Lucas Cranach: A Master of Irony and Ambiguity
Five hundred years ago, Europe lost its innocence and discovered
ambiguity. From north to south, its painters gave their female sitters
expressions of laughing irony. In Germany, Lucas Cranach the Elder was
the first to break with the past by portraying lovely princesses and
saints with the same indescribable glint of amusement.
Smiling skepticism may have come naturally to Leonardo, a man of
science, but Cranach’s laughter that comes across some of his most
admirable pictures in the retrospective on view at the Royal Academy
until June 8 is more intriguing.
What little is known about his early years sheds no light on the
matter. Bodo Brinkmann, the curator from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt
who masterminded the show, found little to say apart from the fact that
the artist, born Hans Maler in Kronach around 1472 was apparently the
son of a painter, as indicated by the noun following the name Hans. No
work by the artist can be dated prior to the early 1500s, by which time
he was living in Vienna. In 1505, he moved to Wittenberg and became
court artist to the Saxon Electors under three successive rulers. This
would appear to suggest a smooth character nimbly working his way
through the difficult times of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation,
an assumption borne out by his oeuvre.
Cranach was personally involved in the Reformation movement. A close
friend of Martin Luther, he illustrated a number of the Protestant
preacher’s anti-Catholic tracts. On the other hand, some of his
earliest masterpieces dealt with purely Catholic subjects. In his
"Triptych with the Holy Kinship," signed and dated 1509, the painter
illustrates the theme of the legendary family of Jesus, depicting Anne
(mother of Mary), supposed to have been successively married to
Joachim, Cleophas and Salomas, and the Virgin’s two stepsisters (both
called Mary), and their offspring.
In so doing, the nimble-minded courtier that Cranach was manipulated
legendary history to make political points guaranteed to earn him the
favors of the most powerful man in his part of the world – Emperor
Maximilian to whom regional German rulers owed allegiance. As noted by
Brinkmann, the Elector Frederick the Wise and his brother Duke John the
Steadfast lend their features to the husbands of Mary’s stepsisters, a
fact established by Cranach’s own portraits of these worthy gentlemen.
Better still, the second and third husbands of St. Anne who appear
behind the parapet of the gallery have the appearance of Emperor
Maximilian and one of his councilors.
The underlying idea is that the Saxon leaders are loyal to the
emperor – as Brinkmann noticed, the frieze bearing regional coats of
arms on the gallery parapet marks it out as Saxon territory.
A smile of unctuous satisfaction plays on the lips of the two
mothers portrayed as the wives of Frederick the Wise and John the
Steadfast. On the back of each of these side wings, Mary and St. Anne
are painted in grisaille. Mary’s faint smile, seemingly expressive of
tolerant resignation, contrasts with the older Anne’s sneer in bitter
awareness at the ways of the world. If an operator, Cranach was not a
Nor did the artist court convention. In an astonishing picture in
oil and tempera on vellum laid down on panel, Jesus appears head and
shoulders side by side with a wistful-looking woman. She tilts her head
toward him, almost as if she were about to lean on his shoulder. Her
identity is hardly evident. Is this Mary, the mother of Jesus? Or Mary
Magdalen the repenting sinner? The latter, Brinkmann surmises. In that
case, the boldness of this icon remains unmatched in Cranach’s time.
A more discreet if equally surprising liberty was taken by Cranach
with the traditional rendition of the "Virgin and Child" in a picture
preserved in Karlsruhe, at the Staatliche Kunsthalle. Mary, depicted as
a beautiful young woman, purses her lips as she bends her head toward
the infant Jesus with an enigmatic smile. Babyish wonderment can be
read into the infant’s face as he clumsily raises his hand, hoping to
touch his mother’s cheek.
The nuances of Mary’s expression range from tenderness mixed with
self-confidence to irony (at mankind’s anticipated ferocity?), tempered
by a sense of relativity. Here Cranach seems to deliver his personal
message about humans and their unfathomable ways.
The slick courtier that Cranach was could also be an uncompromising
reader of his sitters’ minds as is shown by some of his merciless
likenesses. In 1527, he portrayed Martin Luther’s parents Hans and
Margaretha. Hans, the son of a farmer who later ran a copper factory
with varying success, looks like an old rogue. Margaretha, who bore him
nine children including Martin, has the sunken cheeks of a tough old
nut, inured against the hardships of life. At the same time, there is a
curious tired satisfaction about the old lady. Her son Martin had
married the year before and he was now famous.
To have thus represented the father and mother of a man to whom he
was so close speaks for Cranach’s independence of mind when the need
arose. The two portraits are personal mementos, intended for the
elderly couple if not Martin Luther himself. Yet no attempt is made to
Better still, two years later Cranach did not repress the laughing
little devil in him when painting the portraits of Martin Luther and
his wife, Katharina von Bora. Martin, the ex-Augustinian monk who had
broken his vows, married Katherina, a former nun, in 1525. The artist,
who was a witness at the wedding, executed portraits in the form of two
medallions, which were replicated for propaganda purposes – the idea
was to drive home the point that celibacy of the clergy was henceforth
A second series in diptych form launched in 1528 provided a
polished-up version. However, a specimen in the Hessisches Landesmuseum
in Darmstadt hardly offers an idealized image of Martin Luther. The
squint is noticeable and the smile on the thin lips of his brutish face
is not exactly endearing. Was the painter fundamentally incapable of
disguising what he thought he read into his sitters’ features?
A study in pen, black chalk and oil for the portrait of a young man
from a patrician background immortalizes the weakish stubbornness of
the character, as if he were concealing some outrageous lie or cowardly
piece of treachery. No matching picture is known. Perhaps the sitter
decided he was better off without one.
Cranach was kinder to an elderly countryman whose likeness on paper
is done as a close-up view, as if to concentrate on the lucid blue eyes
gazing into the distance, and the lips ever so slightly open to utter
some jocular remark about fate. This is a timeless psychological probe
into the mind of an aging man looking back on life.
Perhaps the German master’s sharp perception of people as they are
explains his flights into irony, in some kind of search for relief. But
it strangely contrasts with a female type that recurs again and again
like some obsession.
The woman has slanting eyes, high cheekbones and a smile on her
closed lips. She can be artificially prim like the repentant sinner
Mary Magdalen, or exaggeratedly sweet like St. Helena, the mother of
Constantine the Great, who legitimized Christian worship in the western
Roman Empire in 313, or a figure of dreamy seduction as is the case
with "a generalized Portrait of a Woman," to use Brinkmann’s curious
expression. Sometimes, she even appears as a delicate beauty, lost in
contemplation, as in "The Princess and the Legend of St. John
Chrysostom." Throughout, she wears the same crimson velvet dress with a
deep décolleté and a flounced skirt
Going from one variant to the next is like following receding
apparitions in a dream. Was this an image based in reality, sending
back reflections of love and betrayal in the painter’s early life? Or
is it just a type with some undeciphered meaning? The unresolved enigma
nicely fits the Master of the Ambiguous Smile, as Cranach would no
doubt be called by art historians if we did not know his name.