Cranach: An Artist and An Entrepreneur

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) is often called as the painter of the Reformation. As one who was a trusted friend of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and did numerous portraits of this Protestant reformer, Cranach certainly qualifies to that title. After a brief sojourn in Vienna, Cranach came to Wittenberg in 1505, appointed as the court painter by Frederick III of Saxony (1463-1525). Also known as Frederick the Wise, Frederick III founded University of Wittenberg in 1502, where Luther taught, promoted arts and sciences, and provided protection for Luther when Pope Leo X excommunicated him in 1521.

It is not just the sheer number of portraits of Luther, however, that qualifies Cranach to the title of the painter of the Reformation. While Cranach did paintings of religious themes like other painters of his day, what is striking about his portraits is the skillfulness with which he was able to portray the individuality of his subjects, which is quite remarkable in the days when no cameras were available. Thus, Cranach’s portraits of Luther ranges from an early portrait of Luther as a struggling Augustinian monk to a later portrait of him as a stern theologian, from a portrait of Luther as a contented lay person on the occasion of his marriage to Katharina von Bora to the portrait of him on his deathbed. Cranach’s portrayal of Hans Luther, Martin Luther’s father, was even more remarkable in capturing the coarseness of his character, which Kenneth Clark characterizes as “this Troll King, who seems to have grown out of the earth.”1 He did come up out of the earth, so to speak, for Hans Luther was a miner before he became a businessman of a sort as the owner of several mines later in his life.

There is another sense in which Cranach can be called the painter of the Reformation, or the individual in the age of the Reformation. Cranach was active in civic affairs of Wittenberg and even served as its mayor. Later in his life, Cranach became a businessman and, in that new role, printed Luther’s German translation of the New Testament among other ventures. Converting his studio into a workshop that produced large quantities of paintings, engravings and prints with the help of Cranach the Younger (1515-1586) and other assistants, Cranach spent most of his time in managing his workshop. Cranach, by making works of art available to ordinary citizens, not just to powerful emperors and princes and rich patrons, converted artistic creation into a profitable business enterprise and became the wealthiest citizen of Wittenberg.

Cranach’s transformation from an artist into an entrepreneur is symbolic of the changing role of the artistic images in Christian churches. We may recall how the Church of Rome played an important role in promoting the arts as the patron of great artists. Julius II (Pope from 1503 to 1513) is known for employing Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520) to convert St. Peter’s Cathedral from a simple basilica of worship into an ostentatious cathedral with magnificent art works. Clement VII (Pope from 1523 to 1534) commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment. For the Church of Rome, the arts served as an effective didactic device to teach Christians about Christian doctrines. Even after the Reformation, such artists as Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) and El Greco (1541-1614) continued to create visual exhibitions of Christian doctrines.

In the Protestant West, on the other hand, artists gradually lost their sense of mission as the glorifiers of the Christian ideal with the gradual separation of the church from the political authority. In the hands of Cranach, for example, even a painting of a religious theme was filled with real-life figures. Thus, the Last Supper, the altarpiece Cranach created in 1547 at Stadtkirche in Wittenberg, shows Luther and Cranach the Younger in attendance, in addition to Jesus and his apostles. As with other human activities, arts were gradually converted into secular activities. The Reformation, with its emphasis on individual salvation, marks the start of the individual search for self for the people in the West. Besides Cranach, we may also note such artists as Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and Hans Holbein (1497-1543), whose portraits are as realistic and remarkable as those by Cranach in capturing the individuality and the inner character of their subjects.

As for Cranach, we wonder what was behind his transformation from an artist into an entrepreneur. According to Luther, fulfilling worldly duties for the individual was, in fact, fulfilling the will of God. As Max Weber puts it in his authoritative work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the individual was asked to strive to fulfill the will of God by restraining “his worldly activity within the limits imposed by his established station in life.”2 By establishing himself as the manager of a workshop and devoting his time and energy to running it, Cranach could have found a new calling as an entrepreneur. Indeed, to the extent that making money from that business venture became his personal duty and devotion, Cranach may have transformed himself from a Lutheran into a Calvinist.

  1. Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, New York: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 158.
  2. Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Scribner and Sons, 1958, p. 105.