The Magazine

A Master’s Voice

The Reformation as seen in the art of Lucas Cranach.

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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The Serpent and the Lamb is not easy to pin down. Officially, it tells the story of Martin Luther’s relations with the eminent painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553); Professor Ozment argues that the two men created the Protestant Reformation between them. Luther was the mastermind and Cranach, who became Luther’s publicist, champion, and protector as well as his friend, was indispensable. And Luther and Cranach’s collaboration is only one strand in this richly complex book. 

Portrait of Martin Luther, ca. 1540

Portrait of Martin Luther, ca. 1540

Cranach is Ozment’s main focus. He has been ill-served (Ozment believes) by art critics and historians, and misunderstood by art lovers. Ozment’s narrative is almost as intricate as a map of Renaissance Germany; Cranach is the sun that makes this great solar system of a book cohere.

As a painter and creator of widely distributed woodcut engravings, Cranach made the images (including the portraits of Luther) that embodied the Protestant revolution in the public mind. Like other eminent artists over the ages, Cranach moved in the best circles: He was the friend and confidant of Frederick the Wise, ruler of the German state of electoral Saxony. (In the jigsaw puzzle of pre-Bismarck Germany, Saxony was split in two. Electoral Saxony—in Cranach’s day the most powerful of the German states—had the right to cast a vote in the election of the Holy Roman emperor.) Cranach smoothed Luther’s path and helped protect him from hostile Catholic powers, including German princes and prelates, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the pope himself. Cranach, the author argues, was Luther’s “gifted partner in reform.” Without him, the Reformation might have failed.

Accordingly, Ozment has composed a concerto grosso of a Cranach biography, with many interleaved themes. One of these is a commentary on Cranach’s most important paintings and engravings. Another fends off the thrusts and sideswipes of Cranach scholars who have got the hero wrong, who see him as second banana to Albrecht Dürer, preeminent German artist of the age, or as a godless mercenary who, insofar as he accepted jobs from Catholics as well as Lutherans, had no real loyalty to anyone but himself. And some regard him as a master of soft porn. (Cranach’s almost-nudes are famous: “Spare, lyrical” women, Ozment calls them, artfully outfitted in hats, necklaces, transparent veils, and other striptease accoutrements.)

While developing these themes, Ozment also compares the ambience of the Reformation in Germany to the Renaissance in Italy. And he defends the historical approach to painting against aesthetic absolutists who see the image as complete in itself, irrespective of historical context. The truth, Ozment insists, is that “civilization is the horse, and the artist only the temporary rider.” (Had Cranach painted Ozment’s portrait, these words would no doubt have appeared in black letters on a scroll unwinding gracefully around his head.) The author discharges all these duties without breaking a sweat. 

Cranach was born in the small town of Kronach, where his father was a painter, “although he appears to have been rather more of a craftsman than an artist.” Young Lucas spent several years in cosmopolitan Vienna, but on his way back home in 1504, he was summoned away to the Saxon capital of Wittenbach to be court painter to the ruling prince, Frederick the Wise. This summons, Ozment believes, was partly Dürer’s idea. Dürer (“kind soul that he was”) materializes like a good fairy at several crucial points in Cranach’s life.

Just four years later, Cranach was already part of an important diplomatic mission from Frederick to the emperor. He was firmly established as a major artist and big wheel in Electoral Saxony by 1517, when Luther posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on what passed for a widely read blog at the time. Cranach helped turn Frederick into Luther’s supporter and protector: To reject the papacy and Roman Catholicism for a radically reformulated biblical religion was a risky career move in Catholic Europe.

Frederick was disposed to be helpful, but Luther had to do his part and make clear that he had no intention of challenging Frederick’s rule in Saxony. Ozment reproduces a fascinating pair of Cranach engravings that underline the point: two portraits of Luther, both done in 1520. The same face appears in both, seen from almost the same angle. But the first presents Luther as the heroic, chisel-jawed supermonk, whose tonsure fits him like a Roman emperor’s wreath. In the second, Luther has been toned down (with a change of outfit, accent lines, and surroundings) into a mild-mannered Clark Kent, cub theologian. Frederick preferred version two. Engravings at the time were widely distributed, history’s first medium for large-scale propaganda.