The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation
Yale University Press, 2012
344 pp., 50.01
The Reformation of the Artist
Modern scholars have not been particularly kind to Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), the leading painter of the German Reformation. Critics have called him "a spiritual whore," a "bootlicker of established political power," a "PR man" for the Lutheran Reformation, a pornographer who supplied nude pictures to leering men. Renowned for his "fast brush," Cranach managed to keep up with an apparently limitless demand for his work. Well over a thousand paintings bearing his name survive, though many of these were executed by assistants in his workshop. To some, such profligate production suggests a Renaissance artist who sold out, a businessman who catered to all comers, be they evangelical or Catholic, sacred or secular, bourgeois or noble. Cranach may have begun his career in the early 1500s as a worthy rival to Albrecht Dürer. But by the 1530s, detractors contend, the Cranach "painting factory" was churning out shallow, repetitive images—pictures that could be quickly translated into cash or theological talking points.
In The Serpent and the Lamb, Steven Ozment paints a far more compelling portrait of the preeminent Reformation artist. In Ozment's vigorously narrated biography, Cranach was neither a cynical opportunist nor a Lutheran tool. Nor were Cranach's later paintings as devoid of aesthetic merit as some critics allege. Rather, he played an active, pugnacious role in the early events of the Reformation. A close friend of Martin Luther, Cranach intervened at key moments in the 1520s to protect and promote the fledgling Protestant movement. His later paintings, moreover, were expressive, innovative, and playful, free of the ponderous realism that the high-minded Dürer had introduced into German art. Where other scholars see a "chameleon adaptability" (or, worse, a shoddy opportunism), Ozment finds an inner logic to Cranach's life and work. That logic, however, lies less in a high vision of the artist's mission (à la Dürer) than in Cranach's full-blooded engagement with his times—the "great war" he carried out with his age. Far from signaling bad faith, Cranach's exuberant output—including his Catholic altarpieces and his erotic nudes—reveals a man emboldened by the Protestant proclamation that God had already forgiven everything in Christ.
Lucas Cranach was indeed a painter of remarkable drive and gusto. As a young man, he admired and emulated the work of Dürer. During a stay in Vienna, Cranach imbibed humanist culture, transforming himself from a crude painter into a Renaissance master. Contemporaries began to compare his altarpieces, portraits, and woodcuts favorably with those of Dürer. Already Cranach's painting showed a distinctive lightness of touch and freedom of form. According to Ozment, even as the early Cranach shared Dürer's dualistic perceptions of a life suspended "between freedom and bondage," he was already parting ways with his early role model and rival. "Where Dürer displays idealized human forms with scholastic precision," writes Ozment, "Cranach captures the transient moments of everyday life, ranging from the grotesque to the erotic to the naive and fanciful." Throughout the book, Ozment makes clear that he finds Cranach's stylized compositions and expressive faces more compelling than Dürer's classical forms and studious realism.
It was thanks in part to Dürer that Cranach received a call in 1504 to serve as court painter to the Saxon Elector Frederick the Wise, a powerful German prince and proud owner of one of Europe's largest relic collections. A rival to the imperial Habsburgs, Frederick recruited top talent to his kingdom, including, in 1511, a rising theological star named Martin Luther. At Wittenberg, Cranach found himself caught up in the Saxon court; he cultivated friendships with court poets and humanists and traveled as the Duke of Saxony's ambassador to the Netherlands, where he briefly met and sketched the young boy who would become Charles V. In the 1510s, Cranach settled down as a burgher, marrying and starting a family. His skills as an entrepreneur were prodigious. Even as he produced paintings and decorative art for his lord, Cranach ran an apothecary, set up a publishing house, amassed real estate, and served three times as Wittenberg's mayor.
Where critics interpret Cranach's worldly success as evidence of venality, Ozment reads it as a sign of the health and vigor of an increasingly assertive and confident laity. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the urban laity had grown restive. Although Europe's demographic rebound from the Black Death created new opportunities for commoners and allowed marriage and household life to flourish as never before, the church continued to treat married life as an inferior calling. At the same time, late medieval piety offered few cures for a laity suffering from spiritual malaise. An anxious amassing of relics and pilgrimages and indulgences suggest that laity were unsure how to make amends for their worldliness or escape purgatorial fires. By contrast, Luther's simple message of complete forgiveness in Christ freed the laity from paralyzing introspection and from a sense of inferiority, encouraging them instead to live active, worldly lives.