More thoughts following the Cranach exhibit – Luther and the Reformation

Cranach's sketch of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, 1520

The other curious thing about Cranach is that he is right there in Wittenberg for the rise of Martin Luther. It is also in this same period that Calvinism comes to the forefront. This is the real end of the middle ages and the first real challenge to the Roman Catholic domination of Western Europe in centuries. The grassroots appeal of Luther’s message – and his strategic use of the printing press (a first) to publish and disseminate his ideas was revolutionary. Unfortunately as these things go, things got out of control with a Peasant Revolt in 1523/1524 which he refused to support. The Catholic Church also reacted strongly with its own reformation following the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563) and ended up solidifying and hardening their stand on the most controversial issues: indulgences and works over grace. And as you probably recall, Europe was once again ravaged by war for two centuries between the several factions all grasping for power.

The interesting bit in looking at art from the time is how we go from purely religious and Catholic representations of the Virgin and Child and the Saints and so forth, to the more humanistic and real presentations of Bruegel, Dürer and Cranach. We can feel the artists pushing the envelope of censorship and breaking out of previously established traditions.

Cranach's Venus, 1529

In the case of Cranach, he become personal friends with Luther in 1525 and painted multiple portraits of him as well as established a canon of images of various biblical figures that became standard Lutheran iconography. There was also this sensuality to his art that could have sprung from the many scandals that impacted the Protestant movement at the time, including that of Martin Luther himself to a nun in 1523. The sensuality was probably very scandalous particularly looking at the example to the left where this very sleazy Venus is pointing to her bush with her little finger. At least to me it is rather fascinating this pull between the chastity of all his madonnas and other religious painting and the directness of paintings such as this. Perhaps it underlines the essential battle of the soul between appearances and desire. In any case, history doesn’t record much about Cranach’s sex life other than he had several sons that carried on his work for another generation after his death in 1553.

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About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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