The Serpent and the Lamb. Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation
Yale University Press 2011
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 – 1553) belonged – next to Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein the Younger and Hans Memling – to the most important artists of his time. He spent his youth in Kronach, where his father lived as a painter. Around 1500 he left for Nürnberg (to learn from Dürer) and later Wien. In 1505 he was appointed court-painter to the ducal household of Saxony and set up shop in Wittenberg. At first he followed the duke around having bed and board at the different castles in Wittenberg, Torgau and Coburg. In 1512, however, he married Barbara Brengbier and bought a huge house in Wittenberg, where he sat up shop as a painter, printer and designer.
This brought him in close contact with Martin Luther, who started teaching at the University of Wittenberg in 1508. Soon they were fast friends and later collaborators in the dissemination of the reformation. Especially his work as a publisher and printer was indispensible in the years after 1517, when Luther published his 95 theses and began his work as a reformer.
A recent book by professor Steven Ozment – known for his fascinating stories about life in late medieval and early modern Germany – tells the story of how the fates of the “Serpent” (Cranach) and the “Lamb” (Luther) were intertwined as were their very early use of their coats of arms and their emblems as ways of enforcing some sort of copyright on their combined works as author and publisher. Although somewhat “weak” on the latest scholarship on Martin Luther, the book is fascinating because it explains in an original way, how Cranach albeit heavily investing in the reformation was able to move effortlessly amongst both reformers and Catholics.
At the same time as he painted powerful people in both worlds, he created the series of beautiful naked “mothers” nursing their children, thus showing how Eros and the body should no longer be considered hellish; quite the opposite: The naked woman was the fountain of precisely that God-given love and nourishment, which graced the new life in the new church.
The book makes the claim that the reformation had never succeeded without Cranach’s visualization of the new theology. That may very well be. Whether he was the second most important reformer next to Luther, as the author claims is however less certain. Maybe it is more accurate to claim that the reformation was a result of the actions and efforts of a number of people, who simply happened to converge in the same place at an opportune moment in history.
Cranach the Elder was compared to his contemporaries a prolific artist. A “fast hand”, he was called by people, who marvelled at the vast production capacities of the man and his workshop – paintings, portraits, altarpieces, woodcuts, drawings, set pieces for hunts and tournaments and even wallpapers are just some of the results of a life long working career and business enterprise of the renaissance painter.
Now 400 paintings, 5000 drawings and woodcuts plus 2000 pages of research are available for in-depth perusal at the official “Digital Cranach Archive”, which recently opened some of its collections up for the public eye. Here it is possible to get detailed information of dates provenience etc. as well as access to a large part of the research hitherto hidden in obscure corners of scientific journals. As this is only the first installment, more is yet to come. The database is financed by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and a joint venture of institutions from all over the world. Undoubtedly the plan is to finish the work around 2015, which is named as Cranach-year as part of the Luther-Dekade leading up to the 500 – year reformation jubilee in 2017. Maybe at that time the three planned exhibitions in Weimar, Eisenach and Gotha will be superfluous as all the works of Cranach can be studied at home in high resolution and copiously documented.