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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 only problem is that he writes so fast and sloppily that the reader is sometimes at a loss to figure out what he means. Cranach’s idealized woman “was then, as is her modern counterpart today, a true artistic evolution of womankind.” Meaning? That women have evolved in a direction we all find artistically satisfying? But “evolve” implies change over time, and of course style oscillates. Ozment appreciates the lithe slimness of Cranach’s nudes versus the dumpling look popular with many other German painters. But Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, and Leonardo, among others, painted slim, graceful women before Cranach, and innumerable artists painted dumplings afterward. Is that evolution? “The core message female nudity conveyed” in Cranach’s paintings, Ozment writes, “was transparency, fidelity, and self-sacrifice to family and society.” I’ll bet. 

The Schleissheim Crucifixion (1503) is one of Cranach’s first masterpieces and Ozment impressively, effectively discusses the strange and striking viewpoint—at ground level, with the cross at the right edge nearly perpendicular to the picture plane, and only the Virgin and Saint John in attendance. So far so good. But then Ozment wants to explain that Cranach uses drapery the way Bernini did in the next century, as an emotionally expressive element in its own right. So he describes the billowing, elaborately knotted cloth around Jesus’ waist as an “animated loincloth” that is “both the Savior’s life support and his protection from the lethal thunderclouds that rush over and against him.”  

How can a man being crucified be on life support? And how can he possibly be protected from thunderclouds by a loincloth located between his waist and the ground? The Savior gazes from the cross towards the Virgin and Saint John, “leaving the eager viewer to watch from the edge of his chair.” But how could any viewer of this painting be eager? Eager for the Savior’s death? In suspense about how the Crucifixion turns out?

This is Ozment’s usual way with paintings. In the next work he discusses, a husband and wife make the “perfect couple perfectly integrated into the perfect grassy knoll”—as if “grassy knoll” suggested bucolic scenery and not a presidential assassination and conspiracy theories. And the wife, Ozment informs us, is “every bit as introspective as her husband is transcendental.” Elsewhere, Ozment describes Cranach “scooping an appealing woodcut,” as if the close-grained wooden blank that is carved, chiseled, scraped, and smoothed by the engraver were a bowl of whipped cream.

One part of Ozment’s mission is to compare the German-born Reformation and the Italian Renaissance. Part of the task, as he sees it, is to clean up the snow job known as “the Renaissance man.” On the first page, he writes that Cranach “scoffed at the myth of the vaunted ‘Renaissance man,’ ” and he returns to this idea at various intervals: Cranach demolished “the fictive ‘Renaissance man,’ ” the “icon of the ‘Renaissance man.’ ” But what does that mean? Usually the term refers to a man who has mastered more than one field, but Ozment doesn’t question the existence of such men; Cranach, he writes, “came as close to exemplifying such a person as any other giant of the age,” insofar as he was a painter, diplomat, and businessman. 

It seems silly to put Cranach-the-all-arounder on a level with Brunelleschi, the great architect, structural engineer, technologist, and inventor of perspective drawing, or Leonardo or Michelangelo—or with Dürer himself, who is known as an author as well as a painter. But what did Cranach scoff at? Maybe “the fictive ‘Renaissance man’ ” means an embodiment of the perfections discussed by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier: The ideal courtier must be a champion of many sports, and an excellent swordsman, horseman, Greek and Latin scholar, musician, conversationalist, and (naturally) dancer. Few men ever qualified. But, at the very start of modern Renaissance studies, Jacob Burckhardt wrote of Castiglione’s perfect courtier that “all this is not to be taken too seriously, except what relates to the use of arms.”  

So why bother arguing that Cranach demolished this “fictive” ideal when it was always meant to be fictive? On this and other points, Ozment leaves the reader at a loss. And that is a shame, because so much learning went into this book. No one writes history with more clarity, learning, and authority than Steven Ozment. If he would only write it a little more slowly, a whole world of readers might benefit.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.