One of the pivotal figures in early sixteenth-century German art, Cranach the Elder was the Reformation artist par excellence. A close friend and follower of Martin Luther (they were godfathers to one another’s children), Cranach collaborated with Luther in producing numerous single-sheet woodcuts and book illustrations that were crucial for the spread of the new evangelical theology in the early years of the Reformation in Germany. The “Passional Christi et Antichristi” (Wittenberg, 1521), for example, contrasts the holy life of Christ with the decadent life of the pope and the venal customs of the Curia Romana in thirteen antithetical pairs of woodcuts, with brief texts from the Bible and papal decretals composed by Philipp Melanchthon and Johann Schwertfeger. The epilogue was perhaps written by Luther himself. In 1529 Cranach created the quintessential new Reformation image, the “Allegory of Law and Grace,” contrasting mankind’s damnation under the law of Moses with his hope of salvation under the New Testament’s offer of grace in Luther’s interpretation. The allegory was typically produced both as a woodcut (London, British Museum) and as a panel painting (Gotha, Schloßmuseum) and was often copied. Portraits by Cranach and his son, Lucas the Younger, of Luther (Weimar, Schloßmuseum), Melanchthon (Frankfurt am Main, Städel), and the other reformers (Toledo Museum of Art), as well as the many copies and variants made from them by workshop assistants, have determined our perception of the reformers to the present day.
Cranach took his name from the town of his birth, Kronach, near Bamberg. He was probably trained by his father, the painter Hans Maler. By 1503 he was working among a circle of humanists at the University of Vienna. His earliest known works, created at this time, were characterized by a religious and spiritual intensity and an emphasis on man’s relationship to nature and constituted the beginning of the stylistic movement known as the Danube School.
In 1504 Cranach was called to Wittenberg by Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony. There he developed the smooth, linear style that became the standard form of expression of his large and productive workshop and that determined the appearance of painting in Saxony throughout the sixteenth century. Until his death Cranach served as court artist to Frederick the Wise and successors John the Steadfast and John Frederick the Magnanimous, decorating the elector’s favorite residences, such as the Veste Coburg and Torgau castles, but no traces of his mural paintings survive. In addition to the many portraits of members of the Saxon nobility, produced as woodcuts or painted on panel, Cranach served their more private tastes with small paintings of a tantalizing, mildly erotic nature, showing nude Venuses or Lucretias. After 1508 he used a winged serpent as a signature on his own work and on the products of his workshop. In Wittenberg he was one of the two wealthiest citizens, the result of earnings not only from the workshop but also from the pharmacy, wine store, bookstore, and printer’s shop he owned.
From 1519 to 1545 he served on the Wittenberg city council and was elected burgomaster on three occasions. After Charles V took John Frederick prisoner at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547, Cranach followed him into exile at Augsburg and Innsbruck, and after the elector’s release in 1552, he accompanied him to Weimar, where the artist died in 1553.