Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) arrived in Wittenberg in 1505 as an already accomplished artist having been appointed court painter to the Elector of Saxony Friedrich III, der Wiese. It was there that he met Martin Luther, the young Augustinian monk whose own spiritual sufferings led to a fervent desire to reform the Church of abuses, in particular the abuse of the sale of Indulgences as means for the forgiveness of sins.
Indulgences were granted on the premise that the guilt of sin was not was not forgiven through absolution alone. Temporal penance was also required because of the offence given to God. They further rested on the belief in purgatory, and the idea that indulgence would count against the time spent there by those who had died in a state of grace. Originally offered in the 11th and 12th Centuries as an inducement to potential Crusaders and offering full remission of sins the system was developed by the Scholastic theologians to one in which Plenary indulgence cancelled all existing debt of forgiven sin, while partial indulgences only remitted a portion of it. The system lent itself to abuse from an early date as Churchmen allowed commutation of sins in return for financial contributions to good works, such as the building of religious buildings, hospitals, and schools. Secular governments, wise as ever to a money making opportunity, insisted on receiving a substantial portion of the funds raised by the sale of indulgences. In 1476 Pope Sixtus IV declared that indulgences could be gained for the dead who were in purgatory, opening the system to further abuse. Martin Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses were a direct response to the sale of indulgences for the dead by the Dominican Friar, Johann Tetzel. The outcome of what was intended as an academic debate was the 16th Century Reformation and the division of Western Christendom into opposing camps. Notwithstanding the naked hostility between the Church and Luther’s reform movement the Council of Trent (1545-1563) condemned all “base gain in for securing indulgences” and their sale was abolished by Pope Pius V in 1567. Indulgences remain a feature of Catholic tradition as part of the sacrament of Penance, in which they act as an inducement to good works in pursuit of the remission of the temporal punishment due to sins which have already been forgiven.
Cranach, as court painter, was in an excellent position to receive commissions from the elite of German society. Though clearly supportive of Luther and the reformers, as evidenced by the changes in his religious paintings after 1517, he pragmatically accepted commissions from both Protestant and Catholic patrons, painting flattering portraits of the political and commercial elite. His long career, he was eighty-one when he died, allows us a relatively rare opportunity in the context of 16th Century German art to see some of his subjects at different times in their lives through the eyes of a single artist. His portraits of Luther capture him as a young man still tonsured as a monk in 1520, as a man in middle years, and a few years before his death in 1546, aged 62. His portraits of Johann Friedrich I, successor to Friedrich III, show us him as child and man.
Like his contemporary Dürer, Cranach did much to invent the visual vocabulary of the era and even more to shape the public image of Luther. His austere depiction of Luther as a monk in 1519 impressed itself deeply into the memory of the German people, while his later paintings of Luther remain the standard portrayal of his image to this day. In Cranach’s paintings and woodcuts the solid bulk of Luther reflected the depictions and poses of the nobles he painted, a conscious comparison that emphasised the authority of both.
After the defeat of Johann Friedrich I at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547 Cranach lost his position as court painter, though he was reinstated in 1550. In 1550 Johann Friedrich recalled Cranach to join him in Augsburg during the Elector’s imprisonment by Charles V. The release of Johann Friedrich in 1552 saw Cranach move to Weimar, the new seat of government. He died there on October 16, 1553.
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