The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation
Yale University Press, 2012
344 pp., 42.98
Daniel A. Siedell
The Faithful Presence of Lucas Cranach
Lucas Cranach the Elder has not fared especially well with art historians. The consensus is that his tremendous talent was wasted on his involvement with Martin Luther, compromising not only the integrity of his work but charting the direction of Protestant visual art as an aesthetically impoverished, disenchanted practice subservient to dogma and verbal explanation. But Harvard cultural historian and Reformation scholar Steven Ozment will have none of this. In The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the Making of the Reformation, Ozment liberates Cranach from the confines of art history by offering a broader cultural framework within which to evaluate Cranach's historical significance.
Ozment's first step is to free Cranach from the long shadow of Albrecht Dürer, against whom he has been negatively compared by generations of art historians. Ozment goes to great pains to demonstrate that Cranach's talent and artistic achievement, especially as a printmaker, rivaled and even surpassed Dürer's—as the great master himself grudgingly acknowledged by supporting and recommending the young artist to Saxon Elector Frederick the Wise as his court painter. Ozment also argues that Cranach actively resisted the hubris of Renaissance humanism and rationalism, including its inflated conception of the artist as a creative genius, while at the same time working against the hegemony of its stylistic fashion. Ozment shows that Cranach's distinctive figures were the result of a self-conscious attempt to develop an alternative aesthetic vocabulary through a creative retrieval of medieval and Netherlandish styles. In addition, he imbued his subjects with a vulnerability and weakness that was profoundly Augustinian at a time dominated by the humanistic optimism of Erasmus. This humanism also encouraged artists and intellectuals to obsess over the inner workings of their emotional lives, a heady brew of self-preoccupation from which Dürer (like his Italian counterpart, Michelangelo) imbibed deeply. Cranach, on the other hand, seems free of such excessive introspection—a burden with which Luther himself struggled throughout his life. Because the history of modern art and the discipline of art history have been shaped by the myths of the artist as a tortured genius or unheeded prophet, Cranach feels palpably less "modern" than Dürer, and thus much less accessible.
Cranach's job-description as court painter for Frederick the Wise in Wittenberg also contributes to this inaccessibility. His duties included decorating the Elector's castles, designing and painting festival tents and uniforms, documenting hunting trips and his extensive relic collection, as well as making cake molds for birthday parties. This kind of workshop production has struck art historians as unbecoming of a fine artist. However, a recent article on Dürer in The Economist ("Portrait of the Artist as Entrepreneur," Dec. 17, 2011) reminds us that most artists, especially those working at the highest echelons of culture, are obsessed with getting paid, in part, because at those levels, payment is much more sporadic and asking for it much less becoming. And that goes for Dürer as well as Damien Hirst. Even though he held the more prestigious and less labor-intensive role as court painter for the Emperor Maximilian I, Dürer seemed to have more trouble getting paid than Cranach. Art does not exist without some kind of market. The task of any artist is to find—or create—it, yet art historians have been slow to accept the market as a defining feature of artistic practice. Art historians have also been troubled by the fact that Cranach's workshop was fulfilling commissions for Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, who authorized the selling of indulgences that provoked Luther's 95 Theses, while he was also working closely with Luther. For these art historians, shaped by the modern myth of the artist as a single-minded prophet of freedom who speaks truth to all forms of coercive power, Cranach's work for not one but two ecclesial bodies represents a colossal breach of (modern) artistic integrity. But is that really the case? Ozment does not think so, arguing that Cranach
harbored no religious, artistic, political, or business "taboos." From his choice of friends (Luther and Albrecht), confessional associations (Protestant Wittenberg and papal Halle/Rome), and commissions (altarpieces and portraits per both confessions' wishes, Cranach was ever the willing, reliable middleman.
Indeed, Cranach's friendship with both Albrecht and Luther helped to moderate the tensions between the young Reformer, Frederick the Wise, and Rome, which helped Lutheran reforms establish a foothold.