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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Also in 1520, Cranach and Luther launched their collaboration with an engraved pamphlet bitterly attacking the pope and the papacy called Christ and Anti-Christ. Henceforth, the two worked together, and the Reformation upended Europe and changed history. 

While he tells this story, Ozment pursues his other themes. It’s true, he concedes, that Cranach often borrowed ideas from Dürer—but, says Ozment, he sometimes improved them in the process. In any case, Dürer, the senior artist, was Cranach’s friend and supporter throughout his career. This subtheme widens the book by allowing Ozment to work in an occasional Dürer masterpiece, for example the darkly lustrous Self-Portrait of 1500, now in Munich, in which many critics see the apotheosis of the Renaissance artist boldly standing apart from the world at large. (This Yale University Press book is beautifully laid out, with paintings under discussion illustrated, almost always, close to the paragraphs that discuss them. Anyone who has ever read an art book will recognize this seemingly simple achievement as a miracle of bookmaking.)

Then, Ozment patiently answers a long series of Cranach scholars who have misunderstood this man. Ozment is especially indignant at the art historian Max Friedländer’s attempt, during the 1930s, to boil down Cranach’s long career to exactly 22 major paintings dating between 1501 and 1504: “One of the boldest misjudgments in the history of art criticism,” Ozment writes, fuming. Cranach, he insists, finished important works until the Wittenberg Altarpiece of 1547, just six years before his death.  

(Ozment’s denouncing Friedländer brings to mind the destructive general tendency in art criticism to value a painter’s earliest mature works higher than all the rest. Among major moderns, one thinks immediately of Matisse and de Kooning, who have both been given their own version of the Friedländer treatment. Matisse’s cutouts from the end of his life are some of his boldest and most beautiful works, but in Matisse studies and shows, they are often a footnote. An absurdly large proportion remain in private hands—reflecting a gross failure among major museums. De Kooning’s later paintings have increasingly fallen under a sort of ban—not his last paintings from the 1980s but virtually his whole output from the mid-1950s onward. Museums own a fair number of these; they simply refuse to hang them.) 

Turning to Cranach’s famous nudes, Ozment explains that they “were not modeled on Wittenberg courtesans.” These were upstanding German females, “Saxon women Cranach knew, observed, conceptualized, and chose to portray.” The reader may doubt whether such portrayals were necessarily taken as compliments. But Cranach was no porn prince. 

It’s true, Ozment notes, that Cranach was just as good at Catholic as at Protestant painting. But his friendship with Luther was real, and some say that Cranach converted on his deathbed to Lutheranism. At any rate he made it, at the last moment, into his son Lucas the Younger’s Weimar Altarpiece (1555), wedged in between Luther himself and John the Baptist at the foot of the cross.

Ozment defends the excellence and appeal of Cranach’s art throughout—which is hard work, because Cranach’s paintings are so extremely unappealing. Ozment himself concedes that Cranach “is unreliable on anatomical details and proportionality.” At the center of the important Christ Blessing the Children (1525), for example, Jesus appears to have no neck. Generally, Cranach’s heads are several sizes too large: In Charity with Four Children (1534), the main female figure seems to have the face and head from some other painting cut out and pasted over.

Cranach’s nudes are indeed lithe and willowy, as Ozment notes, and the idea of painting attractive, barely dressed women is brilliant in principle. But in practice, Cranach’s nudes posture as awkwardly as show-window mannequins jammed together by some amateur in a hurry. And they squint out of their paintings with hard, beady eyes. As a draftsman, Cranach is too much the engraver, working in small strokes that never coalesce. (Dürer, who was, like Cranach, a brilliant engraver, never seemed to have this problem.) But whether you like Cranach or not, Ozment has provided a careful and thorough guide to his life and times—a virtuoso performance.