Lucas Cranach the Elder
1472-1553 | German
Portrait of Frederick the Wise
Oil on panel
Panel: 24 3/4" high x 18 5/8" wide
Frame: 31 1/2" high x 25 1/2" wide
M.S. Rau is pleased to offer this exceptionally important work by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Alongside his contemporaries, Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer, Cranach is considered among the primary artists of the German Renaissance, and his influence in the arts and religious reform stretched much farther than his stunning portraiture. Not only was Cranach instrumental in furthering the artistic excellence of the period, he was also an essential figure in the Protestant Reformation at the side of Martin Luther. This particular work, featuring Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, was commissioned after Frederick’s death by his nephew Johann the Magnanimous. It stands as a crowning achievement in a series of portraits meant to assert Saxon strength over Hapsburg.
Seldom does one find a painting of this extraordinary caliber, depicting a historically notable figure and painted by one of the most fascinating and important painters of the German Renaissance. It is a stunning example ofCranach’s work at the peak of his career and represents an extremely rareopportunity to own a remarkable Old Master work of both artistic andhistorical relevance.
The Art of Politics
Along with the likeness of Frederick, the present work also features laudatory verses on the lower portion of the panel. Considering the presence of the poem, as well as the religio-political position of Saxony in the early 16th century, it is highly likely that Johann the Magnanimous intended the series of 60 commissioned portraits not as personal remembrances of his uncle, but rather as tools of propaganda during a time of growing antagonism between Saxony and the Hapsburgs.
This example, painted by Cranach and his workshop around 1535, was almost certainly intended for an important recipient. It is far larger thancomparable portraits of Frederick painted by Cranach, measuring over three times the size of an example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is also set apart by its exceptional state of preservation and level of detail. The delicate treatment of the flesh tones and the smallest detail of each hair remains beautifully intact, allowing one to admire the highly developed technique of this German Renaissance master.
Cranach and the Protestant Reformation
Cranach became the official painter of Frederick the Wise in 1505 in the town of Wittenburg Germany, marking a turning point in his career as an artist, entrepreneur and politician (he would remain in service to the family for the rest of his life). It was during his tenure with Frederick the Wise that Cranach was introduced to Martin Luther, the fiery upstart who launched a religious reformation when he nailed hisNinety-Five Theses to the church doors of the Wittenberg Castle in 1517. Under the auspices of religious freedom and fair trade, Frederick, a Catholic, offered Luther protection from an incensed Pope and Church and thus set in motion his owneventual conversion to Lutheranism on his deathbed.
As a member of the court, Cranach came to know Luther personally and wasinfluenced by his radical new ideas. He would go on to become one of Luther’s greatest proponents and confidantes, lending support through his art and friendship. His portraits of Luther are among his finest work and his extraordinary woodcutillustrations featured in Luther’s pamphlets helped spread the Reformation across Germany. Cranach’s woodcuts representing biblical passages were also featured in Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament and proved to be critical in the propagation of Protestantism to the masses. Cranach would continue to explore Protestant themes in his art for the remainder of his life, painting churchaltarpieces and portraits of notable protestant reformers and royal sympathizers.
Honored by the Church
The Episcopal Church holds Lucas Cranach the Elder, along with his contemporaries Dürer and Grünewald, in such high regardfor their contribution in the early days of the Reformation, that they honor them even today on theirLiturgical Calendar. Each year, on August 5th, the Church gives thanks for their artisticdepictions that “helped the peoples of their age understand the full suffering and glory of thine incarnate Son...”
As prolific as he was talented, it is hard to believe that Cranach found time for anything other than painting. But history reveals that Cranach was indeed a true Renaissance man. Here are 8 things to know about Lucas Cranach:
1. Cranach served as mayor, or burgomaster, to the town of Wittenberg three times after having served on the town council.
2. At one point, Cranach was the 2nd wealthiest man in Wittenberg thanks to a generous salary from his court appointment and several lucrative investments.
3. Cranach owned a liquor-licensed pharmacy that remained in business until it burned down in the late 19th century. He also owned a book shop and wine shop.
4. Cranach founded and ran a successful printing press, which was instrumental during the Protestant Reformation.
5. Though his loyalty lay with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, Cranach continued to take commissions from the Catholic Church, no doubt using his political acumen to placate both sides.
6. Cranach was a master at delivering exactly what his patrons wanted, and that often included semi-erotic images under the guise of religious morality.
7. Cranach remained active until his death in 1553 at the age of 81.
8. There has been a resurgence in Cranach’s popularity over the past 10 years, with no less than 6 major exhibitions dedicated to his work.