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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Ozment also flatly rejects the art historical assumption that Cranach was seduced by Luther, and that his studio practice was diminished and compromised by his affiliation with the young theology professor and his radical agenda. Most art historians regard religious belief to be incompatible with historically significant artistic achievement. In the contemporary art world, art can question such belief, but it is ultimately to its detriment if it expresses such belief, or can be interpreted as doing such. (Art—especially modern art—is a jealous mistress who despises dalliances with other forms of belief.) Cranach is too richly embroidered into the cultural, social, religious, and political fabric of Wittenberg to be interpreted sufficiently by art historians shaped by these constricting modern myths of artistic practice. What is needed, Ozment shows, is a cultural historian.

Far from being compromised or constricted, Cranach flourished in and through his relationship with Luther, in large part because both the artist and the theologian shared converging interests and concerns, which, upon their meeting, made their relationship especially rich and productive, both personally and professionally.

This relationship developed only after Cranach decided to move his workshop into Wittenberg. Growing weary of the tedious demands of the court and a lack of challenging painting commissions (not to mention inconsistent remuneration), Cranach moved into the bustling university town, renovating several buildings for his home and workshop. He soon became a leading figure in city politics and one of the largest owners of real estate in town. A savvy businessman and entrepreneur, Cranach owned Wittenberg's only pharmacy and operated the most powerful printing press in the region, a press which would publish Luther's German translation of the New Testament, completed while he was in exile in Wartburg, and would generate the pamphlets and other printed materials that spread the ideas of the Reformation. Cranach was also a skilled statesman, traveling to the Netherlands on a diplomatic mission on behalf of Frederick the Wise. Far from being seduced by Luther, then, it was Cranach's robust and expansive public life and his wisdom in statecraft that served the younger, less politically astute Luther, ultimately winning him the protection and patronage he needed from Frederick.

Although Cranach shared Luther's anti-humanist and anti-Renaissance "Augustinian" view of the sinfulness and weakness of humanity, the convergence between the two men was less doctrinal than it was social, in what Ozment calls the "second phase" of the Reformation. This social phase focused on the recovery of the spiritual integrity of all aspects of domestic family life, from rearing children to marital sexuality. The home had been subjected to excessive and burdensome interference from Rome, creating legalistic burdens for laity and the clergy that were impossible to follow, the crushing nature of which resulted in licentious behavior that undermined the integrity of the family. Luther's emphasis on justification as a "passive righteousness," which he would develop in his lectures on Galatians in 1531, was already worked out socially and culturally, liberating the laity and the clergy to enjoy a robust family life, including an intimate sexual relationship within the institution of marriage. Ozment shows how Cranach and Luther both were fulfilled by their families, embracing fully and boldly the creational blessings of marital and familial life. Luther's famously earthy language about marital sexuality is echoed in Cranach's beautifully seductive women, whose enchantment was part of the created order and whose sexuality could be celebrated as a divine blessing. "By excising the external girth of the High Renaissance woman," Ozment writes, "he set free her inner mirth. The result was more engrossing than the direct touching of skin and flesh." Cranach and Luther's relationship was further deepened through their families, as they served as godparents to each other's children.

Ozment is at such pains to answer Cranach's art historical despisers that he even takes aim at Harvard colleague and art historian Joseph Leo Koerner, whose book The Reformation of the Image (University of Chicago Press, 2008) argued that Cranach's Wittenberg Altarpiece (1547) inaugurates the impoverished Protestant image that sacrifices aesthetic contemplation for dogmatic clarity. Ozment's interpretation, in contrast, emphasizes the social aspects of the altarpiece, the presence of Luther's and Cranach's family and friends, including his recently deceased friend, Martin, depicted at the Last Supper as "Junker Jörg," the alias he used when sneaking back to Wittenberg from Wartburg Castle at Cranach's urging to quell the iconoclastic uprising of Andreas Carlstadt. Luther, Cranach and his wife, Barbara, Philipp Melanchthon, and numerous other contemporary figures (both living and deceased) populate the altarpiece. In the famous predella, Luther is preaching "Christ crucified" to the congregation. While Koerner addresses the mysterious Christ image between Luther and the congregation, Ozment focuses on the congregation, which is made up of Luther's family, among them his widow, Katherine von Bora, and a beloved daughter who had preceded him in death; also present is the elderly Cranach with his arthritic painting hand, which emphasizes, in a particularly poignant way, his brokenness. For Ozment, the Wittenberg Altarpiece is not so much a visual condensation of Luther's Small Catechism, as Koerner argues, as it is a family portrait of those whose lives are hidden "in Christ," revealed and confirmed through the preached Word, Baptism, and the Eucharist.

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