In 1522 a scribe named Erhard of Hertzerkg was detained by authorities, following an accusation lodged with the bishop of Meissen that he had harassed his accuser and broken his window. In Erhard’s possession was a document that now lies in a cabinet of prints and drawings in a museum in Dresden. Having been folded and tucked into a pocket, the document could easily have been kept secret. It may have needed secrecy in territory loyal to the Roman church, for it contained a hand-written verse mocking Roman Catholic teaching and, worse, was a printed portrait of a man who, under the imperial Edict of Worms, was wanted dead or alive: Martin Luther.
This one lowly, crumpled, mass-marketed print holds greater significance because it was print produced by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), court painter to the dukes of Electoral Saxony and pictorial interpreter of the Reformation. It is one of thousands of Flugschriften (literally “flying letters”), the printed pamphlets and posters that broadcast to the rest of Europe the ideas of Martin Luther and the Wittenberg circle of preachers, teachers, and more than occasional agitators.
The Cranach woodcut in Erhard’s pocket was of Luther done initially when the feisty friar made a sub rosa visit home to Wittenberg during his time in hiding at the Wartburg castle following his appearance at the Diet of Worms. He is shown as Junker Jörg (“Knight George,” his nom de guerre) with his monk’s tonsure grown out and with what nowadays we’d term a hipster beard. This was a picture of a friar who had abandoned his monastic vows living off the grid, initially sketched during a quick visit between two friends who also happened to be important citizens of the university town.
Cranach and Luther had become acquainted in their day-to-day affairs. Cranach and his wife owned a house in a prominent spot on the southwest corner of the town marketplace. He ran an apothecary shop in that location and had established a workshop a few doors down. As the court painter, he was responsible not only for official portraits of the prince, Frederick the Wise, but also for designing furniture and interior appointments of the castle, as well as planning court events like tournaments and festive occasions.
Cranach’s side hustle was paintings-for-profit. He did good business producing interpretations of biblical stories and saints’ lives, as well as Greek and Roman mythology that would hang in homes of the wealthy. The latter frequently featured nude or gauzily draped female figures that seem designed to not only edify with morality tales but also in contrast oddly allow for leering in a less open age (a frequent subject is the suicide of Lucretia). A series of gruesome depictions of saints’ martyrdoms teaches the viewer to remain faithful in the most trying circumstances. The commissioned portraits Cranach painted of members of the court and lesser nobles, and of important reformers, are a significant record of the figures of the day (his portrait of Philip Melanchthon looks every inch of his true four feet, eleven inches. But like Caravaggio in Italy a century later, he also produced woodcuts and paintings that let us in on the lives of the peasantry (including a series about ill-matched lovers).
Cranach’s woodcut of him as a knight (along with other paintings) was designed to elicit hope in his supporters that he was indeed alive.
Erhard’s woodcut is an exemplar of the support Cranach and his workshop gave to the evangelical cause. After reports of Luther’s capture by brigands on his return journey after the Diet of Worms, most people feared that the highwaymen were agents of either Rome or the emperor. The great Nürnberg artist Albrecht Dürer concluded that Luther had been murdered. That he was safely ensconced in one of his prince’s castles quickly became an open secret. Cranach’s woodcut of him as a knight (along with other paintings) was designed to elicit hope in his supporters that he was indeed alive.
Cranach did similar work in his catechetical paintings and biblical illustrations. Literacy in early modern Germany was common primarily among the nobility. Tradespeople and peasants couldn’t read the pamphlets and books in which the educated and the noble encountered Luther. Technical treatises like On the Bondage of the Will would have been completely inaccessible. Even something as down-to-earth as the Small Catechism was encountered by them only through rote learning: memorization and recitation.
Thus, Cranach became the evangelical interpreter for the masses. If you couldn’t read the lines of text in Luther’s translation of the New Testament he’d completed while at the Wartburg, you could see the Bible stories included in the “September Testament” come alive in the lines of Cranach’s illustrations that accompanied. His marriage portraits of Luther and Katarina von Bora informed people of the illegitimacy of monastic vows. Just as with the catechisms and the new evangelical hymnody encouraged by Luther, Cranach delivered the gospel — but in picture form.
That Cranach was both an artist and sophisticated theologian can best be seen in “Law and Gospel,” which he painted at the same time Luther published the catechism. It is, in short, a sermon of images. The panel is divided down its center by a tree, one side dead and the other alive. On the dead side Cranach depicts Adam and Eve at the moment of the Fall, the Israelites under attack by serpents in the wilderness, a man being prodded into the flames of hell by death and the devil, and Moses pointing to the tablets of the law. Overhead, the saints robed in white worship Christ who is seated with the world at his feet, with a sword (judgment) and a lily (grace) protruding from his mouth and surrounded by a circular post-Flood rainbow. In the background stands a white mountain, the literal meaning of Wittenberg.
On the living side of the painting we see the angel announcing the incarnation to the Bethlehem shepherds, John the Baptist directing a man’s gaze to Jesus on the cross, an empty tomb with a lamb standing alongside on top of the figures of death and the devil, and the risen Christ ascended on high. At the bottom of the version of the painting that hangs in the ducal museum in Gotha, Cranach included captions that interpret the panel and give a short catechetical lesson in law and gospel.
If you look closely at the trunk of the tree you will find a small figure of a crowned flying serpent carrying a jeweled ring in its mouth. Cranach signed his early works with his initials, but he soon switched his signature to this flying serpent. If you visit Wittenberg, you’ll find a one-meter square bronze version of it embedded in the sidewalk in front of the building where he and his wife lived and that now houses a small Cranach museum. Spot-the-serpent makes for a fun game anytime you encounter his work.
Within a couple of years before Luther’s death in 1546, the emperor’s armies defeated the evangelical princes and descended on Wittenberg. Cranach, erstwhile court painter, apothecary, town Bürgermeister, artistic proponent of evangelical theology, and friend of Luther, left the city for Weimar, where he died and is buried.
His son, Lucas Cranach the Younger, continued his work. In his great altarpieces in Wittenberg and Weimar, he memorialized his father by including his likeness. In the courtyard of his Wittenberg workshop, there is a bronze statue of a seated Cranach holding a sketch pad and with his other hand in the act of drawing. On the pad in front of him is the face of Luther.
Cranach’s work may have been folded up and hidden in an arrested man’s pocket in 1522, but he remains known and honored today. We remember this great artist and witness, along with Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald, on their commemoration each year on April 6. He continues to delight and even preach.