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Cranach at the Royal Academy.

THE Royal Academy's sumptuous exhibition, Cranach, has been an occasion for rejoicing. It is the largest display of the pictures of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) ever seen in this country, with over ninety panel-paintings and 23 works on paper, mostly of impeccable provenance. This does not compare with the 650 works at the compreensive exhibition at Basel in 1974; so comprehensive that the complete catalogue did not emerge until a year later, and then in confusing form. Perhaps a hundred pictures are just right to be studied in two or three visits. The body of the catalogue is lucid and informative enough to merit a place along side Friedlander and Rosenberg's scholarly although summary catalogue of Cranach's pictures, published in 1932. It is only fair to add that the London exhibition and catalogue are derived from last winter's exhibition at the enterprising Stadel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, which also originated the 2006 Elsheimer exhibitions in Edinburgh and Dulwich (see Contemporary Review, Winter 2006). Particularly welcome were the early pictures by Cranach which were for many years inaccessible to Western students in the smaller galleries of East Germany and Bohemia. One wonders why, when pictures are sent from Brno, Eisenach and Gotha for our delectation, the National Gallery (a brief stroll from the Royal Academy) did not liberate Cranach's exquisite Caritas from its reserve collection. For all that, Cranach has at last been given the tribute he deserves in this country as the supreme painter (as Durer was the supreme draughtsman and engraver) of the German Renaissance.

As with Rembrandt, there have been misgivings over authenticity. For about fifty years of activity from 1500-1553 Cranach was boundlessly energetic. Always inventive, when a subject took his fancy he painted not merely one version of it but half a dozen, sometimes with marginal help from the numerous pupils he shared his inspiration with. Overwhelmed with requests for small portraits of Martin Luther at one time, he openly used Studio replicas which he merely supervised, providing perforated stencils. Impercipient collectors and gallery-curators could not distinguish the indubitable in his work, although there are external clues as well. His predecessor as court-painter to Frederick the Wise was Jacopo de' Barbari, who signed his work with the caduceus of Mercury, god of craftsmanship and art: a rod entwined by two winged serpents. Cranach modestly disentangled just one of the serpents from the rod. In his early signatures, which he allowed only his eldest son Hans to share, he gave the serpent bats' wings. Since Hans painted only one extant picture (Hercules and Omphale), the erect-winged serpent is usually a warrant of authenticity. Hans's death from the plague at the University of Bologna, where he was studying Law, in 1537, left Cranach desolate. Cranach's intimate friend Luther did his best to console him, but such was his grief that thereafter the serpent bore drooping eagle's wings. Cranach shared the new signature with his second son Lucas the Younger, who was more lax in permitting his pupils to use it. Lucas the Younger and his pupils were not invariably mediocre painters, but it rarely calls for profound connoisseurship to distinguish their pictures from those of the Elder Cranach.

What the Elder Cranach liked best were landscapes, animals and slender, lithe women, although as time went by his joy in these paled like wisteria at the end of May, becoming frailer, airier, more elegant. By the time he became court-painter to Frederick the Wise, the Electoral Duke of Saxony, the cruelties of his age had ceased to pollute his imagination. Frederick was one of the best of men (sympathetic to the mounting grievances of the peasants, allowing Wittenberg self-rule under its Town Council, and protective of his subject Luther whilst remaining a Catholic himself) but in art he had a taste for painful and lugubrious themes such as The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Christians, which Diirer painted for him. Cranach regarded his art as an enhancement of life, not as a monument to the weary long history of human depravity.

Before he entered Frederick's service he had painted two Crucifixions, one of them for a Benedictine Abbey near Vienna (Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum). It is a work of deep contrition and sorrow at what mankind had done to its God, incarnate to share human suffering to the utmost degree: Christ bruised and lacerated. Cranach's sentiment is that of Thomas Traherne's meditation:
 A mass of miseries and silence, footsteps of innumerable
 sufferings! Can this be a joy? Can this be an entertainment?
 O Jesus, the more vile I behold Thee, the more I admire
 Thee. ... Thou wast slain for me; and shall I leave Thy body
 in the field, O Lord? Shall I go away and be merry?
 (Centuries 1, 89)

Cranach does not repeat the dire inventive cruelties of his contemporary Grunewald's depiction, although the torments of Christ remain too explicit, and the three gloating Pharisees too grotesque, amongst the touches of delicate landscape. In spite of that Cranach was shaking off the traces of the crude late-Gothic in his art.

