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The oldest extant picture by Cranach is the Rest of the Virgin during the Flight into Egypt, of 1504. The painting already shows remarkable skill and grace, and the pine forest in the background shows a painter familiar with the mountain scenery of Thuringia. There is more forest gloom in landscapes of a later time.
Following the huge international success of Dürer’s prints, other German artists, much more than Italian ones, devoted their talents to woodcuts and engravings. This accounts for the comparative unproductiveness as painters of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger, and also may explain why Cranach was not especially skilled at handling colour, light, and shade. Constant attention to contour and to black and white, as an engraver, seems to have affected his sight; and he often outlined shapes in black rather than employing modelling and chiaroscuro.
The largest proportion of Cranach’s output is of portraits, and it is chiefly thanks to him that we know what the German Reformers and their princely adherents looked like. He painted not only Martin Luther himself but also Luther’s wife, mother and father. He also depicted leading Catholics like Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop elector of Mainz, Anthony Granvelle and the Duke of Alva.
A dozen likenesses of Frederick III and his brother John are dated 1532. It is characteristic of Cranach’s prolific output, and a proof that he used a large workshop, that he received payment at Wittenberg in 1533 for “sixty pairs of portraits of the elector and his brother” on one day. Inevitably the quality of such works is variable.
Cranach’s religious subjects reflect the development of the Protestant Reformation, and its attitudes to religious images. In his early career, he painted several Madonnas; his first woodcut (1505) represents the Virgin and three saints in prayer before a crucifix. Later on he painted the marriage of St. Catherine, a series of martyrdoms, and scenes from the Passion.
After 1517 he occasionally illustrated the old subjects, but he also gave expression to some of the thoughts of the Reformers, although his portraits of reformers were more common than paintings of religious scenes. In a picture of 1518, where a dying man offers “his soul to God, his body to earth, and his worldly goods to his relations”, the soul rises to meet the Trinity in heaven, and salvation is clearly shown to depend on faith and not on good works. Other works of this period deal with sin and divine grace. One shows Adam sitting between John the Baptist and a prophet at the foot of a tree. To the left God produces the tables of the law, Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit, the brazen serpent is reared aloft, and punishment supervenes in the shape of death and the realm of Satan. To the right, the Conception, Crucifixion and Resurrection symbolize redemption, and this is duly impressed on Adam by John the Baptist. There are two examples of this composition in the galleries of Gotha and Prague, both of them dated 1529.
Towards the end of his life, after Luther’s initial hostility to large public religious images had softened, Cranach painted a number of “Lutheran altarpieces” of the Last Supper and other subjects, in which Christ was shown in a traditional manner, including a halo, but the apostles, without halos, were portraits of leading reformers. He also produced a number of violent anti-Catholic propaganda prints, in a cruder style, directed against the Papacy and the Catholic clergy. His best known work in this vein was a series of prints for the pamphlet Passional Christi und Antichristi, where scenes from the Passion of Christ were matched by a print mocking practices of the Catholic clergy, so that Christ driving the money-changers from the Temple was matched by the Pope, or Antichrist, signing indulgences over a table spread with cash (see gallery below).
One of his last works is the altarpiece, completed after his death by Lucas Cranach the Younger in 1555, for the Stadtkirche (city church) at Weimar. The iconography is original and unusual: Christ is shown twice, to the left trampling on Death and Satan, to the right crucified, with blood flowing from the lance wound. John the Baptist points to the suffering Christ, whilst the blood-stream falls on the head of a portrait of Cranach, and Luther reads from his book the words, “The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin.”
Cranach was equally successful in somewhat naive mythological scenes, in which at least one slim female figure, naked except for a transparent drape, and perhaps for a large hat, nearly always features. These are mostly in narrow upright formats; examples are several of Venus, alone or with Cupid, who has sometimes stolen a honeycomb, and complains to Venus that he has been stung by a bee (Weimar, 1530; Berlin, 1534). Diana with Apollo, shooting a bow, and Hercules sitting at the spinning-wheel mocked by Omphale and her maids are other such subjects. A similar approach was taken with the biblical subjects of Salome and Adam and Eve. These subjects were produced early in his career, when they show Italian influences including that of Jacopo de’ Barberi, who was at the court of Saxony for a period up to 1505. They then become rare until after the death of Frederick the Wise. The later nudes are in a distinctive style which abandons Italian influence for a revival of Late Gothic style, with small heads, narrow shoulders, high breasts and waists. The poses become more frankly seductive and even exhibitionist.
Humour and pathos are combined at times with strong effect in pictures such as Jealousy (Augsburg, 1527; Vienna, 1530), where women and children are huddled into groups as they watch the strife of men wildly fighting around them. A lost canvas of 1545 is said to show hares catching and roasting hunters. In 1546, possibly under Italian influence, Cranach composed the Fons Juventutis (“Fountain of Youth”), executed by his son, a picture in which older women are seen entering a Renaissance fountain, and exiting it transformed into youthful beauties.


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