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. 

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. 

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.