Frederick wanted devout gloomy altarpieces and, for his castles and hunting lodges, decorative putti, swags of game-birds, and scenes of the chase. Above all, the pious ruler wanted, as aids to righteous meditation, numerous depictions of nearly lost legends of the martyrdoms of little-known saints. Partly in an antiquarian spirit, he had an extraordinary collection of relics. Having founded the University of Wittenberg, he specially coveted the images of the scholarly St Catherine of Alexandria, who dreamed that she had married Christ and awoke to find His wedding-ring on her finger. Cranach would have delighted in painting the benign legend of her dream and later did so in c.1517 (Budapest Museum) but Frederick preferred St Catherine's martyrdom, so Cranach painted it in five versions.

Cranach had little aptitude and still less taste for tragedy. His remedy was to paint what Frederick wanted, but in his new, gentle style, which was hardly compatible with the grim subject and reduced its gravity: suave masques enacted by bien-soigne ladies of the ducal court. The Roman Emperor Maximin, determined to change Catherine's religion (especially after she had exasperatingly converted the Empress and two hundred of her attendants to Christianity) ordered her to defend her faith against fifty of his most renowned philosophers. She quoted from Roman Law, the Sibylline books and her favourite writer, Plato. Overcome by her learning and eloquence, the fifty philosophers became Christians. The Emperor, enraged, ordered their immolation and sentenced her to be broken on a wheel, but fire from heaven destroyed the wheel-one of the pyrotechnic effects Cranach later became famous for. Finally, the Emperor decreed that she should be decapitated with a sword.

The 1505 picture of the Execution of St Catherine (Raday Library, Budapest) presents a lurid, crowded scene which approaches seriousness only in the central figures. The headsman, with his wolfish face, is clad in the gaudy striped frippery of the disbanded Swiss mercenaries who plagued Germany for many years. With cruel precision he steadies the neck of St Catherine as he draws his sword. She is sumptuous in brocaded crimson velvet; confident but tiny alongside his Neanderthal bulk. From all sides wrathful fire rips from the sky.

In Cranach's version of ten years later (Bishop's Palace, Kromeriz), the composition is less hectic. St Catherine and her seemingly reluctant executioner are given more space around them in the foreground, and the fire from heaven flares more plausibly in the distance. The Emperor is curiously dressed in oriental costume, perhaps because in Cranach's time the Turkish invasion of the Balkans was regarded as the main threat to Christendom. One of the Emperor's advisers tries to dissuade him from the martyrdom, and a second shows repugnance from the act, but the Emperor pays no heed. The sad-faced veteran executioner lifts up St Catherine's fair tresses so that he may make a mercifully clean cut. In the companion piece of The Beheading of St John the Baptist at Kromeriz in the Czech Republic, Cranach portrays himself as a man-at-arms. He looks away from the scene in dismay, as if to register his dislike of delineating atrocities.

During the five years from 1505 to 1510 he was bringing to their minute perfection the calm and tender religious pieces he had enticed Frederick the Wise into preferring to doleful martyrdoms: among them The Man of Sorrows, hunched and wounded as, contemplated by saints with adoring pity, He gives a tearful blessing (Dresden Gemaldegalerie); The Resurrection Triptych, in which Christ, flanked by demure female saints in intricately embroidered gowns, offers, softly smiling, a benediction (Kassel Gemalde-galerie); the spell-bindingly precise, diminutive nocturne of The Nativity, lit by the blue nimbus of the annunciating angel, by the halo of the Mother of God as she prays to her own son, and by His own nacreous radiance which, overtopping the huddle of cherubs around Him, brings into His light the venerating docility of ox and ass-the texture of their coats discernable and distinct in the magical dimness.

Nothing could be further from the hallowed old bones of Frederick's relic-collection than Cranach's virgin-martyrs, clad with fastidious care, although setting out with a roseate shine on their cheeks and nose-tips for an asexual Paradise. There is no hint of mortality underneath the silky shadows of their faces and plump hands. They are seen at their best in the outer wings, now in the London National Gallery, of the Dresden St Catherine Altarpiece, a triptych of which the central panel is a third version of her martyrdom. In particular the mignon St Genevieve, expertly simple, her fair hair combed to a gloss, differs from a late Eve or Venus by Cranach only by virtue of her elegant gown. Probably ladies of Frederick's court volunteered to pose as the saints, the disparity between the actresses and their roles no doubt rousing some ribald Saxon hilarity. Cranach's Resting Waternymph in the Darmstadt Landesmuseum reclines on her discarded velvet robe. Beneath her low bosom beats the heart of one of his virgin-martyrs.

