Flemish painting and De Jonckheere Gallery's old master paintings
Provenance: private collection
Lucas Cranach left Vienna in 1505 to become the official painter of the Prince Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, in Wittenberg. This event marked a...read more
Provenance: private collection
Lucas Cranach left Vienna in 1505 to become the official painter of the Prince Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, in Wittenberg. This event marked a turning point in the career of the painter, who remained in the service of this princely family until the end of his days. Cranach’s privileged relationship with this dynasty favoured his rise within the bourgeoisie of Wittenberg and allowed him to develop a studio capable of meeting the court’s various demands.
Frederick the Wise died in 1525. His brother, John the Steadfast, succeeded him. The latter died in 1532 and his son, John the Magnanimous, inherited the title. It was during the same year that John the Magnanimous commissioned several portraits of his father and his uncle from Cranach, to be sent to the towns and princes who had taken sides with Protestantism. This commission allowed the artist to create a new iconography of the portrait whose function was no longer to simply uphold the memory of the prince elector in the private circle of the court of Wittenberg, but to serve as “propaganda” and be distributed throughout all the regions of Germany that supported the Reformation. Martin Luther, who initiated the protest movement against the Catholic Church in 1517, found refuge with Frederick the Wise. Wittenberg thus became one of the bastions of the new religious thinking. The choice of the prince electors of Saxony to support Luther’s movement and to offer him protection, gave them the status of official defenders of the Reformation. As the official court painter, Cranach supplied numerous paintings aimed at promoting the Lutheran message. Our work is one of these portraits. Other panels commissioned in 1532, with a similar composition to ours, have also survived such as the pair of portraits kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the one in the Uffizi in Florence; they each portray Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast and are dated 1533.
The artist presents Frederick the Wise’s face against a bluish background with the two mounted printed texts, one top right and the other at the bottom of the painting. The text at the bottom is a poem written by Luther praising the many virtues of Frederick the Wise. The poem praises the prince’s numerous virtues, particularly emphasising his role as guardian of the Protestant movement. Cranach’s painting forms a close alliance between text and image, where one acts as a support for the other, reinforcing the message it must convey to the viewer. The use of a printed text rather than letters painted directly onto the panel is also interesting: this reminds us of the importance given to engraving in the Reformed humanist circles where printing played a fundamental role in the distribution of theses and new ideas.
This painting seems to be modelled on the portraits of Frederick the Wise painted by Cranach at the beginning of the 1520s, before his death, such as the painting kept in Gotha, dated 1522. The portrait doesn’t depict the prince at a specific moment in time; on the contrary, the artist seeks to give his subject a certain timelessness. The face is constructed with a clear and precise stroke, carefully outlining the line of the eyes, the nose and the beard. The face’s different volumes are clearly defined by a highly contrasted luminosity. Each element is drawn with a perfect sinuosity which stands out all the more against the bluish background. The painter depicts Frederick the Wise as a fair leader and the guarantor of moral laws, giving him an air of sagacity and charity.
By offering us a portrait of a great plastic beauty based on a particularly clear and carefully delineated composition (which immediately catches the eye of the viewer through a well-thought-out iconographic procedure), Cranach perfectly succeeds in giving this portrait the necessary strength to become one of the icons of the history of art.
Kronach 1472 – Weimar 1553
Lucas Cranach was one of the pillars of artistic creation in the north-east of Germany during the first half of the 16th century. With Hans Holbein the Younger and...
Kronach 1472 – Weimar 1553
Lucas Cranach was one of the pillars of artistic creation in the north-east of Germany during the first half of the 16th century. With Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer, he is considered to be one of the main representatives of the German Renaissance.
Both a painter and engraver, and a friend of Martin Luther and numerous humanists, he successfully painted religious and mythological scenes, portraits and female nudes which he often identified with Lucretia or Venus. Until 1498, he studied with his father, Hans, who influenced the beginning of his career. He then travelled to Vienna, where it seems he settled in 1500.
The first known works of the artist date from this period; they are religious scenes whose vivid and expressive colours show proof of his creative power. In 1505, he became court painter for the Electors of Saxony. He decorated their castles, painted their portraits and those of their wives, executed altarpieces and also painted profane subjects. In 1508, Elector Frederick of Saxony granted Cranach his coat of arms with a winged serpent, which became the artist’s signature. His sons, Hans and Lucas the Younger, were among his assistants. Loyally imitating his style, they played a major role in the works produced by his studio.
Apart from a visit to the Netherlands in 1508, the master resided almost uninterruptedly in Wittenberg. As an important citizen, he sat on the town’s assembly in 1519 and acted as burgomaster in 1537 and 1540. Despite the numerous influences that marked his era, his work remained faithful to the gothic traditions.