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The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation
The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation
Steven Ozment
Yale University Press, 2012
344 pp., $40.00

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Matt Lundin


The Reformation of the Artist

Already forgiven in Christ.

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In keeping with his argument that Protestant marriage liberated both sexes from the strictures of medieval asceticism, Ozment suggests that Cranach's paintings departed radically from misogynistic clerical traditions, which deemed female sexuality foul and polluting. Yet in praising Cranach's positive view of marriage and sex, Ozment may at times obscure its limitations. One should not forget that the gaze to which Cranach offered his paintings was that of the patriarch—the head of household whose position Lutheran theology sought to strengthen. When depicting assertive biblical women such Delilah, Salome, and Judith, Cranach clearly played into patriarchal fantasies about "dangerous" women—women who could decapitate or emasculate a man.

Even if Cranach was no crass pornographer, did his images somehow lack artistic and spiritual integrity? To a modern critic such as Joseph Koerner, Cranach's later work betrays the poverty of Protestant visual culture.[5] Using a flat, didactic style, Cranach rejected not only Catholic tradition, which viewed the image as a window onto eternity, but also new schools of Renaissance painting, which sought to capture ideal beauty on canvas. A Dürer painting attempted to present a life that was larger than life—to show the spiritual essence of the thing it represented. Cranach's Lutheran altarpieces, by contrast, were self-effacing. They announced their own impotence, their inability to do anything other than to illustrate a verbal message.

Viewed from this angle, Cranach's paintings appear as a powerful expression of Protestant iconoclasm. As Luther argued during the 1522 controversy, reformers who wanted to smash icons and whitewash church walls ironically treated images as if they really were idols, ascribing to them an innate power to harm the Christian soul. For Luther and Cranach, images were "things indifferent"—objects without any special significance or power. Their value depended entirely on the use the believer made of them. To some modern critics, such a "demystification" of the image was a profound loss—the beginning of a long history of desacralized art. As an example of this history, critics point to the opportunism of Cranach himself, whose workshop churned out images to suit the diverse tastes of Catholic, Protestant, and secular clients. Stripped of its sacred aura, the Lutheran image became an interchangeable object within networks of verbal communication and commercial exchange.

Ozment's biography rightly cautions us against such a simple reading. To hold Cranach up to anachronistic notions of spiritual sincerity or aesthetic integrity is to miss the true dynamics of his art, his faith, and his age. Ironically, the modern ideal of the artist as something of a high priest—an aesthete who sacrifices worldly concerns for the higher calling of his work—bears striking resemblance to the spiritual and sexual asceticism that Cranach and Luther so powerfully rejected. To Cranach, the gospel was not a call to an unattainable perfection. Rather, the forgiveness available in Christ freed one to engage vigorously with the world as God had created it, not as one might wish it to be.

1. Eamon Duffy, "Brush for Hire," London Review of Books (August 19, 2004); Friedrich Engels, quoted in Ozment, The Serpent and the Lamb, p. 20; Eamon Duffy, "Spiritual Surrender," The Guardian (February 29, 2008).

2. Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 238.

3. Duffy, "Brush for Hire."

4. Ozment has developed this interpretation elsewhere. See, for instance, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (Doubleday, 1991).

5. Koerner, The Reformation of the Image.

Matthew Lundin is assistant professor of history at Wheaton College. He is the author of Paper Memory: A Sixteenth-Century Townsman Writes His World, a study of a Catholic diarist who struggled to make sense of the Protestant Reformation and the changes it brought about (forthcoming from Harvard University Press, Fall 2012).

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