Cranach specially favoured cherubs. Two small panels of c. 1514, possibly wings for a portable altarpiece, burgeon with cherubs: The Education of Mary and The Holy Family (Dessau Anhaltische Gemaldegalerie). In the first, Mary, learning the womanly accomplishments, weaves on a loom in the open air under the tuition of St Anne. Mary's father Joachim holds the hand of a cherub who is walking along the top of a wall, and receives some fruit as a reward. Another cherub gazes quietly, with a blue-eyed concentration, at St Anne, who is unwinding thread with a composed and matronly thoroughness. One cherub launches himself through the air, uncertainly learning to fly; one sits in the fork of a tree and practices the bagpipes. Everywhere in both pictures there is, apart from the cherubs' antics, decorous ease and serenity. In The Holy Family the infant Jesus, wearing a fine smock, is admired and adored by one cherub whilst others, less devout, hurl through the air in mellifluous flight. The basic veracity of Cranach's vision is evident in these pictures, no doubt (since he married the daughter of an Alderman of Gotha in mid-1512) with the infants of his own family in mind.

Much of the charm of Cranach inheres in his sense of innocence, as evident in his guileless nudes and his cherubs and infants, all 'Simplicitie and spotless innocence'. Over twenty paintings issued from his Studio to illustrate Christ's rebuke to His disciples when they tried to prevent small children from approaching Him: 'For such is the Kingdom of God'. The version of the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt (c.1530), with its hard outlines and uneasy composition, is likely to be a Studio variant in which the master contributed touches to the central feature of Christ kissing a baby and its devout mother adoring them both. The relevant text (Mark X, 13) was quoted by Luther against Anabaptists, who denied the validity of infant baptism. The mothers (one still suckling her baby) wait in line, full of demure hope, to present their small charges and solicit Christ's benediction. One pretty opportunist touches His arm. A baby sits on Christ's left hand, whilst he lays His right hand on a second baby, who returns the salutation, patting Christ back on His forefinger. A small girl, hastened by her mother, brings her doll to be blessed.

The spread of the exhibition allows one to trace the evolution of Cranach's work. Cranach's small preparative Judgement of Paris of c.1510 (Fort Knox Museum since 2004, and previously on long-term loan to Cologne Museum of Art) is the first of a series of twelve, eight of them certainly by Cranach himself. The four supreme versions, worth special pilgrimages, are from his late prime and at the principal galleries in Copenhagen, Karlsruhe, Basel and New York.

Paris, Prince of Troy had by mischance become a shepherd-boy on nearby Mount Ida. The gods had decreed that because of his supposed honesty he should decide which of the three goddesses, Juno, Pallas and Venus, should win the prize for beauty. Although the contest and the resulting quarrels of the goddesses brought about the Trojan War, in which they took sides, the Judgement of Paris is no more than alluded to by Homer and Virgil. It was left to the second-century Athenian wit Lucian to describe the incident at length, as he does with relish and amusement in the twentieth of his Dialogues of the Gods. Melanchthon, Cranach's friend and neighbour, would have been conversant with Lucian's racy Hellenistic works, since Melanchthon was Professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg. He is known to have suggested subjects for Cranach's mythographic paintings; but before the first printing of Lucian's dialogues (editio princeps) in 1496, several vernacular Troy Romances had appeared throughout Western Europe. These, and the woodcuts that accompanied their texts, often placed the story in the late Middle Ages.

In that tradition Cranach's Paris is a knight in full armour (including a dandified six-plumed helmet) who has tethered his horse to a tree in order to rest alongside a fountain in a little glade. The three hamadryad-tawny goddesses are presented to him by Mercury, no longer a youthful courier of the gods but a reverend and courtly emissary. Instead of a golden apple (the trophy of the original myth) he carries a crystal globe girdled with a gold band, apparently inscribed with some such tag as amor vincit omnia. The stern geometrical gleam of Paris's steel armour offsets the long lax torsos of the naively posing goddesses. Paris's eyes, drifting away from the goddesses, may confirm the statement in one of the Troy Romances that it all happened in Sir Paris's dream. In late medieval Literature all the best things seemed to happen in dreams.

