Lucas Cranach: Charity

(Last Updated On June 16, 2022)

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) was a German Renaissance artist. He was the court painter to the Electors of Saxony for most of his career and is known for his portraits and nude subjects drawn from mythology and religion. I find it interesting that Cranach was close friend of Martin Luther (the leading figure of the Protestant Reformation). Because he is also regarded as an innovator for his nudes, Kenneth Clark commented that “Cranach is one of those rare artists who have added to our imaginative repertoire of physical beauty.”

Lucas Cranach - Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1504)

Lucas Cranach – Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1504)

The playful almost comic mood of Cranach’s paintings gives his work an appeal not found in the work of most of his contemporaries: Albrecht Durer, Mathis Grünewald and Hans Holbein with the exception of Hans Baldung. The earliest large work by Cranach is The Rest on the Flight into Egypt of 1504. Behind Mary and Joseph stands an old fir tree and birch tree that would more likely be found in Germany than in Egypt. Busy angels who make music, bring water and offer the Christ Child birds take the form of cherubs and child nymphs. To the left of Mary’s feet sits an angel in gold that plays the flute; the style of the gown appears to be that of a girl’s because of the style of the sleeve.

Lucas Cranach - Venus Standing in a Landscape (1529)

Lucas Cranach – Venus Standing in a Landscape (1529)

Cranach seldom painted the nude beauties he is known for until the late 1520s—well into the Reformation. Of the standing Venus paintings, this seems to be the most famous; her slender form, tiny breasts an narrow hips, the rounded forehead, are the physical characteristics of an adolescent girl or young woman. We tend to think of the ideal as a busty beauty but that was not the case until the mid-twentieth century. Nudes in the German tradition drew their inspiration from Gothic art which had a juvenile air. Cranach’s innovation was that he took the stiff figures of Gothic art and gave them the grace of Botticelli.

Lucas Cranach - Portrait of Martin Luther as Junker Jörg

Lucas Cranach – Portrait of Martin Luther as Junker Jörg (c1522)

Cranach was a close friend of Martin Luther from the beginning of the Reformation.  Luther was godfather to Cranach’s daughter Anna and Cranach in turn became godfather to Luther’s first-born son, Johannes. This special relationship with its founder enabled Cranach to chronicle the Reformation. At the time of the above portrait, Luther was regarded as an outlaw by the Roman Catholic Church. Luther is shown with the beard he had grown to disguise himself as the nobleman “Junker Jörg”. He was in hiding at the Wartburg, a strong fortress at the top of a mountain, under the protection of the local prince. In a small study in the castle, he translated the New Testament from Greek into German. To providence, Cranach owned the only publishing house in the area. Cranach illustrated and published Luther’s first translation of the Bible into German, which was the first time that the scriptures were translated from the Latin to be made available to the public.

Lucas Cranach-Charity Standing

Lucas Cranach – Charity Standing (1530s)

Cranach is known for conveying Lutheran religious concerns in his paintings, but I believe the influence of the Reformation on his series of Charity paintings has not yet been recognized. Charity is the foremost of the three theological virtues “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity” (I Corinthians 13:13) The word “love”, is a closer definition to the modern ear because the word “charity” has the implication of giving to the needy. The fourteenth century Italian sculptor Tino da Camaino was the first to represent Charity as a loving mother with three or more children. Italian Renaissance artists followed the Graeco-Roman convention of depicting children as only boys.  The Italian masters appear to have been caught in a “patricentric box of language”. In Cranach’s interpretations of Charity, one of the children is represented as a little girl which is likely the first nude of this kind in western art. I believe Cranach broke with convention for a reason.

Cultures have been structured according to two principles: patriarchal and matriarchal. The priority of matriarchal principles is unconditional love: a mother loves her children regardless of whether they are good or bad; they are loved because they are her (or another woman’s) children. The essence of this love is mercy and compassion. In contrast, the priority of patriarchy is conditional love: a child needs to work to be respected by the father. The essence of this love is justice.

Lucas Cranach - Charity Landscape (1830s)

Lucas Cranach – Charity Landscape (1530s)

In the course of the Reformation, Luther ended the devotion to the Virgin Mary, which resulted in the elimination of the matricentric principle that existed in western culture. Erich Fromm recognized the profound influence the removal of the matricentric principle had on the development of society.

