Lucas Cranach: Charity

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.

Psyche Pt. 1: Early Versions

According to legend, Psyche was a beautiful young girl—so lovely, in fact, that Venus herself was jealous of the girl’s comeliness. Thus, she sent her son Eros (Cupid to the Romans), god of love, to sabotage the girl and make her fall in love with a hideous creature. However, the fumbling young god was himself taken with the girl’s beauty and stuck himself with his own arrow, thereby causing his scheming mother’s plan to backfire. The young lovers have been the subject of artists for nearly as long as the myth itself has existed. Some artists portrayed the two as adolescents and others have depicted them as children. Among the oddest of these portrayals are the ones which show Psyche as a young woman while keeping Eros in the form of a small boy. Among the oldest of artworks featuring Eros and Psyche the two seem to be of ambiguous age.


Artist Unknown – Cupid and Psyche Lifting Aphrodite in a Chair in the Presence of Hermes (5th Cent. BCE)

In this sculpture, which dates from about 2nd to 1st century BCE, the lovers are very clearly shown as preadolescent children:


Artist Unknown – Eros and Psyche (2nd-1st Cent. BCE)


Artist Unknown – Eros and Psyche (replica) (1st Cent. BCE)


Artist Unknown – Winged Cupid and Psyche Embracing (2nd Cent. CE)


Artist Unknown – Cupid and Psyche

The Cupid and Psyche pair appear on both ends of the side of this sarcophagus:


Artist Unknown – Cupid and Psyche on Roman Sarcophagus (190-200 CE)


Artist Unknown – Eros and Psyche of Ostia (circa 300 CE)

Now we jump a few centuries ahead.

Otto Van Veen, known also under the latinized form of his name Octavius Vaenius, produced a book of images starring Eros and Psyche as children in 1615, entitled Amorus Divini Emblemata.  Here’s a compilation of several of them:


Otto Van Veen (Octavius Vaenius) – Images from ‘Amorus Divini Emblemata’ (1615)

Here they are adolescents:


Pompeo Girolamo Batoni – Die Vermählung Amors mit Psyche (1756)

Wikipedia: Otto Van Veen

Wikipedia: Pompeo Batoni

And the Virgin’s Name Was Mary, Part 2

The story goes that as a young child (around 3) Mary was presented to the Temple, where she would remain until age 12 to be educated.  After this age, due to her menstruation she could not stay at the Temple as it was considered a defilement of the holy place.  Thus, she was betrothed to Joseph and married soon after.  A common tale involving Mary’s presentation is that she was placed on the bottom steps and climbed the entire flight of stairs on her own.  I’m not sure why this was supposed to be a feat worthy of retelling–3-year-olds are hardly incapable of climbing stairs.  Perhaps it was just a really long flight of stairs.  More likely it was intended to demonstrate the little girl’s courage, as she clambered up the high steps to meet with the strange men waiting for her at the top.

Alfonso Boschi – Presentation of Mary at the Temple (17th C.)

Wikipedia: Alfonso Boschi

Cima da Conegliano – Mary’s Presentation (1500)

Wikipedia: Cima de Conegliano

Denys Calvaert – Presentation of St. Mary

Wikipedia: Denys Calvaert

Francisco de Zurbarán – Childhood of the Virgin (1658-60)

Wikipedia: Francisco de Zurbarán

Franz Joseph Spiegler – Mary and the High Priest Zacharias (18th C.)

Wikipedia: Franz Joseph Spiegler

Franz Xaver König – The Education of the Virgin Mary, St. Anne Parish Church, Salzburg, Austria (1752)

This next painting is the earliest visual representation of Mary’s presentation that I am aware of.  If anyone knows of an earlier example, please contact me.

Giotto di Bondone – Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1266)

Giotto di Bondone: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Giotto

Paolo Uccello – Presentation of Mary (1435-1440)

Paolo Uccello: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Paolo Uccello

Titian – Presentation of the Virgin Mary (1534–38)

Titian: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Titian

Artist Unknown – Anne with Child, Altmannsdorfer Church, Vienna, Austria

Artist Unknown – Presentation at Temple of the Holiest Mother of God (1290-1310)

Artist Unknown – Right panel of altar in the Church of Maria Immaculata, Dietelskirchen, Bavaria, Germany

Wikimedia Commons: Presentation of Virgin Mary

Wikipedia: Presentation of Mary

And the Virgin’s Name Was Mary, Part 1

The Virgin Mary is believed to have been the daughter of Joachim and Anne.  She may have been a Levite, or perhaps a descendant of the tribe of Judah.  Mary was a resident of Nazareth, and in keeping with Jewish tradition at the time, probably was married off during early or mid-adolescence.  According to Christian scripture, it was the Archangel Gabriel who decended to Mary to give her the news of her impending motherhood to the Messiah, Jeshua (Jesus.)  Some scholars have argued that Mary may have had a sexual encounter prior to her marriage to Joseph and made the story up to keep from being subjected to the harsh punishment imposed on females for premarital sex in that era.  If that’s so, the real miracle of the story of the virgin birth is that it not only kept her out of legal hot water but flourished, becoming the seed that blossomed into one of the world’s major religions.  All of this, of course, presupposes that Mary actually existed.  For this we have no hard evidence.

Artistic images of Mary with the infant Christ (generally divided into either Nativity scenes or Madonna and Child portraits), were one of the earliest and most profusely worked themes in the history of Western art, with the first known representations showing up in the early Medieval era and then becoming a veritable flood thereafter.  What are less common are paintings and sculptures of Mary’s own birth and childhood.  The examples we do have are, I think, often more interesting than their counterparts, perhaps because the artists felt less constrained by the degree of reverence accorded to Mary’s deified son and so toned down some of the formality one tends to find in many Nativity and Madonna and Child artworks.  Whatever the case, these pieces often get overlooked in discussions or overviews of religious art and iconography.

Anton Pitscheider-Menza – St. Anne and Mary, St. Ulrich parish church, Gröden

Domenico Ghirlandaio – Birth of Mary, Tornabuoni Chapel (1486-90)

Domenico Ghirlandaio: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Domenico Ghirlandaio

Estácio Zambelli - Maria bambina, Caxias do Sul Cathedral, Brazil

Estácio Zambelli – Maria bambina, Caxias do Sul Cathedral, Brazil

Giotto di Bondone – The Birth of the Virgin (1304-06)

Wikipedia: Giotto

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet - The Education of the Virgin (1700)

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet – The Education of the Virgin (1700)

Wikipedia: Jean Jouvenet

Juan de Borgoña - The Birth of the Virgin (1495)

Juan de Borgoña – The Birth of the Virgin (1495)

Wikipedia: Juan de Borgoña

Master of Bambino Vispo - Saint Anne and the Young Virgin Sewing (early 15th century)

Master of Bambino Vispo – Saint Anne and the Young Virgin Sewing (early 15th century)

Wikipedia: Master of the Bambino Vispo

Domenico Beccafumi - Birth of Mary (1540-43)

Domenico Beccafumi – Birth of Mary (1540-43)

Wikipedia: Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo – Birth of Mary (1660)

Wikipedia: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Master of Joachim and Anne - Birth of the Virgin (1450)

Master of Joachim and Anne – Birth of the Virgin (1450)

Wikimedia Commons: Childhood of Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary’s Birth, Childhood, Betrothal and Marriage (archive)

The Early Life of the Virgin Mary

Early Life of the Virgin Mary Till the Birth of Jesus Christ (Recounts the tale of how Mary was wed at age 12.)