Cranach was swift to register the cellulite-laden gaucherie of his goddesses (though not without its quaint charm) as an ineptitude caused by following so closely his 1508 Judgement of Paris, which was in the format of a woodcut; a medium too obdurate for refinements, too brittle for slender shapes, and with none of the subtleties of oil-paint. In spite of his labours, probably uncongenial, on chiselling out woodcuts for the Wittenberg Passion Book, his first revision of his female nudes followed within months.

One of the earliest examples of his revision is in his Eve in the c.1510 Fall of Man (National Museum, Warsaw): with unbraided blonde locks, adolescent bosom, waist dissolving fluently into sleek but slender haunches, sturdy calves, outstretched-toed, high-arched feet, and a sinuous stance. Against a background of stark shadows, Adam throws his hands wide in despair, and looks up to the heavens, as he finds Eve luxuriously caressing her cheek with an apple brought to her by the serpent which, with a malign leer, scrambles down the trunk of a half-withered tree. The tanned alacrity of Adam's form confronts the childlike heedlessness of Eve's, pale as a crocus under the rain. Smooth and indulged recipient of his love, by the Fall she becomes the mother of Cain, yet the ancestress of the Madonna who will redeem her. Emperors and Popes will flow from those frail loins. The purposeful loveliness of the blossom entails the swelling of the fruit.

So too the Warsaw Eve in Cranach's art was the rudimentary form which led to his exultant mastery of the female frame in his period of supreme accomplishment from 1525 onwards. In 1510 he was nearly forty, yet here was another beginning; here indeed his chief fame was to lie.

Cranach's triads of the goddesses in his series of The Judgement of Paris led to The Three Graces of 1535 (Kansas City Museum). The small entrancing panel of the lithe group, linked by the diaphanous float of their long, shared veil, was formerly in the Cook Collection in Richmond-on-Thames, which has been greatly missed since its dispersal in 1957. The Graces stand in sprightlier poses than Raphael's tiny copy (at Chantilly) of the sculpture in the Vatican. In this picture Cranach defined his canon of female beauty, pronouncing, as he seldom had occasion to do, on the side and rear as well as the front. The skin of the flanks, beneath the corn-blonde tan, is grained like the rain-dashed swell of a flooded stream. The crystalline shallows below the declivities of the spine and the shoulders dissolve into the puckers of the buttocks, and into the chiselled thighs trembling on nubility.

In the fifth chapter of his Laocoon (one of the few interesting studies of abstract aesthetics) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (antiquary, dramatist and contemporary of Goethe) enquires, 'Has a garment, the artifice of a tailor, as much beauty as the creation of eternal wisdom, the articulated body?' Cranach thought not. His image of Caritas (Schaffhausen Museum) glorifies maternal love in the form of a small nude mother, suckling one infant whilst she receives a kiss from another child and an embrace from a third. Bland on the greensward, divested amid verdure, 'undecked save with herself', the narrow virginal instrument, Eve, assumes the plenitude and bountifulness of motherhood. Melanchthon had given Cranach some insight into Plato's distinction between heavenly love and beauty and their earthly proxies. To Cranach, caritas, the inexhaustible love which seeks neither recompense nor credit, combines with castitas, or purity (which he represents with the figure of Lucretia) as the higher Venus. From his Studio emanated eleven paintings of Caritas (seven of them lost) and 35 versions of Lucretia, seven of them wholly by Cranach himself.

The Lucretia of 1532 (Vienna Academie) has the air of a ballerina, weasel-slender, her well-coiffed head tilted, the long diminuendo of her waist sustained by the attenuated curves of her thighs. Her face is plaintive, yet tinged with self-admiration. Perhaps Cranach's model was pleased with the superb are she had achieved from hip to knee. She stands in an attitude of graceful relinquishment as, with the straight metal dagger poised against the porous grace of her skin and her serpentine torso, she draws a single drop of blood. This thumb-moulded amphora stands on a dark ground. Her form is made outwardly intricate only by the veil trapped between her thighs. Nobody but the Elder Cranach would have been capable of painting that exquisitely inflected waist or that braid of red-gold hair.