“Luther established a purely patriarchal form of Christianity in Northern Europe that was based on the urban middle class and the secular princes. The essence of this new social character is submission under patriarchal authority, with work as the only way to obtain love and approval. Behind the Christian facade arose a new secret religion, ‘industrial religion,’ that is rooted in the character structure of modern society, but is not recognized as ‘religion.’

The industrial religion is incompatible with genuine Christianity. It reduces people to servants of the economy and the machinery that their own hands build. The industrial religion had its basis in a new social character. Its center was fear of and submission to powerful male authorities, cultivation of the sense of guilt for disobedience, dissolution of the bond of human solidarity by the supremacy of self-interest and mutual antagonism. The ‘sacred’ in industrial religion was work, property, profit, power, even though it furthered individualism and freedom within the limits of its general principles.”

The Virgin Mary was a predominant figure in Renaissance art—about 1 in 4 paintings of the period represent her. I suspect that Cranach sensed the dangers of the elimination of the image of the Holy Mother and I believe his Charity paintings were intended to compensate because the image of the mother ultimately represents the principle of what ought to be. Traditionally,the father would support the family by going out into the imperfect world; he would deal with objective reality with a focus on prosperity. The mother would remain with the children in the bonds of human solidarity which better reflects genuine Christian principles because they can be compromised in an antagonistic environment.

Lucas Cranach - Charity (1830s)

Lucas Cranach – Charity (1530s) (1)

In all of Cranach’s Charity paintings, one of the children is a little girl. In some works, it is difficult to tell because only a tiny pigtail indicates the child’s gender. In two of the paintings, the girl holds a doll as her role model; the mother holds an infant. Cranach’s paintings are the only Charity paintings I know of that include this iconography. Feminine nature was to be valued and respected. Matriarchy has found expression in humanism and natural law: the idea of the sacredness of life and human equality.

Lucas Cranach - Charity (1830s)

Lucas Cranach – Charity (1530s) (2)

Art that follows the tradition of the Charity paintings has fallen out of favor due to a patriarchal view that regards such work as regressive. While the Reformation had some positive points to the Protestant work ethic, it had the effect in atomizing society. Our perception of human interactions has changed due to loss of the matriarchal perspective. Nudity is interpreted from a subtext of self-interest and mutual antagonism which often leads to misinterpretation. It makes a great difference whether the body is viewed as a commodity or from the perspective of a loving mother who appreciates the sanctity of life. In the past, the matriarchal perspective colored the perception of even sensual subjects, as in Cranch’s Venus paintings; the figures reflect a gentle eroticism. I believe much of contemporary feminism is at fault in being compromised by the values of industrialization. It is actually patriarchal in it’s values; it takes part in what Fromm called the “industrial religion.” Many artists from the beginning of the 20th century sensed the tendency of alienation and created work that embraced the bonds of human solidarity to counterbalance (eg. Lotte Herrlich, Ida Teichmann and Sally Mann), but the current barely exists today.

6 thoughts on “Lucas Cranach: Charity

  1. I was pleased to see Susan make this post as it brings up important points I intended to share eventually. There are so many factors behind the hysteria about child nudity that it makes sense for me to bring them out a little bit at a time instead of one huge dissertation. One of the key ideas is the balance of male and female principles in a civilized society. When a new society is formed (through conquest or revolution), the aggressive male principle is dominant for the practical reason of maintaining, by force, the new establishment. Over time, society relaxes and the gentler female principles can begin to assert themselves. H.G. Wells made an interesting distinction between “Communities of Will” and the more stable “Communities of Obedience”. It should be noted that in both of these communities, male authority is still dominant but in a more relaxed state, power is at least shared. As a society evolves into this state, there are usually a series of periodic backlashes as women are perceived to be taking too many liberties. Conversely, during a successful revolution (such as the Reformation), some accommodation needs to be made to respect the old traditions. Such concessions might help to keep the ordinary population in line.
    The Cult of the Virgin Mary was one of those comforting influences in the Catholic Church as it evolved over the centuries. The assault of the “reformers” must have been quite a shock to those who took solace in the presence of the Virgin (an idea conveyed very effectively by Kenneth Clark) and thus the Counter-Reformation was popular in parts of Europe that remained Catholic.
    Communities of Will are inherently destructive as they must wash away meaningful icons of an old regime. However, when someone comments on Luther’s (or Cranach’s or Erasmus’, for that matter) contribution to the Reformation, I have to cringe. The Reformation was associated with wholesale terrorism by bully boys and defacement of sacred art. Luther was horrified at this development and tried to urge the local princes to put down these riots. This iconoclasm suppressed expression of the visual arts in that period (with a few exceptions like Cranach and Watteau) and so the only acceptable form of sublime artistic expression (at least in Luther’s Germany) was music. Luther and Cranach did not want to surrender the positive qualities of the Virgin’s image simply because it had been necessary to protest the corruption of the Church and thus precipitate this kind of violent overreaction by almost all parties concerned. It is a credit to Cranach (and later, Watteau) that he had the sensibility and sensitivity to offer people a comely portrayal of young women and girls in this period.
    The United States, having inherited much of its cultural legacy from the most puritanical forms of Protestantism, remains probably the most gender-skewed nation in the West and, being an economic global empire as well, has spread this dehumanizing ideology to the rest of the world.

