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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., 42.98

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Matt Lundin


The Reformation of the Artist

Already forgiven in Christ.

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.[1] 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.[2]

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),[3] 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.[4] 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.

Though Ozment's interpretation of late medieval piety is controversial, a narrative of spiritual and psychological release does make sense of Cranach's career. In 1511, Frederick the Wise commissioned his court painter to compile a woodcut "sampler" of his relic collection. The task seems to have troubled Cranach. At the end of his sampler, he depicted his friend Sibutus, a court poet and Renaissance intellectual, as a man at his wit's end, disheveled, distraught, and confused. In so doing, Cranach may have been revealing his own frame of mind, his inability to attain the rational self-composure, courtly grace, and spiritual knighthood celebrated in humanist circles.

More direct evidence of Cranach's spiritual attitudes comes from his later depictions of "Melancholy," in which he illustrated the dangers of self-preoccupation. In these unsettling compositions, a distracted young woman sits in a clean and well-furnished room, whittling a sinister stick while young children play on the floor and—out the window, in the background—a menacing horde of witches, demons, and beasts ride in the darkening sky. Here again Cranach departed from Dürer, whose famous engraving of a pensive and deflated Renaissance man—a scholar who peered too deeply into the nature of things—implied that melancholy was a product of genius, a divine affliction that beset the gifted. Cranach, by contrast, presented melancholy as a demonic trial, a dangerous spiritual funk best warded off, as Luther suggested, with earthy jokes, festive company, and familial joy.

Luther indeed found an intellectual and spiritual ally in Cranach. In the early years of the Reformation, Cranach enhanced Luther's growing celebrity by mass-producing images of the renegade Augustinian monk and his courageous, chiseled chin. He helped to create the iconography of the Lutheran movement, clarifying the evangelical message in a series of stark contrasts—between law and gospel, between Christ and the anti-Christ (i.e., the Roman Curia), between human helplessness and the relief of unmerited grace. More surprisingly, Ozment reveals just how active Cranach was in the early Reformation—how he used his positions as court painter and one of Wittenberg's leading citizens to protect the fledgling evangelical movement. In 1522, Cranach resisted the iconoclasm that threatened to denude Wittenberg's churches, buying time until Luther could return from hiding at Wartburg Castle. Not long afterward, Cranach's publishing house churned out copies of Luther's newly translated New Testament, adorned with Cranach's own woodcuts. Thirty-six other works would follow in just three years. And in 1525, when Luther took the momentous step of marrying ex-nun Katherine von Bora, Cranach, who harbored renegade nuns in his mansion, stood in as a surrogate father of the bride and as Luther's best man.

This historic wedding, insists Ozment, was every bit as central to the Reformation movement as its theological polemics. Where medieval asceticism had treated worldly vocations as inferior spiritual callings, Luther and Cranach both affirmed the inherent goodness of sex, marriage, child-rearing, and the household economy. Cranach's winsome 1535 painting of Christ blessing children—children held tenderly by Wittenberg matrons—celebrated worldly joys. Esteem for the divinely ordained institution of marriage also entailed a respect for the "awesome power and divine blessing of human sexuality"—the force that peopled the world, drove history forward, and caused endless heartbreak and tragedy. Thus, while Cranach's profane art was a response to changing tastes, especially the shrinking German market for traditional altarpieces, it also expressed the Lutheran rejection of facile distinctions between the spiritual and the secular.

There is little question that Cranach's post-Reformation nudes were erotic. Necklaces, hats, translucent veils and kerchiefs—such accoutrements adorn lithe young women, many of whom throw a frank glance at the viewer. Quite unlike the ponderous, classical females of Dürer, Cranach's nudes have inspired artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso and John Currin. Some modern critics have dismissed Cranach's nudes as pornography, pictures that reduced women to "playthings" for wealthy, powerful clients. Ozment offers a more complex reading of these images, showing how Cranach's paintings of nude mothers with babies at the breast celebrated marital sex even as they praised matronly love and spousal fidelity. Meanwhile, his famous depictions of scenes of temptation—including David and Bathsheba, Lot and His Daughters, and The Judgment of Paris—offered complex meditations on sexual politics and the power of lust to undo a man.

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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