The nakedness of Lucretia derives from a passage in Ovid's Fasti II, which Melanchthon had edited: until her husband came to her Lucretia remained as she had risen from the bed violated by Tarquin. The pictorial effect of Lucretia stabbing herself through voluminous clothes, as in the engraving by Albrecht Altdorfer, is ungainly. She is disrobed in Cranach's paintings, not merely for the sake of visual decorum, but also for the sense of prepared but suspended action appropriate to the stillness of an image, to which sequential action, such as the plunge of a dagger, would be inappropriate. It must be added that Cranach in his sixtieth year was no tragedian, and that his Lucretias of that period are content to admire their own poses, as symbols of marital faithfulness, without going further to the extreme of self-destruction. Their abdomens and thighs tightly hammocked by their veils, there is not much difference between Cranach's Venus and his Lucretia. Their effect, simple but knowing, is charming but hardly lascivious. As Kenneth Clark puts it in The Nude, 'Despite their sidelong glances, his sirens never cease to be objets d'art to be enjoyed, by him who may, as dispassionately as crystals or enamels'.

Cranach seldom painted the earthly Venus alone, without her mischievous son Cupid. A jaunty exception is the Frankfurt Venus (Stadel Museum, Frankfurt) of 1532. Boldly she presents herself, opaline against a jet-black background, her navel lifted on the merry swell of her abdomen. Her jewelled collar, and the golden pendant which traces the contours of her bosom, stress her sleek skin. With neat firm hands she dispenses the caught translucent float of her girdle. Carefully she disavows her own nakedness, making no more of the long flexed composure of her torso than of her button nose, her slanting eyes or her faunish ears. As Ovid says Venus should, she has a slight cast in her eyes: perfection is insipid. An urchin conquering all, imperially she mounts her tussock of pebbly Thuringian meadow.

There is something of the untamed mythic creatures of the greenwood about her, something of the hamadryad or the woodwose or 'of faery damsels met in forest wide/By Knights of Logres, or of Lyonesse'. Adding male counterparts, the same may be said of Cranach's masterly Golden Age (Munich Alte Pinakothek). Although Cranach may have taken some details of his two pictures of the Golden Age (one in Oslo, one in Munich) from Virgil's Fourth Bucolic, his depiction of it is also that of the medieval Boethius: 'They sleep wholesome sleeps on the grass and lie under the high pine-trees'. The paintings are touched with that regard for the simplicity of childhood, so prevailing in Cranach's works, which is partly religious in nature, the child being (in the words of Bishop Earle's Microcosmographie of 1628) 'the best copie of Adam before he tasted of Eve or the apple'. At least that is the assumption Cranach starts from. One must allow for the worldliness of which his innocence is the ultimate and paradoxical expression.

In his vision of the Golden Age the sixteenth century is only walled out. The wall of its pleasure garden--its locus amoenus--can easily be climbed from the hillside into which it is built. Pine-trees, steeple-tips and belfries appear over it. Deer graze among the daisies, the pinks and the dog-roses. Distant crags are immersed in the blue air. An almost metallic duskiness settles on the not quite ripe fruit on the apple-trees and plum-bushes. The deers' pelts are russet dappled with near silver. A brood of partridges is woven into the dense pasture presided over by a pair of playful lions. The picture is suffused with correspondences between Humanity and Nature: curl of water and fluidity of blonde locks; strands of bright hair caught in leafy branches and entwisted in deep grass. A sward tressed with wild flowers is figured in relief against the bare feet and reclining bodies of revellers.

The revellers have dreaming eyes, except for one rogue philanderer who slips his arm round a female dreamer, and by way of diversion offers her a bunch of grapes. One bather splashes another in a reverie as they bathe in a spring spouting from lichened rocks. There are both actives and contemplatives present. Two contemplatives lie on the grass: a story-teller in lank repose, and his fair audience, her gold chain falling negligently to one side. The actives dance, the abrupt rhythm of the men counterpoised by the drifting suppleness of the women; the women, indeed, almost static, pausing on one foot, and arresting the men's precipitation; one woman resisting the male impetus with all the muscularly coiled pulchritude of her small back. Movement can only be hinted at in painting. Cranach deftly uses the women's pauses to suggest that the dance will soon resume.

He does not pretend that his Golden Age is more than a daydream of innocence in the present. Men in their prime and nubile maidens dance round a tree on which Eve's apples ripen. For all their nudity the maidens have not thrown off their gold chains and necklaces, and have not unbound their subtly braided hair. They have rejected luxury but not their shining toys.
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Title Annotation:exhibition of Lucas Cranach's pictures
Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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