The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation
Yale University Press, 2012
344 pp., 49.11
The Reformation of the Artist
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.