    • Or at least to the English-speaking world.
      This reminds me of when, some years ago, David Hamilton was being interviewed by phone from his home in Paris. When he was asked about the hostile reactions to his latest book, he said:
      “It’s mostly an Anglo-Saxon thing. There hasn’t been a word about it in the press over here.”

  2. Thanks for that.

    I’ve long time found Cranach’s women attractive. Could it be that he drew his bodies from living models rather than from classical statues that I think the artists of the Italian Renaissance used? Certainly his little girls look like little girls – moreover am I deluded in thinking that he differentiates his little girls’ bodies from little boys’, makes them more graceful? Try covering up the heads of his little girls and boys and see if you can see a difference.

    On a tangent – one of the the first poems to mark me as a child, long before I was aware of him as a painter, was called ‘Cranach’ – written by Herbert Read. I’m not sure what, if anything it means, but I have always found it beautiful and haunting. Here it is:

    But once upon a time
    the oakleaves and the wild boars
    Antonio Antonio
    the old wound is bleeding.

    We are in Silvertown
    we have come here with a modest ambition
    to know a little bit about the river
    eating cheese and pickled onions on a terrace by the Thames.

    Sweet Thames! the ferry glides across your bosom
    like Leda’s swan.
    The factories ah slender graces
    sly naked damsels nodding their downy plumes.

    • During the Renaissance artists often worked from imagination, it was call invention, I refer to it in my post on Aron Wiesenfeld, so I don’t think Cranach drew the figures from live models. Thanks for the poem.

  3. The interpretation given in this article of Reformation and its concomitant halt of Marial cult as the triumph of patriarchy is similar to that of Ian Dishart Suttie, who also linked this historical phenomenon to the witchhunt from the 15th to the 17th century, which hit Germany harder than any other country. According to him, the burning of thousands of women was part of the eradication of the old matriarcal elements in German culture. His ideas were presented in
    Ian D. Suttie , Religion : racial character and mental and social health, British Journal of Medical Psychology 12(4), Dec. 1932, pp. 289–314, DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1932.tb01083.x
    Unfortunately, I do not have access to this periodical, so I relied on the following article for a summary :
    Gal Gerson, Culture and ideology in Ian Suttie’s Theory of Mind, History of Psychology 2(1), Feb. 2009, pp. 19–40, DOI: 10.1037/a0014950
    Ian Suttie was a psychoanalist who broke with Freud over his theory of the “death instinct” and then elaborated an alternative to the Freudian doctrine, where the baby’s need for mother’s attention and love takes the place of Freud’s phallic father’s role, with the concomitant fear of castration in boys and penis want in girls. He also substituted mutual personal relations, which can develop positively or negatively, to Freud’s individual impulses with mutually contradicting goals. He expounded his theory in his book The Origins of Love and Hate written shortly before his death. Also relevant is the following article in two parts :
    Ian D. Suttie and Jane I. Suttie, The mother : agent or object ? British Journal of Medical Psychology 12(2), June 1932, pp. 91–108, DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1932.tb01068.x and 12(3), Sep. 1932, pp. 199–233, DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1932.tb01075.x
    I would be very grateful to anyone who could provide me with these 3 articles by Suttie.

    • That’s really interesting, I didn’t realize that the witchhunt lasted for centuries. I appreciate the information, I’ll see if I can find the 3 articles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.