Lucas Cranach at last is coming into his own. After being considered by Melanchthon – and to our own day – as the least distinguished artist of the familiar German triad with Dürer and ‘Grünewald’, the artist of Wittenberg can no longer be dismissed as ‘simple’ rather than ‘grand’ in style. Nor is he chiefly to be taken as the visual Reformer, closely associated with Luther. With the appearance in print of this well-researched Basel dissertation, Cranach now is fully reinscribed into an intellectual environment, his neglected mythologies seriously revalued. In the first extended study of the artist’s origins since Dieter Koepplin’s own Basel dissertation a generation ago (1973), Bierende also treats Cranach’s ties to humanists and cultural politics with the seriousness usually accorded to Dürer (especially in the studies by Dieter Wuttke).
The early Cranach chiefly receives attention here. This is the innovative painter associated with the nascent Danube School forest settings, with chiaroscuro woodcut techniques, and with innovative mythological iconography. Bierende associates Cranach with the contemporary burst of learned activity in Germany for chronicles and wider historical consciousness, which fused both ancient and Christian ancestry, as charted by Frank Borchardt (1971). The legendary ancestry of the German nation and of the Habsburg genealogy provided an ideological foundation and ongoing continuity for both the claims of Empire as well as for moral renewal in the new century.
Cranach would have first encountered these claims in his Vienna stay (1501-1504). His ‘Danube’ landscapes distinguish him from Dürer, and Bierende draws links to earlier models, chiefly the urban Upper Rhenish masters E.S. and Gerhart van Leyden. He enjoys pontificating about inadequate art-historical models and methods, e.g. the genius of individuals or national schools, but he still attends closely to individual works. He also forces analogies between the presentation of pictures, such as the Vienna Crucifixion, to rhetoric, specifically as advanced by Conrad Celtis. Indeed, he claims that Cranach did strive (Melanchthon was right) for a simple style in an effort to evoke – together with the contemporary humanist authors– a positive, primitive Germanic or Christian past, which would accord with the emerging Habsburg cultural claims, advanced by young Emperor Maximilian I. In this vein, he reads the Vienna Crucifixion as laden with positive, even allegorical, references to the Emperor and also sees Gerhaert’s tomb of Frederick III in Vienna as a Germanic rival to antique forms as well as a model for Cranach’s own visual rhetoric of liveliness and presence. He makes the unexpected but powerful comparison between the young Cranach and Veit Stoss’s Crucifixions, both works striving for effects of archaism.
While some of this argument is pushed hard, I agree in his important situating of Cranach (more plausibly for other early works, as I have also discussed) as immersed within the complex of Maximilianic ideology. This was the accomplishment that the artist brought back to his extended role at the court in Wittenberg, where Frederick the Wise soon became the principal rival to the Emperor. Renovation and Reformation are the twin hallmarks of this invented court of Saxony. Here the apposite textual comparisons come from Meinhard’s Mirror of Princes and Spalatin’s Chronicle. The repertoire of repeated subjects again links Germanic antiquity and myth through adaptation of classical antiquity and models, with the gods serving as euhemeristic models of princely morality.
Thus Bierende sees a consistency in what Cranach offered to his patrons and wider audiences, both in Vienna and Wittenberg – a visual contribution to the emerging humanistic culture of Germanic antiquity and spirituality. If his analysis of the Wittenberg imagery remains thinner, this book certainly goes a long way to recuperating Lucas Cranach, especially his mythologies, within the German version of a would-be ‘Northern Renaissance.’
University of Pennsylvania