 81, on October 16, 1553, in the Holy Roman Empire - Germany in the present day. He passed away in his house in Weimar, which still stands today, and was buried in the oldest cemetery of the city, named Jacobsfriedhof.
The German artist left his legacy in his extensive collection of portraits, as well as biblical scenes of the Protestant faith. He was part of a significant religious revolution and was one of the most influential artists in establishing a new symbolism for Christian faith.